Two Ways to Teach the Holocaust

By Jon Ramsay


This blog post is part of a featured series by writer Jon Ramsay, friend of URJ Heller High. This series was written during a ten-day trip alongside the students of the Fall 2018 semester

There are two separate strategies to educate high school students on the complicated tragedy of the Holocaust. They cover the same territory – the essential historical events, the prominent individual figures, and the statistical records of casualties. But they differ in focus and approach, and one strategy is far more effective than the other.

The first method is to study the victimization of Jews in the early 20th century, and detail their suffering. You can visit the preserved concentration camps throughout Europe to see the train tracks, the gas chambers, and the crematoriums. You can read the relevant literature, from Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl, to imagine the terror of their experiences. And you can watch the classic films such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” that confront the trauma, pain, and suffering head on.

Students walk through a concentration camp in Poland

This is not a bad method. It provides a full, direct, and necessary perspective of the Holocaust and its horrific implications. With the appropriate teaching, a curriculum like this can serve as an accurate examination of the lowest chapter in the story of human civilization. But following this path is not actually the best possible approach to Holocaust studies.

The second, and better, method is to first focus on what the Jews had in Europe, and then show how it was taken away and decimated. Poland, in particular, was the center of worldwide Judaism for more than 500 years. It had a far higher population of Jews than any other nation, and with those Jews came a unique society and a sophisticated civilization. The first method of Holocaust studies ignores those 500 years entirely, and looks at the death and destruction out of a wider historical context. Fortunately, the students of Heller High receive the second, more developed approach.

The Jewish History teachers David Alon and Evan Wertheim, with supervision from Rabbi Loren Sykes and Assistant Principal David Solomon, have built a curriculum for Holocaust studies that is distinct and improved from what most high school students can get. The week-long trip to Poland for Heller High is not just a tour of travesty, but an archaeological investigation of what a flourishing Jewish world looked like for centuries before the Nazi invasion.

Students at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw

Students visit the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, which dates back hundreds of years, to pay tribute to and learn about famous figures who participated in Polish society. They discover the tombs of impressive philanthropists, rabbis, actresses, political leaders, writers, and masters of industry, to hear their stories. They travel to the small village of Tykocin to see what Jewish shtetl life was like before World War 2. And perhaps most memorably, Heller High enters Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, what was once the Harvard University of Jewish academia.

To my knowledge, no other educational travel program devotes as much time and care to depicting Jewish life as Heller High does. Most trips to Poland are focused, instead, on Jewish death. While Heller High does visit the concentration camps and ghettos, it also rounds out that experience with a wider context to show what was lost for the Jews of Europe. And if we don’t know what the world was like for these people, and the civilization they built, how can we fully appreciate the horrors of their annihilation? That is why this is the most thorough introduction to Holocaust studies, and should serve as a model to all other approaches to this difficult and challenging subject.

Jonathan Heller Ramsay has degrees from the University of St Andrews and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He’s a writer with a passion for Judaism, pomegranates, and dogs. 

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