The March of Remembrance and Hope: Teaching and Learning About Diversity and Social Justice Through the Holocaust

by Elizabeth Spalding, Todd A. Savage & Jesus Garcia - 2007

Background: Experiential learning has been posited as an approach to influencing preservice teachers’ understanding of diversity and social justice. The research reported here examined the impact of a field-based experience in Poland focused on the Holocaust as it pertained to the beliefs and actions of 12 future education professionals. This program, the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH), took place in Poland in May 2003; the pretrip preparation occurred in January–May 2003 at a large southeastern university. Five of the participants were preservice teachers, and 7 were graduate students in either counseling psychology or school psychology. The MRH is an international interfaith trip to Holocaust sites in Poland, sponsored by the March of the Living, Israel. The MRH educates participants, primarily Gentiles, about the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance and racism.

Purpose of Study: The authors are teacher educators committed to multicultural teacher education and teaching about social justice. Thus, we generated the following questions to guide this research: (1) How did the experience of the MRH influence participants’ knowledge of, attitudes about, and actions regarding diversity? (2) How, if at all, did participants connect the MRH experience to issues of social justice?

Research Design: Three case studies, exemplars of the impact of this experience, are presented and discussed in relation to the literature on effective multicultural teacher education, experiential education, and Holocaust education.

Conclusions: Results indicated that the MRH had a significant effect on the thinking and actions of students related to diversity and social justice. If the goal of multicultural education is to facilitate changes in future education professionals’ knowledge, beliefs, and actions, then it is important to take note of the aspects of the MRH experience that so affected Silas, Rachel, and Penny, the students described in the case studies. The literature on teacher education for diversity indicates that traditional approaches to multicultural education have minimal long-term impact. By contrast, the effects of the MRH took time to process and, as of this writing, appear not to have faded over time. And, although the academic preparation was critical to their understanding of the Holocaust, the authentic experience of the MRH had the greatest impact on these students’ thinking about diversity and their willingness to take action against social injustice.

Preparing future educators to work effectively with culturally diverse students remains one of the most pressing issues facing teacher educators today. Understanding cultural diversity also means understanding issues of social justice that are frequently intertwined with race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status (Cochran-Smith, 2004). Many teacher education programs require one or more courses in understanding diversity or in multicultural education. The expectation is that course content will significantly influence future educators’ beliefs about and actions toward people, especially young people, who differ along multiple dimensions. Experiential learning (with the exception of classroom-based field experiences) is a less common approach to influencing students’ understanding of diversity and social justice. This study examined the preparation for and the impact of a 9-day intensive experience, the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH), on the beliefs and actions of 12 future education professionals enrolled in the College of Education at a land-grant university in the southeastern United States. Five of the participants were preservice teachers, and 7 were graduate students in either counseling psychology or school psychology, many of whom intended to work in school settings upon graduation. The MRH took place in May 2003.

The MRH is an international interfaith trip to Holocaust sites in Poland. It is sponsored by the March of the Living, Israel. The MRH educates participants, primarily Gentiles, about the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance and racism. The authors are teacher educators, two of whom accompanied the university students on the MRH in May 2003. The first author did not participate in the May 2003 MRH, and her role will be explained in more detail below.

This study builds on findings that emerged from research conducted during all three authors’ participation in the May 2001 MRH (Spalding, Garcia, & Savage, 2003). Previously, we found that the MRH was effective in increasing participants’ knowledge about the Holocaust and empathy for its victims. As a result of that experience, we realized that we needed to provide future participants with a broader knowledge base concerning the Holocaust, such as Browning’s (1992) controversial explanation of how “ordinary men” became killers. In addition, we recognized the need to help students make connections between the Holocaust and other instances of social injustice, both historical and contemporary. Thus, we generated the following overarching questions to guide this phase of our research: (1) How did the experience of the MRH influence participants’ knowledge of, attitudes about, and actions regarding diversity? (2) How, if at all, did participants connect the MRH experience to issues of social justice?

Although it may not be practicable for most future educators to travel to Poland to study the Holocaust, the MRH offers important insights to all educators who seek to design transformative learning experiences for their students.


The need for education professionals who can help students become “thoughtful, caring, and reflective citizens in a multicultural world society” has perhaps never been greater (Banks, 2001, p. 5). The events of September 11, 2001, among other societal trends, have dealt a serious blow to our progress in intergroup relations and understanding.  Instances of violent acts expressing intergroup hatred (e.g., crimes against Muslims, murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, rapes as hazing rituals) occur frequently.  Racism and anti-Semitism persist: reports of anti-Jewish actions on college campuses increased 24% in 2002 (National Conference for Community and Justice, 2002). In this review, we will describe some principles underlying effective multicultural teacher education that espouses a commitment to social justice; examine the potential of experiential education to effect long-term change in participants’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions; and review the status of Holocaust education in this country, with emphasis on how this particular historical event is used to advance more general learning about diversity and social justice.


Since the 1970s, future education professionals have been prepared to work with culturally diverse students through some combination of coursework and experiences in schools. Zeichner et al. (1998) have identified design principles that characterize good practice in multicultural teacher education. These include (1) fostering an understanding of the sociopolitical contexts of schooling and of the unequal power relations that lead to “blaming the victim” and ideas of “cultural deficit”; (2) providing carefully planned and monitored field experiences for which students are thoroughly prepared and upon which they have ample opportunities to reflect; and (3) helping future educators develop the commitment to be change agents who work for social justice. Yet, after reviewing a plethora of studies designed to gauge change in future educators’ thinking, attitudes, and actions regarding cultural diversity, McAllister and Irvine (2000) concluded that measuring growth in cross-cultural competency remains an elusive goal. The recommendations of these authors for teacher educators included using process models of development, such as Banks’s Typology of Ethnicity, in the design of multicultural courses; “using support groups to provide opportunities for reflection, support, and challenge”; and “providing opportunities for students to interact with individuals from other ethnic backgrounds in authentic cultural settings” (p. 20).

As noted above, multicultural education has as one of its basic tenets the notion of social justice, specifically, the education of citizens in a democratic society to work for social justice for all people (Nieto, 2003). Defining social justice is a bit more challenging; it is often spoken about in a manner that suggests that people “know it when they see it,” without particular operational meaning being attached to it (Novak, 2000). Yet, a common theme related to social justice that emerges from the literature has to do with treating all people equitably and with dignity and respect (Gollnick & Chinn, 2001). As such, it is the responsibility of the citizenry to advocate for and ensure the rights of persons who are disadvantaged in the broader society. Thus, instituting social justice principles in school settings necessitates that students are guaranteed equal access to a quality education that seeks to dismantle the preexisting social and economic inequities present at the macro level (Sirotnik, 1990). What might this look like in real life? A teacher who works for social justice might, for example, make sure that her curriculum fairly represents the perspectives of people of diverse backgrounds. The teacher who speaks out against bullying in the hallways or name-calling on the playground is working for social justice, as is the educator who participates in rallies and campaigns for the rights of oppressed people, or the counselor who questions why the number of minority students receiving disciplinary referrals far exceeds that of majority students. Conversely, the teacher who defines family as a household headed by a heterosexual married couple, who makes or ignores sexist comments in the classroom, or who claims “not to see” color probably is not working for social justice as defined here.

It is not enough to set up schools based on social justice principles; schools, institutions of higher education included, must also be explicit in their teaching of students to become citizens who are socially just. That is, teachers and faculty members bear a certain responsibility to inform, challenge, and model for students the knowledge bases and skills sets needed to accept and respect others of diverse backgrounds, as well as to advocate for those persons who are oppressed or disadvantaged in society (Smith, 1998). This is the responsibility that we accepted in preparing students for the MRH.


In his review of the knowledge bases for diversity, G. Pritchy Smith (1998) emphasized the critical role of experiential knowledge for preservice teachers who “have lived insulated, monocultural lifestyles” (p. 91). According to Smith, a teacher education program that effectively prepares teachers to accept and respect diversity and to advocate for social justice should have a strong experiential component. Upon graduation, preservice teachers should have developed friendships with a variety of people from backgrounds different from their own and experienced “a variety of cross-cultural events and activities that expanded their knowledge of and enhanced their sensitivity to other cultural groups” (p. 91). Smith also highlighted the value of international experiences. Merryfield (1995) has written extensively about the critical need for teacher education programs that provide opportunities to travel, study, or live in other parts of the world.

Although not everyone can afford to live and work abroad for a semester, experiential learning, even of limited duration (e.g., Wiest, 1998), appears to be a promising approach in facilitating enduring change. For example, a review of the impact of outdoor adventure programs, such as Outward Bound, found that “the effects are long lasting and often increase over time” (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997). The authors defined “long lasting” as effects measured anywhere from 1 to 24 months following the experience. They stated, “These substantial follow-up effects are unlike most educational programs, where the typical follow-up effects are negative or at best zero and there is quick fading” (p. 57). This claim is corroborated by various critics of research in teacher education, who note that changes in knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs are generally measured immediately following the end of the intervention, thus calling into question the long-term impact of programs and courses (e.g., McAllister & Irvine, 2000; Richardson, 1996; Wideen, Mayer-Smith & Moon, 1998).

Authentic experience may be a key factor in minimizing preservice teachers’ resistance to diversity and guiding them into developing a commitment to multicultural education (Cochran-Smith, 2003; Nel, 1992). The advantages of cultural immersion experiences for preservice teachers have been well documented (e.g., Fearance & Bell, 2004; Mahan & Rains, 1990; Mahan & Stachowski, 1990; Stachowski & Mahan, 1998). Willison (1989) has shown that culture-specific experiences help teachers develop attitudes and skills that are applicable in other cross-cultural contexts. For the purposes of this study, the MRH, an immersion in the study of the Holocaust, was the culture-specific experience that was intended to help participants develop attitudes and skills applicable to their professional contexts


Holocaust education is a relatively new development in American education, becoming more widespread as states such as New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, and Illinois have made it a required part of the school curriculum (Ben-Bassat, 2000). Brabham (1997) has summarized a commonly held rationale for teaching about the Holocaust as follows: “With and without legislative initiatives to support their efforts, teachers are using the history and literature of the Holocaust to teach the effects of institutionalized intolerance and genocide and to prepare students to examine the role of uncontrolled racism in current conflicts” (p. 139). She cited as an example a Mississippi law that mandates a “high school course on human rights, with emphasis on slavery, genocide, and the Holocaust” (p. 139). Another example of curriculum developed from this position is “Facing History and Ourselves,1 a citizenship education program for adolescents that uses the Holocaust as a case study of the rise of totalitarianism. The curriculum uses such universal concerns of adolescents as peer group pressure, scapegoating, and labeling as pathways into history and then invites them “to travel back and forth between the past and present” (Sleeper, Strom, & Zabierek, 1990, p. 85).

Similarly, Wegner (1998) described a Holocaust education unit designed by an interdisciplinary team of teachers and implemented at three public middle schools in Wisconsin. These teachers “wanted students to engage in the unavoidable struggle about the meaning of the past and of civic virtue” (p. 169). In final essays, students articulated lessons that they had learned from the Holocaust, such as to be proactive in society so as to prevent a recurrence of such an event. Wegner noted, as have others (e.g., Brown & Davies, 1998; Reed & Lass, 1995) that the quality of students’ learning about the Holocaust is deeply dependent on the quality of teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and skills.

Recently, Britain implemented its first Holocaust Memorial Day in schools as a symbol of the nation’s commitment to Holocaust educational activities (Cowan & Maitles, 2002). Like the United States, Britain uses Holocaust education as a vehicle for teaching about “victimization, racism, and intolerance…in our own society and in many parts of the world” (Tony Blair quoted in Cowan & Maitles, pp. 219–220). Furthermore, Holocaust education addresses national goals of teaching citizenship responsibilities and respect for oneself and others (Brown & Davies, 1998; Carrington & Short, 1997).

Reviews of the status of Holocaust education concur on many points. Gallant and Hartman (2001), for example, recommended that effective Holocaust education programs combine cognitive (knowledge of the events), attitudinal (reducing prejudice, racism, and labeling), and action (reduce tendencies toward inaction and indifference, and increase sense of personal responsibility and integrity in social actions) outcomes. Burtonwood (2002) noted the importance of the following factors in effective Holocaust education curricula: (1) stories of individual experience, or microhistories, such as Anne Frank’s diary or Elie Wiesel’s (1982) memoir Night; (2) building empathy through carefully designed exercises or the involvement of survivors; (3) building students’ knowledge base about Jews, Judaism, and the Holocaust; (4) including study of the bystander response and countering with stories of resistance and rescue; and (5) making connection to other genocides and racism.

In this article, we ascribe to the view that the Holocaust offers lessons to contemporary citizens regarding prejudice, racism, moral and civic responsibility, and the consequences of indifference and intolerance. However, questions of why, what, and how to teach about the Holocaust are far from settled (Short, Supple, & Klinger, 1998). Writers such as Elie Wiesel and scholars such as Steven Katz hold that the Holocaust was a unique historical event and must be studied as such. Historian Dan Stone (2004) recently proposed a synthesis of the Holocaust as unique versus Holocaust as paradigmatic positions:

The problem with separating the “Holocaust” from “genocide” . . . is that it prevents consensus and solidarity among victim groups when it is precisely that solidarity that these groups should be aiming at. To deny “uniqueness” to a particular genocide neither means refusing to recognize the horror of the events nor does it mean that the scholarly preoccupation with problems of representation, textuality and moral limits is irrelevant. Far from it, but the question needs to be asked: In what ways are the gas chambers any more unrepresentable than the mass butchering of Tutsis? (p. 130)

Stone claimed that a “new generation of scholars” is emerging whose goal is “providing a taxonomy of genocide that will promote solidarity among its victims and critical positioning when genocide appears in the contemporary world” (p. 134).

Samantha Power (2002), a contemporary scholar of genocide, traced the connections between 20th-century genocides, including the Holocaust, and America’s official “bystander” response. “Upstanders,” by contrast, are those who take action against systematic killing, often at great personal and professional risk. Power’s work has focused on American policy rather than on individuals’ responses. However, she has stated that those most likely to become upstanders are those who have witnessed and survived genocide or those who have had interactions with survivors of genocide (Power, 2004). We see a strong connection between the concept of upstanders and the goals of a social justice orientation toward multicultural education.


The March of Remembrance and Hope is an international educational leadership program that brings together college students of different religious and ethnic backgrounds to learn about prejudice through the study of the Holocaust in Poland and Israel.2 It is an outgrowth of the March of the Living, which, since 1988, has brought Jewish high school students from all over the world together each year to explore the death of Jews in Poland and the rebirth of Jews in Israel. Both initiatives are sponsored by the March of the Living International in Tel Aviv, Israel, an organization committed to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and to using the Holocaust as an example of one of many human tragedies attributed to ignorance, hatred, and violence. The MRH suggests a curriculum to be followed in preparation for the trip and asks that all participants return to their campuses and communities prepared to take action as a result of the immersion experience in Poland.

Participants from public and private, and religious and secular institutions of higher education from across the country participated in the 1999 inaugural MRH, including Mr. Green (a pseudonym), then president of this state’s board of education. As a result, Mr. Green became a passionate supporter of Holocaust and human rights education and offered the financial support of the utility company of which he was CEO to students in our college to participate in the 2001 MRH. The first and third authors were invited to implement the program in the college. The second author, then a doctoral student in educational psychology, was one of the students selected for the trip. In May 2001, 13 College of Education (COE) students participated in the MRH. Because the MRH is a biannual event, the next March—the one described here—took place in May 2003.


Student participants engaged in 5 months of pretrip preparation. During the spring 2003 semester, students registered for credit in an independent study course entitled Exploring the Holocaust in Education and Psychology. The seminar met for 4 hours on one Saturday per month for 5 months.

The goal of the seminar was to prepare participants for the cross-cultural immersion experience in Poland. It was designed to enable students to examine the historical, sociological, psychological, and economic roots of the Holocaust. Students were encouraged to extrapolate knowledge of the Holocaust to historical and contemporary examples of social injustice throughout the world and in the United States, and to apply that knowledge to their work with individuals in a variety of settings. In accordance with Gallant and Hartman’s (2001) recommendations (described above) for effective Holocaust education, the specific course objectives were to (1) heighten the student’s awareness of the historical and current dialectical discussions concerning the Holocaust and other instances of social injustice present in multiple forms of media; (2) aid the student in developing a knowledge base related to the Holocaust and social injustice and the impact of such issues on professional identity as a means of developing the skills necessary for becoming a reflective decision maker, creative problem solver, and a responsive educator or psychologist; and (3) provide experiences for the reflective application of ideas, concepts, and information gained throughout the course and the cross-cultural experience in Poland to one’s professional practice settings.

Student learning was supported through direct instruction, assigned readings, cooperative group work, guest speakers, videos, other print and electronic resources, journaling, self-directed projects, and, ultimately, the experience in Poland. Because students were from different disciplines within the COE, each student selected and critiqued two articles from professional journals in her or his field—one that examined some issue related to the Holocaust and the other pertaining to another example of social injustice from the 20th century to the present. Examples of journals consulted included The English Journal, Social Education, and Rethinking Schools. Furthermore, students chose one of five texts (see the appendix) assigned for class and wrote a review of it.

One guest speaker made an especially deep impression on the students. This speaker, Dee Queen (a pseudonym), was invited to talk about her struggle against social injustice in our own “backyard.” A White female heterosexual English teacher in a nearby rural high school, Ms. Queen described her work with gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens who were struggling to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at their school. Ms. Queen took up their cause despite the personal and professional risk of doing so. She led the students in a successful suit against the district, which had denied them the right to assemble. Her influence on the participants’ thinking will become apparent in the case studies.

Finally, each student designed a project that would focus his or her learning before, during, and after the trip. This project was generated by the student in consultation with the instructors. Each student gathered the necessary information, interviews, or items needed to complete her or his project upon return to the United States and prepared a presentation to be given during the summer following the trip. The project titles are included in Table 2, which describes the participants. The culminating product for the course was a portfolio that demonstrated each student’s learning during the pretrip seminars, the experience in Poland, and the posttrip project completion and reflections on the process.


Approximately 250 North American college students, faculty, and MRH staff gathered for a 2-day orientation in Newark, New Jersey, before departing for Krakow, Poland, where they were joined by an additional 200-some college students from such diverse nations as the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, Germany, and Rwanda. The packed itinerary included Krakow and environs (e.g., Plaszow concentration camp, Czestochowa), Auschwitz-Birkenau, Warsaw, Treblinka, Lublin, and Majdanek, perhaps the most horrific and best preserved death camp site in Poland. MRH participants traveled on buses. Each bus had a guide (ours was an Israeli) trained by the MRH and a Polish guide. A Holocaust survivor traveled on each bus, as did a Holocaust scholar (for example, Dr. Steven Katz). Each bus also had at least one clergy person, rabbi, or counselor. A filmmaker, engaged by the local public television station to produce a documentary of the trip focusing on the participants in this study, accompanied the March and was assisted by a production team of our student participants (Hutchings, 2004).



All the students gave their informed consent to participate in this research. Data were gathered from 13 student participants (only 12 actually made the trip) before, during, and after the trip to Poland. Multiple data sources were used. Program application materials (provided by MRH) included essays from each applicant regarding his or her reasons for wanting to participate in the MRH and responses to prompts such as, “If you could bring only three items on this trip (aside from basic necessities) what would you bring and why?” In February 2003, we administered a pretrip questionnaire to learn more about students’ knowledge of the Holocaust, previous cross-cultural experiences, and expectations about the trip.

Materials created by students for the independent study course included book reviews, a group pretrip journal, individual dialogue journals, and culminating portfolios. The purpose of the group pretrip journal was to capture students’ thinking as they progressed through the course. After each monthly seminar, several students took responsibility for writing a response to the day’s events. Individual students also maintained a monthly dialogue journal to which instructors (authors one and three) responded. Students were asked to reflect on the following topics: knowledge of the Holocaust (January 2003); social justice (February 2003); Hilberg’s model of genocide (March 2003); and reflection on personal and professional learning (April 2003). The authors took field notes during pretrip seminars, the trip portion of the study, and a posttrip seminar held in July 2003 during which participants shared their completed or in-progress projects and viewed the television broadcast of the documentary film described above.

As a result of our experience in the 2001 MRH, we realized that asking students to keep individual journals throughout this physically and emotionally challenging experience was burdensome. Therefore, during the 2003 MRH, students maintained a communal journal. A different participant took responsibility for each day of the trip.

Upon completion of the course and the MRH, most of the participants either graduated or left the area to complete internships. We continued to communicate informally by e-mail with some of the participants. In August 2004, over a year after the completion of the MRH, we sent e-mail questionnaires to all 2003 (and 2001) participants whose whereabouts we knew regarding the quality of their preparation for, and the subsequent impact of, the MRH on their personal and professional lives.



We are three teacher educators with longstanding interest in multicultural education. All three of us have taught courses in this area. None of us is a Holocaust scholar, and none of us is Jewish. The first author specializes in English education; the second author in educational and school psychology; and the third author in social studies education. All three authors participated in the 2001 MRH. Only the second and third authors participated in the 2003 MRH. Table 1 gives an overview of the authors’ roles in the 2001 and 2003 MRH.

Table 1. Authors’ Roles in MRH 2001 and 2003


2001 MRH

2003 MRH

Author 1

Trip leader: Facilitated all aspects of trip

Participant: Participated in MRH

Researcher: Collected and analyzed data from MRH

Researcher: Collected and analyzed data from MRH

Author 2

Participant: Participated in MRH

Researcher: Collected and analyzed data from MRH

Trip leader: Facilitated all aspects of trip

Participant: Participated in MRH

Researcher: Collected and analyzed data from MRH

Author 3

Trip leader: Facilitated all aspects of trip

Participant: Participated in MRH

Researcher: Collected and analyzed data from MRH

Trip leader: Facilitated all aspects of trip

Participant: Participated in MRH

Researcher: Collected and analyzed data from MRH

Even though the lead author of this article did not actually teach the preparatory course nor travel with the MRH in 2003, the second and third authors did. Therefore, we viewed ourselves as a team of teacher researchers rather than as detached observers. We are aware of the dilemmas that arise when teachers study their own students. We stressed to our students the need for honesty in their responses and that our interest was in their interpretation of the MRH experience, not in some particular interpretation. We tried to ensure that the participants in this study did not simply tell us what they thought we wanted to hear; nevertheless, we do acknowledge the possibility of the “placebo effect,” as described by Wideen et al. (1998). Because the academic component of the trip was an elective and not critical to any participant’s degree program, we doubt that issues of grading or course performance had a significant influence on their responses.

We must also stress that we are not neutral on the subject of the Holocaust. We too have walked with the survivors and listened to their stories as we stood on the steps of Josef Mengele’s “clinic” at Auschwitz. We have entered the barracks, the gas chambers, and the crematoria. We have tasted the grit of ashes blown from the monument at Majdanek. Who could be neutral after such experiences? We have been participants, but we are also conscious of our ethical obligations as researchers. As such, we have attempted to produce a trustworthy account that is faithful to the data (Wideen et al., 1998).


Table 2 gives an overview of basic information about each of the students who participated.

Table 2. Participants in MRH, May 2003





Degree Program/ Specialization


Student A




Ed.S. Student/School Psychology

Issues of compliance During the Holocaust: Parallels to Education**

Student B




Ed.S. Student/School Psychology

Resiliency: Parallels Between the Holocaust and Schools**

Student C




B. A. Middle School Language Arts & Social Studies

Pictures and Memories of the Holocaust: A Unit for Late Elementary/Middle School Students

Silas Clay




B. A. Secondary English Education

Children of the Holocaust: A Unit of Study for High School English

Student D




M. A. Secondary Social Studies Education

Integrating Teaching About the Holocaust in U.S. and World History Courses

Student E3



African American

M. A. Secondary Business Education


Student F




M. A. Secondary Social Studies Education

Death and Destruction of Groups Other than Jews at the Hands of the Nazis

Student G




Ed.S. Student/School Psychology

Bullying: Parallels Between the Holocaust and Schools**

Student H




MS Student/Counseling Psychology

Short Story: “A Little Girl’s Journey through the Holocaust”

Penny Hall




Ed.S. Student/School Psychology

Labeling and the Holocaust: Parallels to Labeling in Special Education and the Associated Implications**

Student I




B. A. Special Education/Math

Postcards from the Holocaust: A Unit for Middle School Students

Rachel Stern




Ph.D. Student/

Counseling Psychology

Paintings and Poems: A Personal Journey through Art

Student J




Ed.S. Student/

Counseling Psychology

A Personal and Spiritual Journey Through Auschwitz***

*All names are pseudonyms. Names in italics are students selected for case studies.

** Projects presented as part of a symposium at the 2004 annual convention of the National Association of School Psychologists, Dallas, TX.

***Submitted for review to a professional journal in counseling psychology.

After reviewing, discussing, and comparing the data gathered from all 12 participants, we chose 3 students for the descriptive case studies reported here. In our choices, we were guided by Stake’s (1998) advice:

The researcher examines various interests in the phenomenon, selecting a case of some typicality, but leaning toward those cases that seem to offer opportunity to learn. My choice would be to take that case from which we feel we can learn the most…Often it is better to learn a lot from an atypical case than a little from a magnificently typical case. (p. 101)

Silas Clay, Rachel Stern, and Penny Hall each presented unique opportunities to learn.

Silas, a White male preservice English teacher who grew up in an isolated and rural part of the state, had practically no cross-cultural knowledge or experience prior to embarking on the March. Rachel, a Jewish female pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling psychology—and the only ethnic Jew in the group—grew up in an urban setting, had traveled in Europe extensively, and by participating in the March wanted to reconnect with ancestors she had lost in the Holocaust. Penny, a White female who aspired to work with students as a school psychologist, grew up in a midsized city in a southern state in a low-SES environment.

At the same time, we selected Silas, Rachel, and Penny because of their attributes in relation to the whole group with regard to gender, ethnicity, and SES. Because participants were enrolled in a variety of degree programs, we selected Silas to represent an undergraduate student in teacher education, Rachel to represent a doctoral student in counseling psychology, and Penny to represent a specialist in school psychology.

Silas, Rachel, and Penny were deeply engaged in all aspects of the trip and preparation for it. All 3 responded to the experience intensely and were especially adept at verbalizing their thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Thus, the data that these 3 participants provided were exceptionally rich.


Within the tradition of qualitative research (Huberman & Miles, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994), we agreed that case studies were the most appropriate way to represent our findings, because we were interested in the quality of the experience for individuals (Stake, 1998). We began by constructing a file for each participant and creating a display of the data contained in each file. We then read and reread all the files independently, writing notes and memos to one another and ourselves as we tentatively developed a descriptive framework to guide construction of the cases (Yin, 1989). We searched for patterns, themes, consistencies, and inconsistencies within and across cases.

The first two authors constructed the cases and exchanged them with each other for feedback. The third author, who was not involved in case construction, read and reacted to each case. Because the first author did not participate in the 2003 MRH and interacted minimally with the students during their preparation for the trip, we considered her interpretations a source of investigator triangulation (Janesick, 1998). Finally, for purposes of testimonial validity, we shared the drafts of the cases with Silas, Rachel, and Penny, asking for their feedback (Hill, Thompson, & Williams, 1997).


We present our findings in the form of case studies of 3 individuals: Silas Clay, Rachel Stern, and Penny Hall.


Silas grew up in a small town in an isolated region of the state whose residents are commonly, even if unjustly, held to be poor, ignorant, and proud of it. After graduating as valedictorian of his high school class, Silas headed for the state’s flagship institution:

When I first entered the University of XXX, I thought I was a well-rounded individual in the realm of racial understanding. I read Alex Haley’s Roots. I listened to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But when my Black roommate walked into my dorm room for the very first time, I was on the phone with my parents [sitting in the hallway so Frank couldn’t hear] asking to come home within minutes.

As a freshman in high school, Silas had first encountered the Holocaust through Schindler’s List. A movie buff, he had heard the film might win an Oscar, so he went to see for himself: “I was shocked, horrified, and felt sick that humans were capable of such actions. . . .  From that day, I needed more information to understand and to soften the confusion.” He followed up with some reading and movies but did not study the subject further until, as a college senior, he signed up to participate in the March.

Preparation for the trip began during the last semester of Silas’s undergraduate career, while he was applying to the graduate-level teacher education program he completed in May 2004. Silas, like most natives of his region, speaks with a distinctive accent, and features of Appalachian dialect characterize his speech. During this semester, he was made painfully aware of the stigma attached to his home language when he began field experiences in a local high school. Well-meaning advisors suggested his dialect would hinder his effectiveness in the English classroom. He expressed his reaction to their advice in his pretrip journal:

I felt sad that my parents had subjugated me to a culture that was stigmatized as being a shoeless, inbred, moonshining, backward culture. Why couldn’t I have grown up . . . somewhere that was not [name of hometown]. Then I became ashamed that I felt that way about my hometown. But the damage was done. A few ignorant and elitist individuals had made me question the honor of my heritage. . . .  It used to be Eden for me. It became a shattered Shangri-la. . . . Then, as I calmed and rethought my past, it is now just ‘home,’ my origin.

At the same time that he recognized the stigma attached to being Appalachian, he acknowledged the privilege attached to being a White male:

Social justice is simple: it deals with inclusion. As a White male, I have been privileged to walk a paved path through certain spheres of existence…and…I have benefited from being White and male. People do not look at me odd when I walk into a gas station at 12:00 a.m…In truth I cannot say I dislike this position…Our job is to suppress these feelings of superiority as best we can and to acknowledge we have these feelings.

Silas engaged seriously in preparation for the trip, making many connections between his learning about the Holocaust and contemporary instances of social injustice. When asked to use Raul Hilberg’s (2003) model of genocide (i.e., exclusion, expulsion, extermination) to examine other historical and contemporary examples of social injustice, Silas cited current treatment of homosexuals and the historical treatment of African Americans in the segregated South. He further observed the process at work in the local school system: “I saw in the high school [where] I observed last semester no open persecution of blacks or Latinos, but I did see signs of passive examples of Hilberg’s three-stage model.”

As a future English teacher, Silas decided to design a curricular unit around the topic “Children of the Holocaust” as his project for the MRH. He reflected on his own first reading of Night (Wiesel, 1982) as a high school student and felt that he had missed the larger meaning of the book. Now several years older, he speculated,

The instructor of this material will find a treasure trove of significant discussion questions to ask his/her students. What happens when we do not acknowledge social injustices that seem not to instantly affect us? More directly, Night is a cross-instructional book selection. English class can investigate the Holocaust through personal reflective writing, and social studies classes can investigate the implications of racism, persecutions, and pogroms…And beyond specific lessons, Elie teaches us to contemplate our own humanity, and students will understand how some suffered to bring this lesson to the world.

Silas expected the trip to Poland to deal him an “emotional blow,” and it did. He wondered how he could even “look at everyone…and tell them about it all,” but trusted that he would eventually find the words to “describe the scratch marks on the walls [of the gas chamber] at Majdanek.” Charged by the Holocaust survivors, David and Hannah, who accompanied his group, to hear their stories, then tell them to others and remember, he wrote after visiting Treblinka:

I must educate my students and show them that school is not just about information but it is about applying information in a positive manner. Then there is education of the masses. Will people from [name of hometown] want to know what I saw at Auschwitz? I don’t know. But I hope I can reach one person and help them grow as a human being.

In mid-July, Silas completed his portfolio for the trip. In his reflective statement, he described the ways in which the MRH had affected him. He stated that he had originally thought of the Holocaust in terms of facts, places, and statistics, but there were “no faces attached to the numbers.” After meeting David and hearing him tell his life story while standing on the steps of a building at Auschwitz, Silas realized, “At that moment I understood that it was important to fight for something greater than myself.” Silas stated that he had changed his focus from “Adolf Hitler and how he killed millions of people” to Hannah, who had shared her family story while sitting under a tree at Treblinka. He wrote,

I have seen too much now. I saw the scratch marks and was breathless. The pictures mean very little until you can place your own fingernails against the wall and see what hate can do to another person. When the high school teacher [Dee Queen] came to our class talking about homosexual persecution in the classroom, I felt sympathy for those students. But honestly, I would not have joined their cause. I would have been too worried about myself. But those gas stains. But those rooms of hair. But that endless track at Birkenau. How can I see that and not see the potential for a reoccurrence in my own society?

Silas soon had the opportunity to act upon his words when a friend commented about his former African American roommate:

“You know,” she said, “Frank is a good guy. He always says hello when he sees me on campus. You don’t find many Black people like that.” At first I smiled, but I decided I must say something. “Have you ever said hello to a Black person yourself? Try it sometime. You may find that they will not gun you down in the street after all.” I know it was kind of rude, but it was the first thing that came into my head.”

By August 2004, Silas had completed his teacher education program and accepted a teaching position in a local high school. In retrospect, the most significant moment of the MRH for him was walking out of Treblinka, holding hands with his group members and with the survivors who accompanied them there: “He [the survivor] said, ‘Most people did not walk out of Treblinka. We will defeat the Nazis and hatred by walking out together, as friends and human beings.’”

Silas explained how the MRH affected him and continues to influence his actions as a teacher: “I am more aware of simple forms of persecution now. I see that simple ridicule in the halls of high schools can actually cause great pain. It is only human nature to take advantage of weakness. Therefore, we need to protect the weak…so that they will not become victims.” He also makes an effort to learn about difference. As an example, he described his experience with several Mormon students in his class. These students were uncomfortable with some of the topics being discussed, so Silas went to another teacher who was Mormon and asked her to teach him about Mormonism: “We [the Mormon students and I] are finally beginning to build a relationship…and that is because I took the initiative to understand them. We are scared of the unknown, and the only way to defeat fear is to learn about it.”


Rachel grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in a small town bordering an eastern industrial city. Although at times she was teased for being different—the only Jewish student in her school—she became a successful, engaged high school student who participated in cheerleading, National Honor Society, choir, and other extracurricular activities. As an undergraduate at a major eastern university, she worked as a domestic violence counselor at a women’s shelter and spent a semester in England studying the Anglican Church and gender development. She graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in world literature, and entered the counseling psychology master’s degree program at the state’s land-grant institution. After obtaining her master’s degree, Rachel joined the Peace Corps but stayed only briefly. She came back to the area, worked in the mental health field locally, and enrolled in the counseling psychology doctoral program. She was completing her last year of coursework when she decided to participate in the MRH.

Rachel had been introduced to the Holocaust at an early age through her studies at Hebrew school. She remembered her parents watching films about the Holocaust, but that was the extent of her knowledge. She frankly admitted that she lacked knowledge of and aptitude for history. When she began the class in preparation for the trip, she “naïvely” assumed that the other participants would have much more knowledge of the Holocaust than she. Rachel stated her three most important reasons for going on the March as,

To gain a broader intellectual, spiritual, and emotional understanding regarding the effects of social injustice…Increase my own compassion toward other minority cultures that will then be more genuinely and visually conveyed to my future clients and supervisees…Reconnect with my ancestors and at least spiritually let them know they are not forgotten.

Rachel’s dialogue journal reflected her stated goals of growing intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. By the end of the preparatory course, she described how her knowledge had grown: “I have been made much more aware of righteous gentiles, postwar experiences, and other minority groups that had been persecuted.” Emotionally, she wanted to “soak in the taste, sights, touch, sounds, physical sensations throughout this process to make it even more real” and frequently used the word compassion in her writing. But Rachel was especially drawn to spiritual questions, such as “how the survivors made sense of this tragedy . . .  survivors who can get up and smile, feel joy, and have some semblance of peace in their hearts . . . how did they get there?” And in her final pretrip journal entry, she wrote, “Because this type of course brings up all sorts of existential questions, I have been motivated to seek resources regarding Buddhist philosophies of peace and reaching internal peace.”

Because students were encouraged throughout the MRH preparation and experience to apply their knowledge to their prospective professional contexts, it is not surprising that Rachel used the language of psychology in her journaling. For example, she speculated about Hitler’s “powerful nonverbal skills” that enabled him to sway so many people to his cause. She connected concepts from her study of the Holocaust to her counseling work. She wrote that she realized that she had been “a passive supporter of social injustice by a variety of nonacts. For instance, during staffing meetings, I often want to discuss the stigma related to referring to a client as ‘borderline.’ Labels take away personhood in this manner.” She speculated that revealing her own vulnerability to others might be an effective way to model a “healthy acceptance of differences.” She wrote, “I like to keep in mind that we are all on the same boat in terms of wanting happiness and to avoid suffering—even though some go about it in incredibly maladaptive ways.”

In her journal, Rachel described her struggle to speak out against social injustice. In February, she described an encounter with “a gentleman from Louisiana” in a local bar. He was looking for an after-hours nightclub, and she recommended one that she knew. He asked her whether “they run off the homosexuals after 12 p.m.” She responded, “I actually like homosexuals,” and turned away. But afterward she replayed the incident over and over in her mind, thinking she should have done more. When asked to apply Hilberg’s model of genocide, Rachel wrote at length about abortion and AIDS. She described the goal of abortion opponents as “exterminating women’s right to choose” and showed how the processes of exclusion, expulsion, and extermination applied in this case. Similarly, she illustrated how the processes were at work for AIDS victims in Africa. She was intrigued by Dee Queen’s (guest speaker described above) suggestion that “a nonrelated minority may be more effective in seed planting. That’s a good point and gave me more validation for speaking up for groups beyond my own.”

In Poland, the group visited Auschwitz on a beautiful spring Sunday. On that occasion, Rachel wrote,

I’m sitting at Auschwitz right now no more than 100 feet from the crematorium . . . . I don’t think it’s possible to completely mourn over the loss and I almost feel like my mourning is intruding on the “real” loss of the survivors. I look at David and the other survivors in utter amazement and wonder how they got out alive . . . how is it that they still carry such strength in their spirit?

She was moved by the private memorial service at the site, but once again chided herself for not speaking up: “The Jewish music—Hebrew words brought it home for me. I wish I could have said something . . . versus trying to be quiet myself—there’s a host of mixed feelings.”

Immediately after the trip, Rachel felt “weathered and heavy-hearted.” She felt she had “changed somehow on the inside,” and a long-time friend noted, “This is a different Rachel.” In July, she submitted her course portfolio, which included poetry, her personal journal, and recent reflections on the March:

This weekend I met my family on Sanibel Island for a quick Fourth of July get-together. As I was wading in the warm water I looked up on the beach and saw typical figures of bodies walking their dogs, laying out, lazily soaking up the sun-kissed environment. It seemed like out of nowhere I began to feel a sudden sense of compassion from looking at the physical forms in the distance. Beaches are one of those rare places where you see individuals without clothes camouflaging their forms . . . and this reminded me of endless naked lines heading to the gas chambers in Poland. My compassion was coming from somehow understanding in that moment how humiliating it must have been to be fully exposed in such manner. Who would have known the Florida beach would have brought that to mind?

Rachel described her progress in identifying how she could speak out against social injustice: “As a therapist, supervisor, and in daily living—personally I want to continue searching for language that can reach the supposed untouchables [people who refuse to listen to the messages they most need to hear].” She was incorporating her experiences into her therapy work. And to her “delight,” her family and friends were “incredibly interested” in her “stories.” Rachel had also decided to make the trip the topic of her dissertation.

A year later, Rachel reflected,

This trip changed my life. Any lofty goals I may have had regarding career or life in general . . . have all been touched by this experience. Now I feel like my purpose, beyond becoming a psychologist, is to educate people concerning the need for acceptance and kindness, toward themselves and others, as well as the tragic consequences of discrimination.

She described other changes:

I’ve written letters and attended more marches/rallies. In my professional life, as a therapist, I’ve had a tendency to address any “isms” that a client may belong to . . . and any discrimination that they may be experiencing . . . and how they can channel that energy into something socially positive. Furthermore, I also will challenge clients on racist statements if it fits within their treatment paradigm.

She summarized her learning from the experience with a metaphor: “We all grew up about two inches from Poland.” Although Rachel herself did not elaborate on the meaning of this statement, the authors interpreted it to mean that she understood the potential for social injustice and even genocide to occur in her own “backyard” when various “-isms” go unchallenged.


Penny grew up in an impoverished single-parent household in rural areas throughout the central part of her home state. Her family was itinerant throughout her childhood, moving from place to place in search of a better life. When she was in high school, Penny’s family settled in a large town situated midway between two metropolitan areas. Penny was keenly aware of her socioeconomic status growing up, yet found strength and resiliency in her mother and younger sister throughout this time in her life. She excelled in school and was determined to obtain a college education. After graduating from a small women’s college with a degree in psychology, Penny entered the Ed.S. program in school psychology at the state’s land-grant institution. She was just beginning her first year of graduate work when she heard about the opportunity to participate in the MRH.

Penny first learned about the Holocaust through discussions in class when she was in middle school. She recalled reading the Diary of Anne Frank while in high school, though she believed she did not actually understand at that time the story told through the book. It was only later, when Penny was in her early 20s, that the gravity of the Holocaust took root for her. She watched a made-for-TV movie based on the Anne Frank diary and recounted being moved by the scenes depicting the characters of Anne and her sister in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: “It hurt my heart and it was like I had swallowed some noxious substance . . . I  didn’t get the whole big picture in that moment, but I GOT IT. My eyes were opened and my mind holds that image I cannot erase. That image is my image of the Holocaust.”

Despite these learning experiences, Penny acknowledged just how limited her knowledge of the Holocaust was going into the preparatory phase of the March. She indicated she had little or no knowledge about the events that led to the Holocaust, why Jews were targeted, or what World War II was about. Penny identified her impetus for participating in the MRH as threefold: to learn everything she could about the Holocaust; to incorporate what she learned into her own identity; and to apply what she learned in her future work in school psychology, especially as related to fairness, equity, and stereotypes.

Penny found personal connections to the Holocaust in some of the earliest materials that she reviewed in preparation for the trip, namely, her firsthand experiences with poverty and her emerging professional identity as a school psychologist. In her reading of the book Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust (Meltzer, 1991), she learned of the severe economic conditions in Germany following World War I, relating to the effects of poverty and what it does to people:

One instance of social injustice that touched my life was when I was younger and my family was struggling financially . . .  I really believe poverty is a social injustice. I know this issue keeps coming up for me but it locks people out, keeps people down, it kills people, segregates people, it’s a cycle, and I don’t feel we do enough to save the lives of people who are different only in circumstance.

From a professional perspective, Penny was

struck by reading about Hitler’s educational experiences. As a future school psychologist . . . I wonder if Hitler had been helped early [early intervention to help him in his courses, or setting goals for staying in school], how the world would be different? I asked myself this question because I have learned many children who face challenges may require assistance and support to prevent a future that may lead to incarceration, criminal activity, and other undesirable outcomes. I, even after signing up for this experience, had no idea how closely I could apply these events in my life or to my future. I believe both [poverty and early intervention] are areas I would really like to explore and not only broaden my awareness, but also find ways I can directly impact these issues.

Penny went on to write about how she had already addressed overcoming the effects of poverty in her own life through acquiring an education and using this power in creating more opportunities for others living below the poverty level or experiencing other types of social injustice.

As the semester progressed, Penny’s writings reflected her attempts to recognize and apply what she was learning about the Holocaust to issues of social injustice in the United States. Penny applied Hilberg’s model of genocide to the historical and current treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, and persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). For example, she argued that denying members of the LGBT community legal rights (e.g., marriage) was a form of what Hilberg called identification and separation:

“For lesbians and gay males, I know there is exclusion from certain legal rights like marriage and spousal insurance. I think they [individuals who self-identify as LGBT] are ‘marked’ by certain types of dress, language, and other characteristics.”

Penny went on to apply the Hilberg model to the then newly commenced U.S.-led war in Iraq:

The war in Iraq is, in my opinion, genocide. It can be construed that America is engaging in the exile, alienation, and extermination of Muslims, in particular, based on actions against Palestinians, Afghanis, and non-Iraqis . . . I am ashamed of the actions taken by my country. Support for the war has split our nation and it seems as though the lessons from the past have fallen to the wayside . . . I have not been touched or directly affected by any war, yet I’ve never felt so deeply wounded.

Penny’s personal connections to the Holocaust became all the more salient in Poland. Upon her return to the United States, she wrote,

The most meaningful experience during this course was actually the experience that took place in Poland, in the concentration camps. Although I don’t have an assignment to reflect that experience, I felt I should share some of my thoughts. As I walked through the camps I heard what I wrote in my journal, I heard the voices from the books that I read, and I heard the stories of survivors. I felt this experience in every sense of the word. All of my learning and my emotions aligned to make this experience my own. It cannot be unlearned, disregarded, or diminished. I can now see social injustice, I can feel it, and now I can do something about it.

A year later, Penny recounted how she had changed as a result of participating in the MRH: “Previously, I could not conceive of six million people being tortured and murdered, but I also couldn’t conceive the grim reality for just one person. I learned about the experience of individuals and these had a great influence on my perception of the Holocaust.” Penny’s connection to the survivor assigned to our contingent proved particularly meaningful: “David told me that my grandchildren would not have the opportunity to hear the story of a survivor . . . The most important memories from my trip are of David; and I have become a vessel for his memories.

Despite these memories, Penny had found it difficult to synthesize and integrate the experience into her personal and professional lives.

For the first six months I was traumatized . . . I felt a tremendous unsettling feeling that compelled me to do something. The problem was I did not know what to do. . . . After finding no outlet for my emotions and no way to identify something to do, I eventually resolved myself to a state of wanting to forget the experience so that it would heal.

Penny discussed these feelings with another student who had been on the trip and learned that she had recently been tattooed as a way to process her experience. Penny did not want a tattoo; in fact, she indicated she did not even like tattoos. But she decided she needed one as a permanent reminder of what she had seen and what she had learned. Her tattoo incorporates the Hebrew symbols signifying serenity, courage, and wisdom.

Professionally, Penny has applied lessons learned from the Holocaust in working with students in the here and now. She has delved into the professional literature in school psychology and special education in an effort to learn more about the effects of labeling students in special education, using Hilberg’s model as her guiding theory. She has presented her work in this area at a national conference and is currently evaluating the disciplinary data for students in her district of employment according to students’ special education label and race, the results of which will be shared with principals in the district in the near future. “The difference between school psychologists who have not taken this trip and me is that I know what happens when we don’t react to social injustice . . . I cannot change what took place during the Holocaust, but I can be involved with helping this group of students.”


If the goal of multicultural education is to facilitate changes in future education professionals’ knowledge, beliefs, and actions, then it is important to take note of the aspects of the MRH experience that so affected Silas, Rachel, and Penny. Next we will discuss how the preparation for the experience and the experience itself worked together to set these 3 participants on the path to becoming “upstanders” against social injustice rather than “bystanders” to it.

First, the preparation for the trip reflected “best practices” in multicultural education by providing multiple paths to knowledge about the Holocaust and offering multiple invitations for students to make personal connections to the Holocaust and to social justice issues. Silas, for example, found his personal connection through his Appalachian cultural heritage and dialect. Rachel found hers through her gender and ethnicity. Penny found hers through her experiences growing up in poverty.

Study of the Holocaust, especially of Hilberg’s model of genocide, enabled Silas, Rachel, and Penny to identify social injustices in a variety of settings. Although proponents of the uniqueness of the Holocaust may take issue with the fact that we encouraged students to apply Hilberg’s model to other historical and contemporary settings, our goal as instructors and trip leaders was to stress connections and application of the lessons of the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, some Holocaust scholars will find Silas’s application of Hilberg’s model to high school hallways inappropriate, but we as multicultural teacher educators applaud his ability to use the model to critique the status quo (Cochran-Smith, 2004). Likewise, Rachel’s understanding of Hilberg’s model of genocide informed her encounter with the “gentleman from Louisiana” in a bar and gave her the courage to stand up to his homophobia rather than keep silent. It was Hilberg’s model that enabled Penny to see potential danger of labeling to special education students and to conduct action research in that area (for a thorough exploration of how social justice issues relate to special education, see Sapon-Shevin & Zollers, 1999). Like most learners, Penny erred along the way in her quest to understand what can defensibly be called “genocide.” Few would agree with her characterization of the ongoing war in Iraq as such. Yet, it must be remembered that she wrote this in her journal—a vessel for the exploration of ideas—and that risk-taking and error are the hallmarks of authentic learning.

As Power (2004) has noted, the first-person testimony of upstanders against social injustice is valuable in encouraging others to speak out. That Dee Queen, the teacher who shared her struggles to support the LGBT students in her school, affected Silas, Rachel, and Penny is evident in their cases. Ultimately, Silas made the connection between Auschwitz and Dee Queen’s students (“How can I see that and not see the potential for a reoccurrence in my own society?”). Dee Queen proved to Rachel and Penny that one can stand up against social injustice, even if one, like the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, is not a member of the persecuted group.

Silas, Rachel, and Penny were encouraged to connect the MRH experience to their respective disciplines and professional goals. Silas designed a curriculum unit for high school English classes. As he pondered his topic, “Children of the Holocaust,” over the course of the semester, his understanding of the Holocaust evolved from a focus on Hitler and the incomprehensibly large number of people he killed to a commitment to pass on the stories of David and Hannah, the survivors he had met in Poland. Rachel too was drawn to the survivors, but her quest was to understand the psychological and spiritual resources that enabled them to transcend the tragedy they had experienced. Penny questioned how the world might be different if a school psychologist had intervened in the young Hitler’s life.

Although the academic preparation was critical to their understanding of the Holocaust, the authentic experience of the MRH had the greatest impact on these students’ thinking about diversity and their willingness to take action against social injustice. Once they had actually touched the scratch marks on the walls of gas chambers, walked through the crematoria, and viewed the mountains of rotting hair and shoes in the death camps, genocide was no longer theoretical. By their own accounts, seeing, touching, and hearing the stories of David, Hannah, and the other survivors in these grim settings were the most important moments of the MRH. So compelling was the physical experience of the trip that months later, bikini-clad bodies on a Florida beach brought to Rachel’s mind images of naked Jews being herded to the gas chambers. Penny actually incorporated the experience into her body via a tattoo. Silas, Rachel, and Penny all agreed that confronting the evidence of the genocide and hearing the testimony of survivors were key to enabling them to take action in the face of social injustice: to confront cruelty in high school hallways, to reach out to students whose religious beliefs are alien to them, to bring racism and other -isms into the therapeutic dialogue, and to advocate for the rights of special education students.

In their review of the literature on teacher education for diversity, Zeichner and Hoeft (1996) noted that many studies have found that traditional approaches to multicultural education have minimal long-term impact. By contrast, the effects of the MRH took time to process and, as of this writing, have not faded over time. Rachel, for example, felt devastated immediately after the trip and could barely discuss it. A year later, however, she spoke freely of both her personal and professional activism. Student G (see Table 2) now teaches English in Japan. The second author e-mailed her in August 2005 immediately after the severe earthquake in northeastern Japan. After assuring him of her safety, she wrote, “I was going to e-mail you about the news from Gaza. Hearing about it on the radio and reading the newspaper reminded me of our studies of the Holocaust. I feel terrible for those affected and wonder if the Jewish people will ever find peace and acceptance” (personal communication, August 22, 2005).

Although only tangentially related to the present analysis, issues in K–12 Holocaust education deserve further attention.. Silas, Rachel, and Penny brought little formal knowledge of the Holocaust to the MRH experience. This fact has led us to wonder how, when, and why the Holocaust is taught in K–12 schooling. If the status of our students’ knowledge is at all representative of that of the larger teaching population, then it seems at the very least that teachers who are required to or choose to teach about the Holocaust need in-depth knowledge of this difficult subject if they are to teach it well. Otherwise, as one of the authors has witnessed, a “Holocaust unit” can become the occasion for such well-intentioned but educationally questionable activities as role-playing Nazi/Jew power relations or calculating how many bodies will fit in a railroad boxcar. When all Jews are represented as victims, all Holocaust victims represented as Jews, all Germans as Nazis, and all Nazis as satanic, it is all too easy for students to pity the Jews and blame the Nazis, while empathizing with neither group. Certainly, these are not the goals of Holocaust education.

This study had limitations that are important to note. First, the 3 participants described here were all mature, highly motivated students who volunteered for the experience. They were committed to getting the most out of the MRH. Not all 12 students who went on this trip were quite so conscientious. This was, after all, a virtually free trip abroad, and a few students may have seen it as just that. Student F, for example, demonstrated little commitment to the pretrip preparation and scant inclination to engage with the group on the trip. In his final reflection, he wrote somewhat nebulously, “ I really don’t know how I feel; however, I didn’t expect anything. I know that somehow this trip will reinforce all the reasons for me to be a better person. However, I have no vision or directions at this point.” At the same time, our decision to feature Silas, Rachel, and Penny precluded us from showing the impact of the MRH on participants like Student J, who also responded extensively and eloquently to the MRH experience. For example, students on the trip complained bitterly and incessantly about the quality of the box lunches provided by the MRH. Finally, as he was walking out of Auschwitz and anticipating lunch, Student J realized,

How quickly I thought about my own hunger. But I felt that I must also eat as way to honor those who died. For it says to me to remain strong and healthy so that I may live to tell the story of what happened at Auschwitz. I have food in plenty. What right do I have to complain about how it tastes?

This study has implications for the teacher educators and others who are committed to teaching about diversity and social justice. Hattie et al. (1997) noted the role of setting and instructional processes in “out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference” (p. 43). The adventure education programs that they reviewed all involved “being away from typical surroundings.” The instructional processes that made a difference to outcomes in these programs included “challenge, risk taking, feedback, mutual group support.” They concluded, “The teachers of in-class educational experiences may learn much from noting the effectiveness of these factors in out-of-class experiences such as adventure programs” (pp. 76–77). Although the MRH is hardly an adventure education program, it is an authentic experience. As Silas told us recently, college educators “need to find alternative routes to creating socially responsible educators. A short discussion in class . . . is not enough.” We cannot say precisely what those alternative routes might be, for each community has unique resources that could be tapped: opportunities to work with oppressed or marginalized groups, social activists, genocide survivors, upstanders against genocide. Although placement in school settings has been the traditional experience linked to the study of the social inequities of schooling, it is possible that placement in other settings might be just as educable, if not more so. For example, many preservice teachers participate in service learning programs in addition to completing required coursework in multicultural education. Teacher educators might consider offering carefully designed service learning activities to enhance or even take the place of in-class work. We can imagine preservice teachers observing and assisting in a number of settings that offer authentic experience with marginalized groups: social welfare agencies, hospital emergency rooms, juvenile detention centers, long-term care facilities for the elderly, and after-school community programs.

A number of multicultural education courses and texts with which we are familiar take a survey approach to the experiences of various oppressed groups in this country. This study has suggested that it may be just as effective to focus on a single case (as does “Facing History and Ourselves”) with ample opportunity for students to reflect, connect, and extend their understanding through personal histories, academic preparation, and professional aspirations. In the realm of teacher education for diversity, this was a relatively long-term study. It is important that we trace the impact of education for diversity over time and not simply measure it with pretests and posttests. Finally, personal encounters with witnesses, survivors, resisters, and rescuers of all sorts seem to be key to provoking individuals to take action in the cause of social justice. As Samantha Power (2003) stated, “We have all been bystanders to genocide” (p. xvi). When we can provide experiences that enable students like Rachel to realize that “we all grew up about two inches from Poland,” we will be well on our way to educating citizens who have the knowledge and skills to stand up to oppression rather than stand by.


Reading List of Independent Study Course

Browning, C. (1993). Ordinary men: Police battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial.

Meltzer, M. (1991). Never to forget: The Jews of the Holocaust. New York: HarperCollins.

Opdyke, I. G. (2001). In my hands: Memories of a Holocaust rescuer. New York: Anchor Books.

Warner, P. (1988). World War Two: The untold story. London: Cassell & Co.

Wiesel, E. (1982). Night. New York: Bantam Books.


1 See

2 See

3 This individual did not participate in the MRH because on the day of departure, she could not find her passport. She did not submit a proposal for nor complete a project as required by the pretrip curriculum.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 6, 2007, p. 1423-1456 ID Number: 13136, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:07:57 PM

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