On a mild February Friday morning, 14 middle and high school educators gathered at the Queens University Sports Complex on Tyvola Road in Charlotte to explore the use of primary testimony in teaching students about the Holocaust and its connection to systemic racism in the U.S. Many of the teachers and administrators from North and South Carolina used a precious personal day off to join the daylong seminar, “An Historical Inquiry of Nazism & Jim Crow: Testimony in Dialogue with Primary Sources.”
Participants shared the joys and challenges of teaching fully in today’s schools. Their passion and commitment to their students was evident as they raised issues and asked questions throughout the day.
The session was sponsored by the Stan Greenspon Center for Holocaust and Social Justice Education and the S.C. Council on the Holocaust. Judy La Pietra, the Greenspon Center’s assistant director and Scott Auspelmyer, the executive director of the S.C. Council helped design and lead the program. The anchor speaker was Aya Marczyk from the Fortunoff video archive for Holocaust testimonies at Yale University. Her goal is to invite students to learn about survivors’ experiences, engage in historical reflection that situates the Shoah in its multiple twentieth-century contexts, and explore both the necessity and limits of historical comparisons. Her research explores how teaching with historiography can create bridges between the work of professional historians and high school history classrooms.
“The PD (personal development) explored the strong correlation between the US’ legal segregation system and that of the Nuremberg race laws. It helped identify points of similarity between the two countries and also the stark differences in population sizes and culture. The PD also emphasized how to use snippets of testimony when teaching about traumatic events and sensitive topics,” said Sarah Olenchak, from Irmo Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina.
Marczyk has led the work to use the Fortunoff video archive to create a testimony-centered curriculum “Race and Citizenship in Nazi Germany and Jim Crow United States” for high school students. The curriculum is a set of 15 online lessons that engage students in the following questions: How do we listen to testimonies given by Holocaust survivors and witnesses? What skills and attitudes do we need to engage in both empathetic listening and historical inquiry? And what does it take to articulate rigorous comparisons of race laws in the United States and Nazi Germany in the 1930s?
“I really enjoyed the focus on how to use testimony and how to use the database. So often as a teacher I am ‘thrown’ the resource with minimal time as to how to use it. I really appreciated the time spent with showing us where things are within the website,” said Olenchak.
The Fortunoff Archive currently holds more than 12,000 recorded hours and over 4,400 testimonies of willing individuals with first-hand experience of the Nazi persecutions, including those who were in hiding, survivors, bystanders, resistors, and liberators. Testimonies were recorded in whatever language the witness preferred, and range in length from 30 minutes to over 40 hours (recorded over several sessions). For more than three decades its mission has stayed the same: to record and project the stories of those who were there.
One moving testimony shared during the workshop featured the late Leon Bass, an African American educator from Philadelphia who served in the U.S. army during World War II in a segregated unit. His experience painted a vivid and ironic picture, as he described the atrocities he saw as part of the unit that helped liberate the prisoners at the Buchenwald camp, only to come home to be refused service at a lunch bar in his own country.
For some, the information regarding Nazi Germany’s relationship to Jim Crow laws was a new revelation. Those who were aware learned new ways to teach about the comparisons.
“It was very informative and the accommodations were well planned,” said Steve Butler, a middle school social studies department head from Hemingway, SC. “I appreciate the time and effort it took to plan this event. I have been a part of other sessions where I was “tapped out” by lunch but this genuinely kept my interest, and I am glad to have been in attendance.”
“The session brought to light the very direct connection between two very complicated histories,” said La Pietra. “The material is relevant to where we are as a nation today, and it’s important to shed light on the similarities and differences between these two painful legacies. I hope we can offer similar sessions to many educators in the future!”