Preserving the Memory of the Holocaust

Train tracks into Auschwitz

How did you start teaching about the Holocaust?

Holocaust education has been a key component in my classroom since my student teaching, and the importance of this topic and its impact on students cannot be overstated. When I taught 10th grade, I did a three-week Holocaust unit that included Elie Wiesel’s Night. For the past eight years, I have taught an elective Holocaust Literature course at my high school.

How do you approach this subject with high schoolers?

My philosophy of Holocaust education is multifaceted. While it is incredibly important to learn the history of this atrocity, I want my students to gain a better understanding of their world and their own humanity. If I only teach my students about the Holocaust and we end the lessons with 1945, I am doing a tremendous disservice not only to my students, but also to the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors.

The purpose of Holocaust education, in my opinion, is to teach students of the dangers of being silent in the face of injustice. My class focuses primarily on the Holocaust, but we also spend time discussing other genocides and atrocities.

I lay a foundation at the beginning of the class in which we discuss the power of language and study prejudice, racism, and discrimination. This leads to a quick survey of Judaism and history of the Jewish people. I think it’s important to emphasize to my students that the Jews were completely assimilated into European culture, and that while there is a worldwide history of anti-Semitism, they were not an isolated and alienated group of people in Germany or the rest of Europe in the years preceding the Holocaust.

We study the Holocaust chronologically, beginning with the 1920s, and ending with liberation and the Nuremberg Trials in the late 1940s. I use six full literary works and excerpts from about four others, as well as four to five films. All works with the exception of one are nonfiction, and I rely heavily on oral histories from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, as well as Yad Vashem (World Center for Holocaust Research in Israel) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I include lessons on the Japanese American internment camps, which always shocks my students. I end the class with a study of other recognized genocides, personal responsibility, and the importance of volunteerism and activism. The last lesson in the class, and one of my favorites, is called “What Now?” I use that day to educate them about the many causes and charities with which they can involve themselves. I want my students to understand that the best way to honor the memory of the Holocaust is to do their part in improving their world.

What is the most important aspect of this course?

This study has to be made personal. History often feels like a long list of dates and numbers, and we forget that each of those numbers was a life—a brother, sister, mother, father, cousin. There is a beautiful and meaningful poem by Wislawa Szymborska called “Hunger Camp at Jaslo,” with the following haunting line: “History counts its skeletons in round numbers. A thousand and one remains a thousand, as though the one had never existed.”

It matters tremendously to me that my students understand the Holocaust was not an isolated incident—that it happened before, has happened since, and unfortunately will happen again, because it was perpetrated by fallen humanity, and fallen humanity will always be with us. However, so will good. My deepest desire is for my students to embrace my call to them to be the good. As personal as I want to make the Holocaust for them, I also want to make it relevant to their lives. It matters that they will hear the stories of the victims and survivors . . . carry those stories with them . . . and become, in a sense, the keeper of the stories.

How does this course influence students?

Study of the Holocaust naturally attracts students. I view the course as a vehicle that uses a topic students are already interested in to better them as students, but also to push them to see the impact they can have on their school and, eventually, our society. The somewhat accidental outcome of this class is that several projects have been put into place affecting our community.

Through our yearly memorial projects, we have organized charity 5K’s, art shows, a benefit concert, survivor presentations, and a play for a local elementary school. We have sold shirts to raise funds for a local nonprofit, and created an exhibit in our school sensory garden for students with special needs.

As my students learn the lifelong lessons of the Holocaust, they become more informed and empathetic people who, in turn, will better their community. It is an unending refrain in the course evaluations from my students that they believe this course has changed their lives.

Also, they often mention that it is sometimes rather burdensome to be changed in this way. You can’t study this part of history, make it personal, and not become more sensitive to the plight of those who have been abandoned by society, more aware of injustice, and more affected by the pain of humanity.

Over the past eight years, a significant number of students have chosen a career path based on the time spent studying the Holocaust. One former student, now a college graduate, wrote me from a small village in northern Alaska, where she is teaching a class of third-to fifth graders. Her letter said, “I wouldn’t be sitting here in the middle of nowhere Alaska if not for you. I took your Holocaust Literature class when I was a junior. I can’t explain the spark it set inside me.”

What about students in your most recent class?

This past year, I had several students who were “challenges” to other teachers. Many told me I should drop them from the class, but I wasn’t willing to do that. This year’s class was the most beautiful mixture of different backgrounds, beliefs, and religions, and truly ended up as wonderful proof of the unification the study of this topic can provide.

One of those students who has had a really rough life and difficult educational experience made this statement at the end of the semester: “I just want to say that I love this class and I love all of you. I’ve never felt so comfortable in a class and I feel like we are one family.” I have had other teachers and students tell me what an improvement they have seen in her attitude and behavior since her time in Holocaust Literature. I truly believe she found her voice and her value in a class where she learned about those who lost theirs.

Describe the responsibility you feel in teaching about the Holocaust.

While I feel very blessed by what I believe to be a call on my life to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and hopefully guide students to see the impact their own lives can have on the future, it’s a calling that comes with a high level of responsibility. I joke to my students that I “nervous sweat” the entire semester, but I truly do feel somewhat nervous throughout the entire course because I consider it an obligation to get it right. I put pressure on myself to do justice to the memory of this part of history.

Several years ago, I found a line in one of the books we study in the course, The Book Thief (by Markus Zusak), that perfectly encapsulates my feelings about teaching the Holocaust: “I have hated the words, and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

Athena Davis is an English teacher at Cleveland (Tennessee) High School and a lifelong member of the South Cleveland Church of God. In 2014, she appeared on the Live With Kelly & Michael Show as one of the nation’s five Top Teachers, and was awarded a trip to Israel.

From August, 2015