Friday, April 24, 2015

Could the U.S. Government Have Done Something to Stop, or at Least Minimize, the Holocaust?

The topic for today's blogpost dates way back to one of the first lessons I did as a student teacher. It was in a unit on the Holocaust in a World History class. My cooperating teacher had given me a worksheet passed down to him in which students ascribed responsibility to different individuals. I decided to put my own twist on it and added a few individuals, namely President Roosevelt. I had recently read something about how F.D.R. could have bombed the train tracks leading to Auschwitz and in my simplistic understanding of history, I thought wow, he could have saved so many and didn't! Guilty!

There were a few students in the class who agreed with me (though I didn't share my personal views) but most were either baffled or appalled that anyone would suggest the U.S. bore ANY responsibility for what had happened to the Jews of Europe.

I have taught this lesson many times since. And as my understanding of the nuances of history have developed, so has the lesson, as well as my personal understanding of what Roosevelt could and could not have done. Here is the most current version of the handout I give students. It never fails to generate heated discussions (unless they all agree with each other, which would be highly unusual). I don't--for the record--usually use this in a U.S. history class. I feel it belongs in a more complete unit on the Holocaust. (But if you want to use it--in whatever class you teach--the second page has some discussion questions you can use. And the US Holocaust Museum has a similar lesson but on Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.)

If you are teaching U.S. history in high school, it is likely that your colleagues in world history are teaching the Holocaust, and I think the lesson above and the topic overall fits better in that curriculum than in U.S. history. But many middle schools add the Holocaust into their curriculum even if world history is not taught. (So if you are looking for more materials for teaching the Holocaust in general, scroll down to the end of the post; keep reading for the U.S. history idea).

But I don't like to ignore the Holocaust in the U.S. history curriculum, and I think the lesson I will describe below is a good way to incorporate it.

After years of using the above lesson, I finally decided that it was high time that I put a little more research into the question of whether F.D.R. really could have done more to save the Jews. And if not, what were the obstacles? It seemed kind of irresponsible for me to imply they were responsible without knowing more about it. And my students really wanted to know more. There are a number of books on the subject. I will list a few at the end of this post.

During the war and depression years,  Roosevelt was enormously popular among American Jews. It was joked by some that there were three worlds or "velts" (the Yiddish word for world): this velt, the velt to come, and Roosevelt. So worshiped was Roosevelt by Jewish Americans for all he did during the depression and the visibility of Jews in his administration. But he and Eleanor also grew up with some of the anti-semitism that was common to their time and their social class. As president, he appointed many Jews to positions of power, most notably Henry Morgenthau, Jr. as his Secretary of the Treasury. But the U.S. State Department--which oversaw immigration to the U.S.--was noted for anti-semitism. And this would play a significant role in events to come.

So the lesson that I developed on this topic is described below, and you can find the whole thing here. Essentially, it takes the complex "answer" to the question implied in this post's title and turns it into an inquiry-style activity for students. They read the info on a bunch of cards and put them into categories that help answer the question. (Note: I have used presented this technique in some of my teaching presentations. You can find another application of the technique applied to the topic of the Cold War under the tab at the top, "Teacher Presentations"). It is an approach that can be applied to many topics, though I warn you it requires a significant investment of time, and is best done for a topic that you know a lot about or are willing to put in some research time. On the positive side, depending on the topic, it can serve as a lesson that lasts several days up to a week, so the time would be well spent. To see the technique in a nutshell, click here. It will meet at least a few Common Core Standards, too.)

One of the key essential questions or "big ideas" that the Holocaust lesson addresses is the problem of presentism: we know today that 6 million Jews and 5 million others will die under Hitler's reign, but at the time, that was not known. (And by "known" I don't mean that people didn't know anything, as is sometimes claimed, but they certainly didn't know all that we know.) Also, a concept described well by Bruce Lesh is the problem of "historical empathy." If we look at the decisions Roosevelt and Congress made regarding the Jews in Europe in isolation, it may strike us, "Hey, why couldn't they have at least let Jewish refugees into the country?" But we have to balance that with everything else at the time: opposition to other legislation, the lingering depression, anti-immigrant sentiment in general and anti-semitism in particular. and--after Pearl Harbor--the larger U.S. war effort.

Jewish refugees on board the St. Louis, docked at Cuba.
More info about the voyage of the St. Louis here.
If you want to extend this lesson, you can show a clip from the PBS film, America and the Holocaust. The film goes over some historical overview about the St. Louis, the immigration crisis and U.S. policy while juxtaposing it with the story of one particular family: the story of Kurt Klein who manages to leave Nazi Germany with his brother, but his parents are left behind. I don't show the whole thing. I use the first 20-30 minutes or so, up until the narrator Kurt Klein stops hearing from his parents. The students always want to know what happened to them, so I fill that in for them. As well as the great story about his personal life--he goes on to fight as a U.S. soldier and at the end of the war, meets a survivor of the Holocaust, Gerda Weissman, who he eventually marries. There is a highly regarded HBO documentary about her experiences called One Survivor Remembers.

And for more info on the topic of the U.S. and its role in the Holocaust, the US Holocaust Museum has a whole section on the United States, as does the David S. Wyman Institute. These are both excellent sources which you can use for background or to create or find additional lessons.

The books about U.S. and the Holocaust: 

Rather than include the links to Amazon like I usually do, I'm linking to reviews about the books so you can get the gist of them. I warn you, though, reading some of these books or even just the reviews (maybe especially the reviews!) will make you realize how difficult it is to find "the answer" in history. Perhaps that is exactly the point we want students to learn.

Additional More Comprehensive Holocaust Resources for Planning an Entire Unit:

While this post is mostly limited to how to teach one aspect of the Holocaust as it applies to U.S. history classes, I can recommend a few other sources if you are teaching a larger unit on the Holocaust. The most obvious is the one you probably all know: the United States Holocaust Museum. It is one of the most comprehensive museum websites I have ever seen, and you can probably find everything you need to create a full unit. Start with the resources for educators. And do check out their guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust which are also very useful suggestions for teaching about other sensitive or disturbing topics. Another outstanding resource, less known among American teachers is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. They also have substantial online resources for teachers. And if you are in the Chicago area--but also has online resources--do check out the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.

I also highly recommend this Teaching the Holocaust, an outstanding resource for teachers by Simone Schweber and Debbie Findling.  It has fantastic lesson ideas, and excellent suggestions for resources such as film clips and readings. The only downside is that not widely available and on the pricey side. ($33 on Amazon, but if you devote any significant time to the teaching of the Holocaust, I can vouch that it is money well spent.) You can read a sample of it here.

There are also SO many films about the Holocaust it can be hard to know what to choose.  One of my all-time favorites is I'm Still Here, produced by MTV. It has famous actors and actresses reading diary entries of young people. I have used it with 9th graders with great success. I think it would be good for 8th graders, too. Seventh grade, maybe a few clips. And it definitely works well up through 12th grade. What I love about it is that it describes the Holocaust from the perspective of teenagers and therefore it really resonates with kids. I have cut the excerpt from the anonymous diarist when I show it because one, that way you can better fit it into a class period and have time for discussion and two, that scene has especially graphic footage which I find inappropriate for younger students. If your school cannot borrow it from another library or purchase it (it's available for $15 on Amazon), then try your public library. I have also seen it fully downloaded on youtube, but I have some copyright issues with that, not to mention you may run into streaming problems. Facing History has a study guide for teachers (as well as lots of other Holocaust resources) you can use, too.

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