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High Tech Holocaust Education

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.
WAYNE, NJ

"About five years ago we had a conference on media in another part of the state, and we went out and tried to find materials." reported Dr. Paul Winkler, Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. "There were no CD-ROMs, there were a few videos, some transparencies...there were very few things. Fifteen, eighteen, twenty years ago the materials that we used were printed in the back room... No professional companies would even publish something about the Holocaust and genocide, not even about prejudice and bigotry and bias. Today I receive materials almost every day, whether it be a book, or a CD-ROM or a video."

Winkler reviewed the state of Holocaust resources at the conference "Teaching About the Holocaust and Genocide Through Film, Video and CD-ROMs", held here on May 7 at William Paterson University. More than forty educators from New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C. , Pennsylvania and Virginia attended the all day conference, which included a panel discussion on "Documenting the Holocaust", breakout sessions on the "Use of Videos for Teaching Genocide and Holocaust", and a hands-on introduction to three new Holocaust CD-ROMs.

The ready access to video has opened up a veritable vault of opportunity for teachers who are mandated by the state of New Jersey to teach the Holocaust and related topics in K-12. Elementary teachers had the opportunity to view and discuss films on prejudice reduction, some in cartoon format, for the younger grades. Middle and High school teachers sampled more graphic presentations related to the Holocaust itself, such as: Judgement at Nuremberg, Shoah, Night and Fog and The Wannsee Conference.

"In our district we want documentation. We very rarely use a docudrama." Explained Dr. Robert Cornish, District Supervisor in Social Studies at Ramsey High School. He explained how docudramas can present a problem when used to teach history. "Recreations eventually become known as the original," he cautioned. While films such as Schindler's List are important in bringing that period to life for general audiences, Cornish feels strongly that documentation using original footage or interviews of survivors are much more valuable because of their authenticity. After all, with a documentary, you do not have to explain which part is true and which is a story.

Dr. Michael Taub, Holocaust Education Director of Solomon Schechter School in West Orange, pointed out, on the other hand, that the television miniseries "Holocaust", and other docudramas like it have the greatest impact on the public.

"High school juniors and seniors are sophisticated enough to know the difference between fact and fiction," Taub maintained. He explained that by presenting the events in a dramatic way, it makes it possible for children to see the motivations of the perpetrators. "The docudrama on the Wannsee Conference explains how the German mind...how well-educated people, could do such atrocities. It shows that the monster, Eichmann, who is responsible for the execution of half a million Hungarians was a real person."

"Hollywood pictures run tremendous risks, even with a picture like Schindler's List," argued Philip Hobel, documentarian and producer of Diamonds in the Snow. "If you have original material available, I don't think that there's anything stronger."

Of his experiences in producing Holocaust documentaries, Hobel explained, "We look for people who are survivors, people who have a connection...it comes out of the gut and it gets on the screen." Diamonds in the Snow tells the story of three women who spent their childhoods hiding from the Nazis. They were among the few children who survived from the thousands of Jewish children in Bendzin, Poland.

"I think that children react more strongly to survivors than to the ovens [in the concentration camps]," Hobel reflected. "I don't see how viewing the ovens could be an introduction to the Holocaust in a classroom."

Dr. Mary Johnson, author of Facing History and Ourselves: A Resource Book, emphasized the importance of good judgement in selecting age-appropriate materials for use in the classroom. She recalled how "a woman once told me I never wanted to talk or think about the Holocaust again, because in third grade they showed us Night and Fog'". Night and Fog, one of the original Holocaust documentaries, produced in 1955, contains graphic and vivid footage of concentrations camps, including mass graves and crematoria.

"It's better to show students human behavior aspects [such as] how did people get to that point?" Johnson continued. "How do people become so insensitive to others?"

If you do show a portion of Night and Fog or the nine-hour documentary Shoah in the classroom, what you do afterwards with the students is extremely important. Teachers at the conference recalled experiences with students who simply could not discuss what they had seen. "There should be a pensive period, a chance to write in a journal," Johnson recommended. After providing some time for students to absorb the extent of the atrocities and deal with their emotional reactions, then students may be ready to discuss what they saw.

"Students need time to decompress." agreed Taub. "The atmosphere is critical."

"You're traumatizing people who are seeing this material," argued Bob Barancik, a video producer. "The arts may be the only way for people who are exposed to this to work on this in a safe way." Barancik has developed art exhibitions and workshops on confronting bigotry in school and the workplace. "Each person is different and will yield different types of expression," he explained. He strongly supports using art to help children express their fears, aggressions and sense of hopelessness.

Conference participants were introduced to three new CD-ROMs on Holocaust themes. The Holocaust CD-ROMs used in the workshop have multimedia software packages with audio and video components - carrying the sounds and images of the Holocaust and survivors. Each CD-ROM can carry the equivalent of a small encyclopedia of information.

Dr. William Gilcher, Media Projects Director at the Goethe Institute in Washington, D.C. presented the CD-ROM "Learning From History: The Nazi Era and the Holocaust in German Education". Participants previewed an English version of this CD-ROM, which is still a work in progress, but is due to be completed in July. (The completed version will be in English and German.)

The software presents school projects on the Holocaust and prejudice reduction which were completed by German youngsters, ages 8 through 18. German students made films, produced plays, visited concentration camps and other historical sites, and reported on their experiences in a variety of artistic and literary media. By visually presenting diverse lessons and projects used in classrooms throughout Germany, it provides teachers with models of Holocaust-related projects for their own applications. Teachers at the conference responded favorably to this CD-ROM and expressed interest in how German youth are being asked to respond to the events of the Holocaust.

"I'm just interested in how a country deals with a period in history they might wish to forget," commented Lynn Mandon of Wayne Hills High School.

Steven Spielberg's "Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust" is a CD-ROM which has just been released by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. This glitzy, glamorous production, includes tasteful background music and narration by Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder. The CD-ROM presents an introduction to the events of the Holocaust through the testimony of four eyewitnesses: Paula, Bert, Sol and Sylvia (of Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria, respectively). Their experiences provide the opportunity to present background information, historical events, and commentary on the period from 1939 through 1945.

"Spielberg's [CD-ROM] is great for the kids," remarked Mandon. However, several teachers were concerned that "Survivors", which requires a high speed (133 MHz or faster) computer might not work in their school computer labs.

"Learning About the Holocaust", a CD-ROM produced by Beth Shalom Holocaust Education Centre in England presents an organized encyclopedic introduction to the sights and sounds of the Holocaust. Part I (of four), entitled "The Racial State", was previewed. Teachers seemed pleased by its ease of installation and use, and the crosslinks to original newspaper articles from the British press and other documents from that era. Each Holocaust topic is highlighted by photos, audios or audio-visual clips, such as images of burning synagogues on Kristallnacht, and Hitler youth singing and marching in the streets of Berlin.

Winkler recommended that educators use these new resources. "We want kids to see it in other ways. But we have to make sure that it is the appropriate material."

"We have this material coming in all the time." Winkler explained. "We have to say, let's research this. Is it accurate? Who does it come from? Does it have edu'?" Under World Wide Web conventions, the suffix "edu" in a web address indicates an educational institution as the source.

"Do we know that it's been surveyed and researched and looked at? We have to be very careful," cautioned Winkler. "Some of it looks so legitimate, especially on the internet."

"Here's a tape that looks really neat and talks about the concentration camps." declared Winkler, holding up a video tape. "Yet, it's a tape that says the crematoria were never there, that [the Holocaust] was a hoax that never happened." He continued, "You're not going to see it today. It's not going anywhere."

The conference was sponsored by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, and William Paterson University's Office of the Provost, Department of Sociology and Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

"Learning from History" can be obtained from Goethe-Institut Washington, 814 Seventh Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001-3718 (e-mail: media@goethe-dc.org). For information on "Survivors", call 1-800-542-4240. Information on "Learning About the Holocaust" can accessed on the internet at www.bethshalom.com

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D. is Director of General Education, Professor of Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at William Paterson University.

 

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