Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Reminder

A subject that I have a difficult time teaching is The Holocaust. In fifteen years of teaching history, I don't think I have committed a whole lesson to it. In part, I have a hard time teaching it because I sense some degree of morbid fascination on the part of learners approaching it . . . and the fascination makes me uneasy. Moreover, I avoid teaching it because of an experience I had learning about it in college. My History Methods professor used the topic of the Holocaust to introduce us to some novel ways of doing history: we read a little-known first-hand account (When Memory Comes), watched several segments of Shoah, and read Maus I and Maus II. The power of the latter two of those works remains with me still, and I left those classes feeling as if I had learned the era so deeply that I couldn't do further study of it more justice. 

Today was the first time in years that something on the Holocaust moved me as much as those sessions of History 300 back in 1996. A colleague at my school hosted a Jewish War Veterans group and invited classes to attend. One of the featured speakers was a Holocaust survivor, an 81-year-old man who hid in several spots in Belgium and France during the war years  (he's pictured with the war veterans and with my colleague who made the event possible). 

He ended his presentation with the powerful tale of how he had learned of his father's fate. A chance encounter at the National Holocaust Museum pointed him to a book where he learned of his father's passage to Auschwitz. From that book, he went to another which inventoried the day-to-day events at that camp, and it was there that he received confirmation his father had been murdered at that camp. 

That guest's tale of how the diligent work of historians allowed him to learn for certain the fate of the father, from whom he was separated at the age of 10, reminds me of the purpose historians have. I shy away from contact with the history of that great evil which was The Final Solution. In some ways, I don't have the stomach to look more at the soulless slaughter of six million. Thankfully, an army of historians have done the arduous and profoundly sad work of cataloging and triangulating the evidence of that evil. 

Until today I have not had much interest in visiting the National Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. Now I do. Our guest, Mr. Goldstein, spoke of the Wall of the Righteous that is there, which I think I now have to see. I'm ready. 

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