Q&A: How to Teach the Holocaust

Photo: Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As schools around the world continue to monitor the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, the safety and continued learning of our HMH community remain our top priorities. This Q&A includes links to valuable resources that can be accessed from home and are designed to help students learn and grow without interruption.

Americans know far less about the Holocaust than we realize. Millennials know even less. How do we know? In February 2018, The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted a survey of 1,350 Americans aged 18 and over. 

The survey results are troublesome, particularly for millennials (those born between 1981–1996).

  • 22% of millennials either have not heard or are not sure if they have heard about the Holocaust. The word itself is not well known.
  • 41% of millennials believe that 2 million Jews or less were killed during the Holocaust. Approximately 6 million were murdered.
  • 49% of millennials could not name a concentration camp or ghetto in Europe during the Holocaust. There were over 40,000 of such places. 

It’s no surprise then, according to the survey, that 70% of Americans believe that fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they did in the past, and 58% believe a Holocaust or similar event could happen again. Teaching this content is an important step, but not all states require that the Holocaust be covered in the middle or high school social studies curriculum. If not schools, then who?

Teaching the Holocaust

I had the opportunity to speak with Kim Blevins-Relleva, a Program Coordinator for Education Initiatives within the William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Kim is a former classroom teacher, and she brings her years of experience to her current position at the museum, where she is responsible for training middle and high school teachers to teach about the Holocaust. 

Kim and I spoke about reasons to teach U.S. students about the Holocaust, the biggest challenges for educators in doing so, how to find and use the best resources and tools, and how teaching the Holocaust brings relevance to today’s students.

Geraldine Stevens: What do you think are the most important reasons to teach the Holocaust?

Kim Blevins-Relleva: We encourage educators to think about why they want to teach this history even before they think about what or how to teach it. There are many reasons why people might want to study this history. Those answers vary from person to person. I have my own personal reasons. I found it compelling for the human interest, the humanity that is present in this study that connects us to one another and connects us to the past in such a strong way. But again, we really encourage educators to think about this for themselves. 

GS: What might be some of the biggest challenges facing educators today if they want to teach about the Holocaust? 

KB: Educators are often hesitant to teach about the Holocaust because they don’t want to get it wrong. They're respectful of the history; they're respectful of the memory of the survivors and the victims, and they sincerely don’t want to get it wrong. So, sometimes they kind of don't want to do it at all. 

Educators are faced with time challenges, especially if the Holocaust isn't assessed on a standardized test in their state. It can be hard to carve out time to devote to a subject that’s not tested, so there are time constraints. There are some local issues in the community—some educators face pushback about elevating this history over other histories. So, educators do face a myriad of challenges. 

The museum is here to try to help them navigate those challenges. We have lessons and several resources educators can use to teach about it in a short amount of time. We help them think about ways they can connect this history to larger histories that are required in the curriculum. And we, again, just encourage educators to look at what resources we have that might augment what they’re already doing in their curriculum with different subject areas, if there are ways to work it in, in that fashion.

GS: Are there other resources that the museum offers or tools and strategies to help overcome those challenges? 

KB: I think the biggest resource we offer to teachers who are new to teaching about the Holocaust is a conference that we have every July called the Belfer National Conferences for Educators, which will be held virtually this year if necessary. This is a fantastic opportunity for teachers all across the United States. It's a three-day conference, and it's completely free. In addition, we'll offer $1,000 travel stipends for the 2021 conference for teachers who apply for them. You are introduced to the museum’s pedagogy and best practices for teaching about the Holocaust. We cover our foundational lesson plans and our foundational resources that can be incorporated into middle school and high school classes—English classes, history classes.

Teachers at the annual Belfer National Conferences for Educators. (Courtesy of USHMM)

GS: In what grade specifically does it make sense to teach about the Holocaust?

KB: The museum recommends that the teaching of the Holocaust start at the secondary level. Students younger than middle school don't have the historical context necessary to really give the Holocaust the cradling it needs for understanding. Students before that age just simply don’t have a grasp of a global sense of history. Also, handling a difficult subject like this requires more emotional maturity. Our resources are all geared for secondary students, really seventh grade onwards. 

GS: If educators really felt the need to teach some of those themes to younger students, how might your approach change? 

KB: I think if it were really going to be addressed with younger than seventh grade, I would recommend doing it through literature. Perhaps they read a book—a carefully selected book that is age appropriate, not a book for older students. That’s probably the best way to approach it because, again, the history is heavy and requires an understanding of the context around it. Otherwise, it just doesn't make a lot of sense for kids. So, I would recommend a literature-based approach. 

GS: Speaking of books, whether it’s literature or whether it’s sources, did you have favorite tools that you used when you were teaching the subject matter in the classroom? 

KB: My favorite tool was actually the museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia. I would print articles from the Holocaust Encyclopedia to make my own binder for my students for a history text. It now contains critical-thinking questions and discussion questions that are tailored specifically for students. It is well-written, easy to understand, and easy for students to digest.

A screenshot of the "Must-Reads" section of the Holocaust Encyclopedia on the museum's website.

I also used “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” which is the museum’s 36-minute film that introduces the Holocaust in a concise and relatable manner. It can be split up by the chapters. I was also an English teacher, so I taught it hand in hand with my English class as well. And we used The Diary of Anne Frank and also used Salvaged Pages, which is a collection of diaries, young people’s stories about the Holocaust and their experiences, for the English component.

GS: How about now that you work as a teacher trainer at the museum? What are some of the tools you are recommending today?

KB: We have updated our classic timeline activity. It’s a longstanding resource that the museum has made available to educators. With their students, they share individual stories from the Holocaust, laws and decrees, and world events. It’s interactive, it’s visual. It gives students a very clear sense of the wave of persecution and the Holocaust and the different people who were victimized. 

We’ve also created some new resources in the past 18 months. We’ve written a lesson about anti-Semitism, which is an introductory lesson that we created after teachers came to us after the Tree of Life tragedy. We came together as a team and wrote this lesson, which helps educators introduce this concept. We’ve also written a lesson about understanding Nazi symbols, that I really think is useful for educators. There’s been a rise in incidents in communities and schools. This lesson helps students understand the historical significance of the swastika and where it came from, and it features a survivor story explaining what that symbol means to them when they see it.

Timeline activity at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Courtesy of USHMM)

GS: For students who say, “This has nothing to do with me. I don't come from that culture. I had nothing to do with that, neither did my family,” how do we get them to engage with the content in a meaningful way? 

KB: Educators know their students and they know their community. To make anything relevant to your students, you have to think about your rationale. They need to always come back to, “Why am I teaching this? Why now? Why in my class? What is it that I want to get to for them to think about?” If you frame your rationale and you trust your students, and you trust the history, kids will find connections. They will do it quite naturally. Again, if you trust the history, you present the history in a way that is relevant and responsible.

GS: I'm thinking of another instance in which a student may say, “Well, so-and-so is like Hitler, and it’s exactly the same now as it was then.” How would you help guide an educator through if and when that comes up in conversation?

KB: First of all, it's wonderful when students are making connections. When students make historical connections to what’s happening in the present, that's a good thing. We want students to do that. To handle situations like that, I think good educators have to ask questions back to them—What is the same? What is similar in this situation? What is different?—and to write those things down, to unpack those things. That’s just the best place to start. Once you unpack, you can see threads that may have some connection and then you spend time on it. They will see the things that divert and are very actually quite different than what was going on in the past. But you want to encourage students to make connections. You just want to make them responsibly—and in a historically accurate way—always going back to the history and unpacking the history. 

GS: Something that is typically taught in social studies at a variety of different times is this idea of unpacking propaganda and looking at propaganda over the ages, over the eras, over different countries and administrations. What do you think would be a good place for educators to go if they think this is an area where we could look at propaganda? 

KB: We have a whole set of lesson plans devoted to propaganda with the initiative State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. On our website, there are fantastic lessons that have tools for unpacking images that can be used. There’s just a really great visual analysis of propaganda.

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I would like to thank Kim for taking the time to speak with me and offer her experience and expertise on how to teach this valuable and necessary content in today’s classroom. HMH proudly works with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as it inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. 

For additional information about resources, programs, and content from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, please visit the museum's web page for teachers.