by Donna Tarney
Stan Greenspon Center Education Coordinator
We all have that student. You know, the one that makes veiled racist remarks when we teach about slavery or civil rights; the one that cracks jokes when the accomplishments of women or minorities are part of the lesson plan; the one that insists that the impoverished in our country are only poor because they don’t try hard enough. It is, most likely, this same student that will bring up Holocaust denial when we teach about the Shoah.
Normally, the rest of the class ignores this student, rolls their eyes, or, in the best-case scenario, confronts him or her about their prejudice. It seems to be different with Holocaust denial. When that one student challenges us with, “I heard it’s not really true. The Nazis didn’t really kill all those Jews. It’s made up”, all eyes turn toward us. For many students, Holocaust denial never entered their minds. It is new, shocking, and intriguing. In an age of “fake news”, this challenge seems to hold more validity than in years past. What do we do?
I have found that it is most effective to connect with students at a personal level. Bring the question into their own sphere of experience. Rather than confront the issue with facts first, lead the students to the truth through the use of questions about their own life experiences. Ask any student in the room what they did the night before. Once they share, ask how they can prove it. Were there witnesses? Did they Snapchat, text, or Instagram? Did they write anything down? Ask how the person feels about being grilled in such a way. How does it feel to be suspected of lying about your personal experiences? This should stimulate a lively conversation about truth, narrative, personal experience, etc. Guide it as you see fit.
After this exercise, relate it back to Holocaust denial. The survivors of the Holocaust and their families were already victims of hatred and violence and now they are under attacked again, on a deeply personal level. It is not some random set of data that is being called into question by Holocaust deniers, but the individual experiences of those who lived through it. Holocaust denial is not just another opinion about the Holocaust, but rather an act of hatred and persecution.
The facts relating to the number of dead, the methods of genocide, and the culpability of the Nazis and their collaborators are myriad and should indeed be presented. But first and foremost, we must engage our students in meaningful ways that they will remember long after our class has ended. Getting personal often meets this goal.
For more resources on Holocaust denial, visit the USHMM Website: