Bearing Witness: Teaching About the Holocaust
reviewed by Moshe Sokolow - 2003
The Brooklyn neighborhood in which I was born and raised shortly after World War II had a very high percentage of Holocaust survivors and their families. In spite of that, I was able to attend Orthodox Jewish day schools through 12th grade and graduate from Yeshiva College without taking a course on Holocaust studies, observing a Holocaust remembrance day, or participating in a Holocaust commemoration. I was neither ignorant nor insensitive; such things just didn’t exist.
The Holocaust was not something the survivors of my acquaintance dwelt on; it was something they had put behind them. Instead of building museums, they rebuilt the communal institutions and social structures that had served them so ably in pre-war Europe. Boro Park could not boast of even a single Holocaust memorial (it still cannot), but it became replete with heders, yeshivas, shuls, shtibels and mikvahs. The first language of most of its Jewish inhabitants—many, second generation Americans—remains Yiddish.
As an educator, I had even developed a certain antipathy towards Yom haShoah (Holocaust remembrance day) observances. When solicited by students for programming suggestions, I would recommend staging Fiddler on the Roof or The Megillah of Itzik Manger. While wildly exaggerated—often, even grotesque—they were, at least, a celebration of how Jews had lived, rather than a lamentation over how they had died.
Had Bearing Witness been written 30 years ago as the tide of Holocaust studies was rising, rather than at its crest, and had I read it then, I would probably be a better person than the one I am today and certainly a better educator. This is the power of Beth Aviv Greenbaum’s narrative of her experience, along with her students’, in developing, delivering and assessing a course in Holocaust literature.
Far from being a narrow, parochial presentation of a particularistic subject, the book is a paradigm of multi-media, multi-sensory, multi-intelligenced and multi-faceted pedagogy. While it may appear oxymoronic (or, at least, ironic), I enjoyed reading the book. As familiar as I was with the plot and the characters, as much as I knew the outcome at the outset, I looked forward to each consecutive chapter. That is memorable, and memorable, in pedagogy, is effective.
Organized around a semester’s study in a Michigan high school (grade unspecified), the book is a guide to both curricular materials and instructional methodologies. Comprising books, memoirs, plays, poems, and videos (documentary and full-length features)—all neatly catalogued in the compendium appended to the book—the course focuses on six prominent works of literature: The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, Survival in Auschwitz, Incident at Vichy, Maus I, and The Sunflower.
Priming her students with questions at once both thoughtful and provocative, Greenbaum successfully links the Holocaust with her students’ own experiences, existential fears, and anxieties, walking them, as it were, in the footsteps of the victims and, sometimes, in the shoes of their assailants. A few illustrative examples (verbatim):
[A less felicitous example: Consider how the term “ghetto”… has been applied to “urban ghettos” in the United States? (p. 62)]
Not skittish over controversy, Greenbaum even harnesses it to her pedagogy, as in the case of “comic relief” (130 ff.). While her students are “aghast” after viewing a ten-minute clip of The Producers, she navigates the subsequent discussion towards the appreciation of laughter as a means of deflating anxious situations and “poking holes” in power structures. Comparably, Life is Beautiful, regarded by the students—prior to the course—as a “beautiful” and “touching” story, ends up dismissed as “It’s not the Holocaust.”
The assessment phase of the course meets the high standards set in the instructional phase. Each student was given the choice of either designing a 1-2 week course on Holocaust literature, evaluating several Holocaust web sites, or submitting a significant Holocaust project (paper, poetry, story, art, etc.). Greenbaum thereby creates a three-part final project that obliges the students to reassess what they had come to understand about the Holocaust as well as why they had enrolled in the course in the first place.
Excerpts from the students’ journals indicate that the level of discourse maintained throughout the course is most impressive for its honesty, maturity, and sophistication—attributes that are all too often belied by the expectations we have of adolescents nowadays and the cognitive and affective demands we make of them.
That selfsame honesty, maturity, and sophistication was complemented by their final remarks of which the following (verbatim) is representative:
I took the course because I thought it would reinforce what I already knew about hate and the Holocaust. Instead, I learned something about the nature of man. Man is typically a frail beast, and though we lay a thin coat of paint on top of that bestiality and call it civilization, the beast is always there—whether we wear loincloths and carry a club or wear a suit and tie with a shoulder holster, it’s there. The Holocaust is a recent expression of that. It means that we must add and strengthen the coat of paint (p. 172).
The worst in some people brings out the best in others. It did during the Holocaust itself, and it continues to do so in Beth Aviv Greenbaum’s exemplary course on Holocaust literature and the book that ably narrates and illustrates it.