Daniel Shaner is a middle school English teacher at Harrison Middle School in Pittsburgh's Baldwin-Whitehall School District.
During July 2019, I participated in the Advanced Summer Teachers’ Institute that was sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. There were four other teachers in attendance, and we learned through our discussion that each of us had been asked, at least once, if we taught the Holocaust because we were Jewish. None of us were Jewish. My simple answer has always been somewhat glib—that I teach the Holocaust because I am human, and it is a deeply human story.
I live and teach just outside of Pittsburgh, and my school is less than 12 miles from the scene of the Tree of Life massacre, so glib answers are no longer permissible. More importantly, I teach in the district where that day’s shooter lived as a child.
October 27, 2018 was a wake-up call, but perhaps it should not have been. The Holocaust did not become relevant that day. Ideally, we were already prepared and teaching the Holocaust. No one could have predicted what happened that day, but, by understanding the lessons of the Holocaust—that hate can only be stopped by people standing against it, that each of us has the power to make a difference, and that we all have a duty to each other—we are better prepared to survive the perils of the modern world, and so are our students.
Our pain was real and the way that all of Pittsburgh rallied together was beautiful, but we should not need painful experiences to bring us together. Americans, probably all people, do really well when the light of the world is on us. We respond in amazing and moving ways. How much better would we be if we were like that every day? What could we accomplish in that world? More importantly, why isn’t that the central goal of our education system?
So why do I teach the Holocaust? Because empathy is more important than comma rules. Because preparing my students for the future includes doing my best to make sure that there is a future for them. Because repeating “never again” means nothing if we do not provide the tools necessary to recognize and stop hate.
I have decided that empathy must now be the cornerstone of my teaching. It fits so well with my middle school English language arts curriculum. Every narrative we teach is centered on human beings learning to interact with other human beings. That is the core of empathy—learning to see that others’ feelings are as legitimate as our own. That is a foreign concept to young teens, but it is central to almost all great literature. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a staple even with its flaws, at least partially due to Atticus Finch’s advice that “You never really understand a person . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
My students are now 13 or 14 years old. They have grown up in a world that is increasingly nationalistic, racist and anti-Semitic. The news that confronts them is bleak, and it is easy for them to give up hope in the future. The Holocaust—not one monolithic story of millions lost, but millions of stories of individuals struggling, fighting, and often losing, but never giving up—is evidence of the power of hope. I can show them the novel “Night,” when young Elie Wiesel enters Auschwitz and sees men giving up. He abandons his own God, but returns to that God within minutes and finds a way to go on. That is strength and that is hope, and that is what every teen needs to see.
Engaging in meaningful discussions
Holocaust education provides my students with the tools they will need to avoid falling into the traps that hate spreads. They encounter hate through various media outlets and in chats on the games they play. Tree of Life was a perfect example of hate learned and perfected on internet chat rooms. My students see adults deny that the Holocaust even occurred. I can counter this with evidence of human strength, with people who loved enough to give up everything to save others, with U.S. generals and presidents who witnessed terror, and, hopefully, for a few more years, a chance to meet and learn from survivors, some of our most precious resources.
For teachers who are new to teaching the Holocaust as well as those you have been doing so for years, Echoes & Reflections provides free Holocaust education programs and guidance. Its training and resources are readily available and are paramount to effective instruction of this daunting topic. Thanks to Echoes & Reflections, I can confidently engage my students in meaningful discussions on the complex themes of the Holocaust. With that experience, I am better prepared to help the next generation understand its lasting effect on the world
I do teach the Holocaust because I am human. It is a human story, and it is the right thing to do. I owe my students and my grandchildren a world that is worthy of their lives. I can help them find that world by showing them what we have been at our darkest, and what we did to escape that pain. Martin Luther King Jr. told us that, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” By teaching the Holocaust, I can help my students become that light, and, in that way, allow them the chance to achieve “never again.”