Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis
from the Winter 1995 issue of the Facing History and Ourselves Newsletter
Facing History & Ourselves - new resource book
"When will the new Resource Book arrive?" was the constant question at Facing History last spring. The answer finally came on a warm afternoon in late June, when a 60-foot trailer-truck pulled into the parking lot with 20,000 copies of the new Resource Book--Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior. It took the waiting team of helpers two days to unload 57,600 pounds of books. Within hours of the truck's arrival, many of those books were on their way to participants at summer institutes in Illinois, Tennessee, California, New York, Switzerland, and, of course, Massachusetts. Now there was a new question: "What's in the new Resource Book?"
The short answer is 196 discreet lessons that provide teachers and their students with a meaningful but flexible framework for examining the dangers of indifference and appreciating the values of civility. Like the earlier edition, the new book is a resource book. Its content was informed by the thousands of students and teachers who "face history and themselves" each year and the insights of the latest scholar- ship, particularly scholarship on issues related to violence, anti- semitism, and racism.
Like the earlier edition, the book uses the tools of the humanities-- inquiry, analysis, and interpretation-- to help students make the connection between history and the moral issues they confront in their daily lives. The book begins with an exploration of individual and group behavior. In the chapters that follow, those behaviors are explored through an interdisciplinary approach that focuses on the choices that led to the destruction of democracy in Weimar Germany and ultimately to the Nazis' attempt to murder the Jews of Europe solely because of their ancestry.
As students complete the case study, they move from reflection to judgment, and then ultimately to participation by considering questions of right and wrong, of guilt and responsibility. The book also explores issues related to prevention by returning to themes developed in the opening chapters. Students reflect on the fragility of democracy and the need to protect democratic traditions, as they begin to explore avenues for participation in their own schools and communities.
The content reflects Facing History's commitment to adolescents as moral philosophers and to the creation of a "civil society" through an understanding that turning neighbor against neighbor leads to violence. Therefore the book is designed to help students confront the moral questions inherent in a study of racism, antisemitism, and bigotry. Throughout that journey, a variety of activities challenge students to recognize themselves in the past, on the steps to the present. They are encouraged to chronicle their learning in journals and to express their ideas and feelings orally, visually, and in writing.
The philosophy that shaped the new Resource Book is detailed in the preface. The introduction shows how that philosophy is reflected not only in the new book but also in a Facing History course. Together the two sections offer teachers a thoughtful rationale for the program and a useful tool in designing a unit or course of study that will be meaningful to their students.
The first two chapters use literature to introduce the key concepts developed in a Facing History course. Those ideas are then applied to real individuals and real events in history. In Chapter 1, for example, students encounter a number of autobiographical accounts that help them look at ourselves--who we are and how our identity is formed. These readings reflect multicultural perspectives and foster empathy.
They also help students understand why Martha Minow argues that "when we identify one thing as like the others, we are not merely classifying the world; we are investing particular classifications with consequences and positioning ourselves in relation to those meanings. When we identify one thing as unlike the others, we are dividing the world; we use our language to exclude, to distinguish-- to discriminate."
Chapter 1 also begins an exploration of many of the central questions developed in a Facing History course: ¥ How is our identity formed? ¥ How do our attitudes and beliefs influence our thinking? How does our thinking affect our actions? ¥ How can we keep our individuality and still be a part of a group? ¥ How does our tendency to see us as unique but them as members of a group affect attitudes and behavior?
Chapter 2 then outlines the ways various nations, including the United States, have defined their identity. It helps students understand the significance of those definitions by considering who is a part of a nation's "universe of obligation"--the circle of individuals and groups toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends. The chapter also explores how that definition is shaped by two sets of ideas: democracy and nationalism. Both have had tremendous appeal to people all over the world. Still, each, when carried to an extreme, has been abused. False ideas about "race" have on occasion turned nationalism into ethnocentrism and chauvinism. And some democrats have confused equality with conformity. Others have viewed differences as proof that they are less human than we are.
Chapter 3 marks the beginning of the case study of the events that led to the Holocaust. It does so by examining the choices people in Europe and the United States made after World War I. The chapter highlights German efforts to build a lasting democracy after the humiliation of its defeat and explores the values, myths, and fears that threatened those efforts. Throughout this chapter and those that follow, students are encouraged to connect that particular history to their own lives by exploring universal themes.
Chapters 4 through 6 examine how the Nazis turned Germany into a totalitarian state by turning neighbor against neighbor in order to break the moral backbone of a citizenry and why the German people allowed them to do so. These chapters describe the way Jews were labeled, humiliated, discriminated against, isolated, and ultimately turned into the "enemy". Chapter 7 focuses on the victims of the Holocaust and the perpetrators. Chapter 8 considers the choices open to everyone else once the genocide began.
As students consider the consequences of the way individuals and nations defined their "universe of obligation" in the 1930s and 1940s, they reflect on the consequences of the way they, as individuals and as citizens of a nation, define their "universe of obligation." It is in these chapters that students begin to wonder not only "What might I have done?" but also "What can I do now?" And they come to realize why Albert Einstein warned that "the world is too dangerous to live in--not because of the people who do evil but because of the people who sit and let it happen."
In exploring the content and concepts developed in this part of the Resource Book, some teachers and students are tempted to emphasize only acts of courage that rekindle our hope in humanity. But to study only heroes and speak solely of human dignity distorts and distracts from the painful reality of this history. Thinking about the victims and perpetrators of mass murder requires a new "vocabulary of annihilation." The "choice-less choices" of this history of human behavior in extremity do not reflect options between right and wrong but between one form of abnormal response and another.
In Chapter 9, students move from thought to judgment. As they think about judgment in moral and legal terms, they consider such questions as: ¥ What is the difference between crimes against humanity and killings sanctioned by war? ¥ What is the purpose of a trial? Is it to punish evil or set a precedent for the future? ¥ Are individuals responsible for their crimes if they have obeyed the laws of their nation? Or are there higher laws? ¥ How does one determine punishment in cases of genocide? Is everyone equally guilty? Or do some bear more responsibility than others? Can an entire nation be guilty?
Chapters 10 and 11 focus on issues related to prevention by returning to themes developed in the first two chapters in the book--themes of identity and human behavior. Chapter 10 explores how we remember the past and considers the ways those memories shape our identity. The chapter reveals the power of memory by relating the experiences of the Armenians and African Americans--groups whose histories have been denied. As Reverend Vartan Hartunian said of the Armenian Genocide, "Any crime that is forgotten or forgiven is a crime that has been sanctioned and blessed." Journalist Judith Miller agrees. She says of those who would deny the Holocaust, "Knowing and remembering the evil in history and in each of us might not prevent a recurrence of genocide. But ignorance of history or the suppression of memory removes the surest defense we have, however inadequate, against such gigantic cruelty and indifference to it." What then fosters memory? Anything that makes the past more real and encourages empathy and caring.
In Chapter 10, students also examine the ways we commemorate the past by reflecting on memorials to the Holocaust and other genocides. As they study memorials like the one Maya Lin designed to honor individuals who lost their lives in the struggle for civil rights, they are encouraged to build their own monument to a person, idea, or event.
Chapter 11 further develops the idea of prevention by considering what it takes to be a good citizen. The chapter is organized around the idea that "people become brave by doing brave acts. People become compassionate by doing compassionate acts. People become good citizens by engaging in acts of good citizenship." Many of the individuals highlighted in Chapter 11 help us understand what it takes to keep democracy alive. The chapter also promotes pro-social behavior by encouraging acts of community service.
Every chapter in the new Resource Book has a similar structure. Each begins with an overview that outlines key concepts and themes. The readings that follow provide opportunities to explore those concepts and themes in greater depth. Teachers are encouraged to select the ones that match their objectives and the needs and interests of their students. Sidebars highlight important concepts and identify readings that develop ideas central to the program. To help teachers find "just the right reading," the book contains a detailed table of contents, an index of audio-visual resources, and an index organized by name and topic.
At the end of each reading are activities, quotations, and questions grouped under the heading "Connections." Connections are designed to build curiosity, develop habits of inquiry, promote critical thinking, and foster an understanding of the relationship between various ideas and events. Activities set off with a special symbol refer to materials available from the Resource Center. These materials may be used in place of the reading or along with it. Some contain ideas critical to a Facing History course and suggestions for using them are included.
The activities provided in Connections are not prescriptive. They are simply a starting point for helping students "face history and themselves." Teachers are encouraged to select the ones that relate the history most directly to the lives of their students and add new activities as appropriate.
The new Resource Book is cross-referenced to two other Facing History publications: Elements of Time and Choosing to Participate. Elements of Time is a companion manual to the Facing History videotape collection of Holocaust testimonies -- the result of a five year collaborative project between Facing History and the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University made possible through the support of Eli Evans and the Charles H. Revson Foundation. The book includes transcriptions of the videos along with essays and speeches by scholars and resource speakers who have addressed Facing History conferences.
Choosing to Participate is an outgrowth of the last chapter of the Resource Book. It addresses students' questions about how they can make a difference by introducing them to traditions of care and models for participation in American democracy. The book provides a history of the voluntary sector and traces the way individuals and groups have used the First Amendment to the Constitution as avenues of outrage and advocacy.
Hannah Arendt, one of the leading philosophers of our time, asked, "Could the activity of thinking, as such, . . . be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually condition them against it?" If we are to meet our present problems in human and creative ways, it is most urgent that we face history and ourselves. The new Resource Book guides students and teachers as they confront violent and painful aspects of that history--a history that serves as a compelling reminder of the power of ideas, even mistaken ideas, to shape our thoughts, our judgment, and ultimately our behavior. By giving our students access to that history we honor their potential to confront, cope, and make a difference today and in their futures.
1. The Individual and Society All the people like us are we, and everyone else is they. --Rudyard Kipling
2. We and They Democracy is becoming rather than being. It can easily be lost, but is never fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.
3. Germany in the 1920s The shadowy figures that look out at us from the tarnished mirror of history are--in the final analysis--ourselves. --Detlev J. K. Peukert
4. The Nazis Take Power Anyone who interprets National Socialism as merely a political movement knows almost nothing about it. It is more than a religion. It is the determination to create the new man. --Adolf Hitler
5. Conformity and Obedience When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. --C.P. Snow
6. Escalating Violence And what was said long ago is true: Nations are made not of oak and rock but of men, and, as the men are, so will the nations be. --Milton Mayer
7. The Holocaust The more we come to know about the Holocaust, how it came about, how it was carried out, etc., the greater the possibility that we will become sensitized to inhumanity and suffering whenever they occur. --Eva Fleischner
8. Bystanders and Rescuers The world is too dangerous to live in-- not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen. --Albert Einstein
9. Judgment History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. --Maya Angelou
10. Historical Legacies Only the spectators, who constitute the space of history (memory) in which all actions and works of art fall. . . can pass ultimate judgment on an event or action by the quality of their attention. --Hannah Arendt
11. Choosing to Participate Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve thc lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. --Robert F. Kennedy
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