History and Memory: Reflections on Teaching the Holocaust

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When people think of history, particularly about an event such as the Holocaust, they think in terms of visual images. As a history instructor who focuses upon 20th Century World History I have found the use of motion pictures, both documentary and feature films, my most essential classroom resource. So much of that history has been captured on film that people can experience crucial events for themselves. Those recorded events become shared historical memory and an integral part of their lives. Quality instruction must capitalize on both the cognitive (rational) and affective (emotional) aspects of students. Students need to make an emotional connection with the factual material being studied. And they do not get that from reading dry boring accounts of events from state-mandated texts, sapped of the richness of narrative and vision. Films provide that context.

Each year my students view over eighty films, twenty-five on World War II alone. As their teacher I act as Socratic guide and facilitator. On each film they take notes, and from their notes compose an evaluative essay. In addition, we go through an Amazon rain forest of accompanying primary and secondary documents. While there are many exceptional films available, I want to focus upon the seven key films I believe essential to understanding the Holocaust.

Selling Murder:  The Killing Films of the Third Reich. The Discovery Channel, 1993.  Excellent documentary on the National Socialists’ Aktion T4 euthanasia program as precursor to the Holocaust.

The Nazis’ Secret Killing Squads. A & E Documentary, Bill Kurtis Investigative Reports, 1999. Focuses upon the Einsatzgruppen (special action groups) and their SS leadership’s prosecution at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal by the heroic Benjamin Ferencz.

Memory of the Camps. PBS Frontline series. This is the most important film you will ever see. Filmed by British, American, and Soviet forces in 1945 as the Nazi concentration and death camps were liberated. This lost film was reconstructed and first shown on PBS in May 1985. The searing graphic images are horrific. The wry ironic narration by the late Trevor Howard perfectly magnifies this horror.

One Survivor Remembers. The powerful and moving 1995 Academy Award-winning documentary on Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. After showing the film to my students for over a decade I had the opportunity to meet the courageous Ms. Klein, one of the high points of my life. In 2010 she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference. PBS American Experience series, 1994. Exceptional documentary on how American anti-Semitism, combined with callous indifference to the fate of European refugees, led to the conscious deliberate decision of the American and British governments not to attempt rescue of European Jewry until very late in the war. Also focuses upon the tragic story of Kurt Klein and his family. He was the liberator (and later husband) of Gerda Weissmann Klein, featured in One Survivor Remembers.

Josef Mengele:  Medical Madman of Auschwitz. A & E Biography series, 2000. The infamous ‘angel of death’ as the personification of Nazi evil.

Schindler’s List. This 1993 Academy Award-winning story of redemption and rescue is my favorite movie. After viewing it for the first time, with the essential background knowledge and context provided by the previous films above, Schindler’s List becomes the favorite of many of my students as reflected in their heart-felt evaluative essays.

12:46 am on June 30, 2011