Educators Bring Holocaust Lessons Online


Ben Lesser’s artificial intelligence program answers questions about surviving the Holocaust. | Courtesy of ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation
Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser believes it is crucial that Holocaust curricula continue to teach compassion even in the most difficult circumstances.

“Hatred has to stop. You have to learn to live side by side, and appreciate the differences rather than hate them,” he said.

The Las Vegas-based educator partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation to release the ZACHOR Holocaust Curriculum, a subsidiary of ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, in August. The free online teaching tool was designed as a way to make Holocaust education more accessible to schools short on funds and teachers short on time.

Now, it helps provide online education to students learning from home due to the pandemic.

Educators like Lesser are working to teach students about the Holocaust in the midst of unprecedented disruptions to learning. Teaching such a complicated and emotional topic remotely is challenging, but not impossible, they say.

Temple Sholom in Broomall teaches seventh grade religious school students about the Holocaust and plans to continue the curriculum this year.
Cantor Jamie Marx said many aspects of the class, including independent research by students and discussions based on short videos, transition online easily. However, some in-person activities are more difficult to replicate.

“One of the main challenges is that we built a curriculum that moved from discussion-based activities to movement- and play-based activities, and it’s something we’re still working through,” he said.

In 2019, Communications Associate Marissa Kimmel organized a project where students role-played as groups of passengers on the MS St. Louis, the German liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees that both the United States and Canada refused to accept in 1939.

She plans to use Zoom to teach the lesson again this year. Since many of her students are home in front of a computer all day, she wants to keep the material as interactive as possible to keep them engaged.

Another key component of Holocaust education is live survivor testimony, and organizations are working to connect students with these speakers online.

The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center has transitioned its Witness to History Project, which brings survivors to schools to share their stories, to virtual platforms for the upcoming academic year.

Education Director Geoffrey Quinn said HAMEC spent the summer trying to identify the most user-friendly software available for survivors, since they could no longer invite facilitators into their homes to help them navigate the technology.

Central High School in Philadelphia hosts its Holocaust Symposium, which brings survivors to the school to tell their stories to students, in the spring. Faculty are preparing for the possibility of a virtual event
in 2021.

“I’d like to have the speakers, if we can, on Zoom or Google Meet, but if we have to rely on tape testimony we’ll do that as well,” said Mike Horwits, a government and social science teacher.

He added that Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is going to offer opportunities to hear from survivors online.

He said a virtual speaker event using Zoom’s chat feature can give technologically savvy students a better chance to interact with the speaker, especially those who might feel shy asking a question in a crowded auditorium.

Lesser’s ZACHOR Holocaust Curriculum website consists of seven lessons based on Lesser’s life along with short video clips and activities. It features an artificial intelligence model of Lesser that can answer questions from students about his experiences in ghettos, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau.

“We made it in such a way that you can teach a little bit about the Holocaust, or more, or the whole story. It’s left up to each teacher, but it’s there. And I’m hoping they’ll teach the whole story,” Lesser said.
Educators who teach the Holocaust are taking care to be sensitive to the fact that many students learning upsetting or graphic information are already stressed due to the instability of the pandemic.

Quinn said HAMEC’s speakers are cognizant of these difficulties, and one survivor, Ruth Hartz, addressed the health crisis during a virtual presentation at Elkins Park School in the spring. She drew a connection between coronavirus-induced isolation and her childhood experiences hiding from the Nazis in France.

Kim Blevins-Relleva, program coordinator of education initiatives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said teachers are rethinking how they present Holocaust material due to concerns about being able to gauge students’ reactions to emotional content from a screen.

“Teachers are just very thoughtful about still presenting the content, but doing it responsibly in a way to honor students’ emotional receptiveness, especially given what’s going on in the world,” she said.

She said USHMM always encourages teachers to think carefully about showing graphic images to students and consider approaches that emphasize the humanity of Holocaust victims. The museum recently created an online lesson plan about diaries during the Holocaust with this goal in mind.
“It’s a way for students to connect with the history and connect with individuals, but it’s not graphic,” she said.

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