(This post was first published at JETS Israel)
Over the last 70 years, educators have struggled with the question of how the Holocaust should be taught. The magnitude of the “Final Solution” makes it practically incomprehensible. Many educators have struggled to find ways to help students understand the impact of the events that took place before, during and after WWII on individuals who experienced these horrors.
A new course, Holocaust Letters, attempts to accomplish this through an examination of a trove of letters that was recently discovered by the grandchildren of Rudi Schwab, who fled Germany in 1933 at the age of 17. The letters chronical correspondence before, during, and after the war, between Rudi and the friends and family that he left behind in Germany. They portray a haunting picture of what the family was experiencing in their beloved homeland. As the dates on the letters progressed, it was clear that the family had come to the realization that there would be no easy end to this chapter in history.
This week, in advance of International Holocaust Memorial Day, the Holocaust Letters course was presented to a group of 8th graders at the Island District public school of Lemoore California. During the class, the students analyzed Rudi’s letters to unlock a very personal experience of the Holocaust. They encountered Rudi’s angst in his frustrated attempts to save his family, and the psychological forces that led his parents from a sense of normalcy, to fear, and finally to resignation. The students showed great introspection as they used online bulletin boards and social media tools to work collaboratively on questions that included:
Why didn’t the Schwabs leave Germany when the first waves of anti-Semitism broke out?
Why did Rudi lock the letters in a trunk?
What else was locked in the trunk?
In examining excerpts from the letters, the students also applied their insights to manifestations of anti-Semitism in present-day Europe, by considering what Max Schwab, Rudi’s father who perished in the Holocaust, might have written to the Jews of France today. Many of the students were surprised to learn about the reemergence of Anti-Semitism in Europe, and came to understand more vividly that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”