Rescuer Curriculum Gives Students New Perspective on the Holocaust
When it comes to history we can never get complacent or assume there’s nothing more we need to know about a subject. When that subject is the Holocaust and the setting is a high school the importance of educating students about this chapter of human history should compel teachers to do all they can to make what happened real and relevant to their own lives. By whatever means possible students should be thrust into what-if scenarios that encourage them to think critically about what they would have done if they found themselves in the very circumstances that gave rise to the horror. Because, as history has shown, genocide happened before and after the Holocaust. It could happen again. Trying to understand what it means to be stripped of all human rights and marked for death is one step to ensuring atrocities don’t recur. Exercises that put yourself in the position of the persecuted or the onlooker take it from the abstract to the concrete. If you had been in Nazi Europe to witness the unfolding terror that threatened co-workers, neighbors, friends or strangers, what would you have done? That’s what teachers and students at Omaha Westside High School considered as part of a Holocaust curriculum new at the time I reported on it in 2002. This blog contains many more Holocaust-related stories I’ve written over the years, including profiles of survivors and rescuers.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
This past spring, about 45 Westside High School seniors in two Advanced Placement European History classes participated in a new Holocaust studies unit. The program got its first trial run anywhere at the District 66 school.
The curriculum program was developed by the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. Using the materials, Westside instructors Bill Hayes and Gina Gangel first had students immerse themselves in the events that gave rise to Hitler, Nazism and the persecution of Jews.
Then, in a new twist to the school’s traditional approach to the Holocaust, the instructors followed the lead of the foundation’s adjunct curriculum and broke their classes into small groups to research documented rescue efforts from the Shoah. This was in preparation for each group devising and discussing a hypothetical rescue plan of their own. Students based their plans on accounts in books and on the Internet.
The idea behind placing students in the context of witnesses was to offer a deeper understanding of the peril faced by Jews. As Jews and other minorities desperately sought safe harbor there were moral choices involved for onlookers, risks incurred by those who interceded as rescuers and obstacles to doing good in a culture of hate or indifference.
A visitor to Hayes’ classroom in April found his students demonstrating a keen interest in the Holocaust materials and a facile grasp of the situation and its moral implications. The students were smart, attentive and engaged as they grappled with some of the more troubling questions raised by events far removed from their own experience. In the end, students confronted both the nobler and baser aspects of humankind and came away with conclusions to some questions and a sense that answers may never be found to some others.
An early session featured small group discussions in which students explored the ramifications of being a rescuer and the nuts-and-bolts of actual rescue operations, and a later session found students presenting their plans for the assembled class. Through it all, Hayes acted as monitor, catalyst, advisor, provocateur — providing context at various points and challenging some assumptions at other junctures.
The students’ plans ranged widely in scope, methodology and feasibility: one, closely modeled after successful operations in Hungary, featured the use of safe passes and safe houses and back room negotiations with government-military officials in an effort to keep refugees unharmed; another proposed a multi-national military strike force to lead raids on trains and camps to free Jews; a third plan imagined a group of sympathizers warning Jews of the Nazis’ intentions and providing the means for their escape; a fourth scheme depended on a vast international monetary network to undermine German interests and to fund Jewish resistance and escape efforts. As far-fetched as some plans were, they revealed students had done their homework and understood some of the difficulties posed by any rescue effort and some of the measures actually employed in rescuing Jews.
Hayes reminded the class of the harsh realities at work during the Holocaust, including the fact that governments washed their collective hands of the Jews’ predicament and took no extraordinary means to aid them. He also drew a parallel to the moral imperatives at work then to the dilemmas posed by the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He asked: “Is it realistic to think we can do something to help people who are suffering? Are we being realistic, historically? Could we adapt rescue efforts of the past to modern times? Will it work? Is there a risk? Is it worth the risk?” To which a boy responded, “There’s always an inherent risk in any plan.” Then, an earnest girl spoke up and said, “I think we should never limit our possibilities to try to save people. There’s always room for compromise.”
Westside senior Carrie Jenkins, a well-spoken, fresh-faced young woman with eyes full of curiosity, felt the process of projecting one’s self into the treacherous waters tread by Holocaust rescuers and their charges, helped shed light on some of the problems and hazards faced by these heroes.
“It makes you realize the absolute risks that were involved. When you’re trying to devise a plan you realize it’s not easy to find money, to find other resources and to figure out how you’re going to get refugees out, where they’re going to go and who’s going to help them. It’s extremely challenging,” she said. “It’s given me a new insight into how difficult it must have been for those few who did accept the challenge.”
Chris Gerdes, a studious-looking young man, said, “It took a lot of guts and a lot of heart for any of these rescuers to attempt what they did. They realized the risks and they realized what was on the line — even their lives — when they tried to help Jews. The rescuers usually had a strong religious background or a strong belief in humanity and, so, in the end they thought it was all worth it.”
Given the threats rescuers faced, Jenkins said, “I think it’s amazing there were so many people willing to risk their lives and their families’ lives.”
Westside High School
But, as students discovered in their research, relatively few individuals, and even fewer governments and organizations, actually did anything to try and halt the Final Solution, much less aid individual Jews and other persecuted individuals.
“When you take it as a percentage of the population, not many helped,” said sober Ian Peterson. “It just makes you wonder. There were probably people who were afraid of resisting and others who didn’t think there was anything to resist and others who didn’t really care. If you were selfish in the least bit you wouldn’t do anything because if you started to act as a Jewish sympathizer you’d get brandished in society and the Gestapo would come to your house. It was just incredible pressure. It would be like in this country if you went around burning the flag. It’d be really hard.”
The price of being a nonconformist and outcast is something that resonates strongly with teenagers, whose lives revolve around fitting-in. Simply put, said Pat Gaule, being a subject of the Nazi regime meant “you had peer pressure.” Jenkins added that anyone daring to express pro-Jewish or anti-Nazi sentiments meant “you got basically black-marked” or worse. The tall, thoughtful Gaule said the small numbers of rescuers and resistance fighters can be explained, if not excused, by human nature.
“I think there’s initially a natural want to deny that anything bad is going on or an assumption that it’s not as bad as some say it is. When I was doing research on the rescuers I found it took them witnessing a Nazi raid on a Jewish ghetto or a roundup of Jews onto trains en route to the concentration camps — or something equally horrific or violent — to make them want to get involved. I think, naturally, there’s that hesitation to not do anything and sometimes it just took something to push them over the edge.”
Doug Sherrets, the bright-eyed editor of the school paper, feels the impulse for self-preservation prevailed.
“Well, you’re going to take care of yourself, first, and I think that shows up most with Switzerland and all the ill-gotten money from Germany it squirreled away in bank accounts,” he said. “They saw this huge powerhouse in Nazi Germany that seemed like it was going to take over a large part of Europe and be there for a very long time. The Swiss said, Fine, we’re going to do whatever it takes for you not to invade us. They looked after themselves and not at where the money being diverted to Swiss bank accounts was coming from, which was right off the backs and teeth and hard work of the Jewish people.”
When a student suggested rank-and-file Europeans may not have known what ultimate dark fate lay behind the oppression and deportation of their Jewish neighbors, a visibly upset Jenkins used an analogy to point out the absurdity of that rationalization.
“Okay, say if every black person in Omaha suddenly disappeared…wouldn’t you think something was going on? I mean, if all of the Jewish or black people in your town are gone, wouldn’t you think the worst? How could you not know?”
Before her antagonist could reply, instructor Bill Hayes poked his head in the group to suggest students review a section of the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners for some added perspective on just how prevalent looking-the-other-way was among the countless millions who witnessed the atrocities unfolding around them and yet did nothing about it.
For Jenkins, who is part German, it was a harsh discovery to find that few Germans interceded on behalf of their victimized countrymen and in fact most implicitly or complicity condoned the horror. “I have a German background and learning about this is just very hard,” she said. In response, a sympathetic classmate told her, “It doesn’t mean your people are bad. This kind of thing happens all over the world.”
A new perspective on the Holocaust, a close identification with rescuers and victims and a jumping-off point for historical-political-moral discussions is just what designers of the curriculum had in mind.
Curriculum author Christina Micek said she wants students using the materials “to get a personal connection to history” and has therefore created lesson plans allowing for discussion and inquiry. She said when dealing with the Holocaust, students should be encouraged to ask questions, search out answers and apply the lessons of the past to their own lives.
“I really want students to feel they’re historians…I want them to take a personal interest in the subject and to analyze the events and to be able to identify some of the moral issues of the Holocaust and to discuss them in an educated manner.”
Westside’s Hayes feels Micek’s goals were largely met.
“I thought it was real useful. I think for the final project the kids had to think a lot and read a lot and study a lot in order to get where they did with their rescue plans. Every kid had a chance to look at several different examples of rescuers. Traditionally, in our two-week unit on the Holocaust we’ve looked at what the Nazis did and at the Jews who were killed and that was the extent of it.
“We never looked at it from the rescuers’ standpoint and we never dealt with the idea that the average person could really do something. And I think that’s the real value in this unit. I think it gives a message to kids that you don’t have to just stand by — there is something you can do. There may be some risk, but there is something you can do.” He said it is likely the rescuer curriculum will remain a part of Westside’s history units.
Micek, a 3rd grade teacher at Springlake Academy in Omaha and a Holocaust Studies graduate student with the Spertus Institute, wrote the curriculum program with the input of Swiss historian Theo Tschuy, author of the definitive book about Lutz and his heroic work in Hungary, Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (2000, Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
The program includes a teacher’s guide, grade appropriate lesson plans, reading assignments, discussion activities and classroom resources, including extensive links to selected Holocaust web sites. The foundation eventually wants to make the Lutz curriculum available, at no cost, to schools in Nebraska and across the nation. The program is designed for three levels — the sixth grade, the eighth grade and high school. The foundation hopes to pilot the 6th and 8th grade curriculum programs next school year. In addition to the current curriculum package, plans call for making an interactive CD-ROM, as well as Tschuy’s book, available to schools. Hidden Heroes has contracted Redstone Communications in Omaha to develop the materials.
The materials field tested at Westside are the first in a proposed series of school-age programs from the Foundation, whose mission is building awareness about an often overlooked chapter of the Holocaust — the rescuers, that small, disparate, courageous band of deliverers whose actions saved thousands from genocide.
The mostly Christian rescuers came from every station in life. They hid refugees and exiles wherever they could, often moving their charges from place to place as sanctuaries became unsafe. As a means of protecting those in their safekeeping, custodians provided new, non-Jewish identities. While not everyone in hiding survived, many did and behind each story of survival is a story of rescue. And while not every rescuer acted selflessly, the heroes that did — and there are more than commonly thought — offer proof that even lone individuals can make a difference against overwhelming odds. The Foundation’s mission is telling these heroic stories for the lessons they impart.
“Educating young people is our number one concern,” said Foundation board member Ellen Wright. “Our youths’ heroes today are athletes and entertainers, which is an interesting commentary on our times. What we want to do is add to that plate of heroes by taking a look at rescuers” whose good works can serve as models for how ordinary people can stand up to injustice and intolerance.
“If we can get even a few children interested enough that they will feel committed to ensuring the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, then we have taught a new generation,” said fellow board member Deenie Meyerson. Hidden Heroes’ next curriculum projects are to focus on: the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who while stationed in France during WWII signed thousands of visas that spared the lives of recipients; and the extensive humanitarian network in Belgium that successfully hid more than 4,000 children.
According to Tom Carman, head of the department of social studies in the Westside Community Schools, the rescue curriculum is an attractive addition to the district’s standard Holocaust studies.
“The material allows us to look beyond Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, whose rescue efforts some people view as an aberration, in showing there were a number of people, granted not enough, who did some positive things at that time. Lutz and others said, This is wrong, and did something about it, unlike most people who took a much safer route and either feigned ignorance or looked the other way. It gives examples of people who acted correctly and that teaches there are options out there.”
Carman said the lesson plans prepared by Micek, who collaborated with Westside educators in refining the materials for the district, are “done very well” and are “really complete.” District 66 superintendent Ken Bird said it’s rare for a non-profit to offer “a value-added” educational program that “so nicely augments our curriculum as this one does.”
While students agree they can never fully apprehend what it means to be a rescuer, they say being assigned the task of imagining themselves in their shoes and working-out solutions to life or death dilemmas afforded them a new perspective on what these roles meant. Where, in the past, students said they examined the Holocaust from a dry, abstract distance, this new exercise put them right in the mix of things and, so, made it more intimate and direct and lent it more flesh-and-blood immediacy.
“It’s always been from a textbook perspective,” said Carrie Jenkins, “where you’re reading historians’ views and everybody has different statistics and reasons and explanations. With this class, we started there by gathering data, but then we moved past that into trying to create something out of that. It’s definitely a different perspective.”
Gaule said, “In a textbook, it’s going to say this percentage of people died and this percentage of people were saved, but in this way we get to quantify the morality. Like, it may seem that a few thousand people saved here and there was not very much, but in reality, as we found out, it took a tremendous amount of work and determination and moral values to stand-up for Jews who were being subjected to tyranny.”
For Ian Peterson, the curriculum “sort of completes the perspective I’ve gained. Now, we’ve seen it from a lot of different angles and it sort of comes together as a more complete whole. It makes a little more sense.” Doug Sherrets said, “It’s always good to observe history from a bunch of different angles. Personally, I really hadn’t heard a lot about the rescuers prior to taking this unit. Outside of Schindler’s List, I really didn’t know much at all.
“It’s been said that you should always learn from the past and from the Holocaust we should learn not to make those mistakes again. It should make governments think more about getting involved. I now understand if more governments would have got involved there would have been a greater chance of stopping the damage from being so great.”
In the end, students concluded that putting one’s self on the line for another expresses the best in humanity.
“I think that represents like the highest point of human willingness to give everything you have,” said Peterson. “I mean, that’s like the ultimate good you could do in your life.” That sentiment prompted Carrie Jenkins to posit, “Compared to that, what value does anything else have?” Peterson added, “I know. It makes charity seem pointless when there are people that did so much and risked so much.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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