It was 1998. I was in the 8th grade and I sat in English class anxiously awaiting the bell. Despite my love for reading and writing I was never very good at grammar rules. The teacher announced our upcoming unit. “For the next two weeks we will be studying the Holocaust” she said. My ears perked up. She briefly outlined the pages of reading in our textbook and then let us sit quietly before dismissal. Opening my textbook I stared at the required reading. It was excerpts from “The Diary of Anne Frank”. I had already read Anne Frank’s diary beforehand so I was looking forward to what other creative activities would accompany our reading. I approached my teacher and inquired about what other assignments would be included with the reading. She said that it was a short unit, and there wouldn’t be any other assignments required.
A short unit? No other assignments? My 13 year old self felt frustrated and conflicted. The Holocaust was a historical event that spanned from 1933-1945 but, its impact still lingers today. It is a period in history in which all people, regardless of their religious affiliation, should know about. Simply reading excerpts from one book was not enough! Tentatively I asked my teacher if I could design a lesson plan and simulation that I could help teach with her to help my peers better understand the Holocaust. My teacher was shocked. She told me to put together a lesson plan and then she would approve it (or not).
For the next several days I worked tirelessly putting together a simulation in which my peers could get even 1/100th of a glimpse into the life of European Jews during the Holocaust. I gathered felt and linen. From it I cut out yellow felt stars that I would later pin to my classmates. Others would wear white armbands painted with a swastika. I recorded German music from the Nazi German era and typed up a chronological timeline of events to display on the overhead projector. I brought in pictures of concentration camps and images of Holocaust survivors during the period of liberation. After hours and hours of work, my simulation was finally complete.
Sitting before my “pod” of middle school teachers I laid out everything I had created. I explained with thorough preparation how I would demonstrate the atrocities that the Nazi Party committed. There was only so much time in one class period so inevitably there were things that I could not teach. But my teachers approved and we scheduled my lesson to begin the following day. I was so excited. Standing before my classmates I felt butterflies in my stomach, but I had rehearsed my lesson countless times so I was definitely prepared. As I began speaking waves of courage washed over me. My peers listened with interest and I saw the shock as I displayed large images from the Holocaust on the board. They pinned stars of David to their shirts while others tied armbands to their biceps.
One by one I had them line up and explained to each “soldier” why they were executing each person. Keep the healthy so they can be worked to death. The rest should be eliminated. I posted mock propaganda that the Nazi party had used prior to the years of deporting Jews, so that the mass population already had a dislike for the Jewish people. It was all there in my tiny, Southern classroom, posted before their eyes. They were stunned. “Why?” one girl finally asked me, “Why did this happen?”. I looked at her sadly, “Because it was a time when people whose hearts were filled with hatred and contempt were allowed to sway the minds of others with fear and manipulation”.
This Wednesday (April 15th, 2015) at sundown begins Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Regardless of what you believe or practice, please take a moment to remember those that were lost during 1941-1945. Take a moment to remember those who are still dying in the world to oppression. Take a moment to pray for those who are grieving over war and genocide. May the world one day find peace. Have a peaceful day everyone ❤
Resources for talking to your peers about the Holocaust: