The Day of Remembrance, or Yom Hashoah, will be marked on Thursday, April 16, this year. Numerous civic and religious organizations use the week before this date to commemorate the victims who perished during the Holocaust. Teachers who introduce this topic to their students often find that textbook chapters on the Holocaust numb students with the sheer scale of the devastation—the many millions of lives lost in this genocide. It’s simply impossible for them to visualize. To help your students understand the impact, consider using a film that focuses on an individual caught in the maelstrom of Nazism.
For older and more mature students, the classic film Schindler’s List would be appropriate. It is long—over three hours—but students will find that it is well worth the time. Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist who was willing to work with Nazi leadership, even join the Nazi party, to increase his business. He used Polish Jews in his factory because their slave labor was cheaper than that of free workers. Over the course of the war, as he watched over his workers, he became more and more determined to protect them and to keep them from the death camps like Auschwitz. Eventually, the man who wanted to make money from his laborers wound up spending his entire fortune on bribing German officials in order to save their lives. A study guide to the film is available from Facing History and Ourselves at https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/resources/schindlers-list-study-guide.
Many opportunities for student research and writing arise from this film. In an English class, for example, you might use Oskar Schindler as a superb example of a dynamic character, one who evolves from one set of beliefs to a different perspective; a character analysis using evidence from the film could explore his shifting nature and goals in detail. Alternatively, taking a broader perspective, you might have students discover the meaning and importance of the phrase "the righteous Gentile." They could research to uncover individuals of the time (including and beyond Schindler) who exemplified it. Then students could write news articles to detail their lives, using photographs, graphics and maps as appropriate. Such a lesson would include instruction on the organization and style of news writing; students could even use desktop publishing to showcase their articles in a group news magazine. A variation would include a study of those people who are the Schindlers of today, taking individual actions to combat oppression.
For younger students or those not mature enough for Schindler’s List, consider a more recent film, Defiant Requiem. The film began as a project of Murry Sidlin, a conductor and music faculty member at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. In researching Holocaust music, he came across information about a group of Jewish prisoners in Terezín (Theresienstadt) outside of Prague. Under the leadership of young conductor Rafael Schächter, the prisoners learned the words and music of Verdi’s Roman Catholic requiem mass, using one score and one piano, and performed it sixteen times in the concentration camp. They even sang it to Nazi officials, including the hymns “Libera me” (“Set me free”) and “Dies irae,” a hymn that hints that God will exact revenge. Sidlin took his chorale to Terezín and performed the Requiem as a memorial. The documentary film is a blend of contemporary photos and artifacts, interviews with survivors of Terezín, re-enactments, and the Terezín performance.
A set of eight free interdisciplinary lesson plans for Defiant Requiem is available for downloading from http://journeysinfilm.org/download/defiant-requiem/. The lessons include a study of Verdi and his Requiem for music classes; social studies lessons on the Jews of Prague before the Holocaust and on life in Terezín; a lesson on the nature of propaganda, both during world War II and now; an English lesson on writing a film review; journal questions to use while viewing, and more. The film is available for viewing for free as well, at http://video.pbs.org/program/defiant-requiem-voices-resistance/.
In addition to such a film, or if time does not allow for viewing a full-length film, you might wish to search out a Holocaust survivor in your community who would be willing to speak to your classes. If this proves impossible, consider introducing your students to the Shoah Foundation website at the University of Southern California (https://sfi.usc.edu/). This website is an archive of video testimonies by survivors of the Holocaust. Short videos can be searched by such topics as Kristallnacht, Auschwitz, religious holiday observances, women and families in the Holocaust, and more. There are full-length, online lectures by Holocaust experts. A trove of resources and activities for teachers and students is also available at this site. The Visual History Archive Online at http://vhaonline.usc.edu/login.aspx. This site has over 52,000 audiovisual testimonies about genocide, mostly about the Holocaust, but also including some on the Rwandan genocide and the Nanjing Massacre. More than 1200 are in English.
As you plan your classes for the rest of the school year, consider incorporating one of these films and/or a selection of survivor testimonies to help your students understand the nature of genocide and why we must all say, “Never again!”
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.