Learning about the Holocaust — the atrocities, as well as the events that preceded it — can instill important lessons on civic engagement, human rights, antisemitism and xenophobia, but how do instructors make the coursework meaningful to their students, beyond just learning the facts?
For Gerald Steinacher and Ari Kohen, the question is personal, as Steinacher grew up in a post-World War II Austria near a former concentration camp, and Kohen is the descendant of Holocaust survivors. To help answer it, the two University of Nebraska–Lincoln scholars launched a five-year study, gathering data from Steinacher’s History of the Holocaust course, which he teaches each year to 120-150 students.
“My course (on the history of the Holocaust) is always evolving, and it became particularly pressing to answer this question in recent years, with the strong increase in antisemitism, xenophobia and racism. What can we do to make history more meaningful for the present, and what can we learn from history to strengthen empathy and truth? How can we find ways to fight back against antisemitism and other falsehoods?”
Utilizing more than 1,000 student pre- and post-class surveys, interviews and evaluations from 2013 to 2018, the researchers found that overall, personal narratives from those persecuted — specifically books and oral histories — made the most lasting impression on students.
“There is speculation that personal identification (with others) was an important hallmark of heroism during the Holocaust, and I started questioning how we could use this notion of personal identification to affect change, to care enough to take action,” Kohen, Schlesinger Professor of Social Justice and director of the Harris Center of Judaic Studies, said. “I started looking at curriculum materials and how people were teaching these topics, and whether we were teaching the Holocaust in a way that stimulated students to care about what they were learning.”
With the findings, Steinacher has grown his course syllabus to include more personal narrative books, including Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” and “The Sunflower” by Simon Wiesenthal, a visit to a Holocaust memorial, guest speakers with first-hand knowledge and video interviews with survivors.
“At the end of the day, it is about empathy,” Steinacher said. “What kind of materials really click with students, so they can relate, and say, ‘this was really horrible and how was it possible?’ We want to teach them the factual knowledge, but also establish empathy and meaning in their lives now.”
Kohen and Steinacher also are actively disseminating what they’ve learned. With a generous donation from the Sommerhauser family, Kohen and Steinacher have published chapters in books on genocide education, launched a book series with the University of Nebraska Press on teaching the Holocaust, and host workshops every other year for educators and the general public on different aspects of Holocaust education.
“It’s so important to educate a wider audience,” Steinacher said. “I always felt it was my obligation to be a public historian and get our research, our knowledge, out there.
“And we want to work with teachers, who are so extremely important as people who can distribute the information to the next generation.”
Their research has become even more significant as recent studies have shown younger generations lack knowledge about the Holocaust and most other genocides. Specifically, a nationwide survey suggested that 1 in 10 can’t recall the Holocaust ever being mentioned, and 63% didn’t know the basic fact that 6 million Jews were murdered.
“Holocaust education is not systematized in the United States, so depending on where you are from, you might learn about it or you might not — it’s a roll of the dice,” Kohen said. “This is one area where we can improve. We’re specifically trying to bring as many high school teachers as we can to the table.”