Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,
We are writing to you in order to draw the attached article to your attention.
We are both teachers from the same school in Budapest, Hungary.
In the 12-year (elementary and grammar) school we work at we have been teaching students about the Holocaust and the events of the Shoah for quite a long time.
In the article we would like to share our experience with anyone (especially teachers) interested in the same subject.
Taking this deserving and relevant topic into consideration, we would be glad if you could publish the article (or an edited, shortened form or extracts) in your magazine and make it available to many.
You can contact us at the following address:
tpecsi@freemail.hu / tpecsi@bpg.hu
szdittel@freemail.hu / szdittel@bpg.hu
Waiting for your reply,
Yours sincerely,
Tibor Pecsi
Szilvia Dittel
Teaching the Holocaust in school

'Wanting to forget makes the exile longer, the secret of redemption is remembering" goes the saying by Baal Sem Tov. However, remembering the Holocaust is not at all an easy task. Even for us, teachers (in Bornemisza Peter Gimnazium, Budapest), it is a puzzling question how to teach students (of both elementary and secondary school) what exactly happened during the Shoah and why.
The students we teach were born and brought up in Hungary, a country where only a few dare to openly face the events of the Shoah, and where, on behalf of the society, there has never been an official condemnation of the shameful acts (murders, violence, seizure of possession of those expelled) committed by Hungarians during the war.
Though the Holocaust is mentioned in the Hungarian textbooks of history, no teacher is obliged to handle the topic with the prominence it should be given.
Due to the interdisciplinary education and the teaching methods used in history it all depends on the personal decision of the teachers what they say about the topic, how they say it, and to what extent they lead students into the theme.
A research carried out among students of higher education in Hungary a few years ago produced not very encouraging results; the majority did not oppose the debarring, racist, anti-Semite views, on the contrary, they gladly accepted and even voiced them.
It may sound common sense by now, but the future elite of politics, economy and culture will rise from the generation we are educating and teaching today.
In light of all this we cannot remain indifferent whether we tell today's teenagers about the Holocaust and teach them about it, or we simply belittle, ignore these facts rushing through them as part of the obligatory curriculum, or even try to deny and refute the reality of the tragic events.
We, as practicing teachers, would like to report on the methods we have been seeking to acquaint our students with the Holocaust in a true to life way, through the individual fate of people and families, while avoiding an extensive analysis of horrific scenes.
Since in Hungary, contrarily to Israel, there are no specific lessons devoted to the topic in the curriculum, our first task was to find the possible place where the discussion of this most important event can be fit into.
Basically, we have found two different solutions; one of them is in the frame of history lessons, when dealing with the 20s and 30s of the 20th century and the Second World War. If we are the history teachers of the class, we ourselves can spend a few lessons on the Holocaust.
In case we are not, we can ask our colleges in the specific grades to let us have some irregular lessons in their classes when covering these topics.
Moreover, we can make the same use of the lessons with the form-master (in Hungary it means one lesson per week for each class) where, after the necessary preparations done we can talk about the theme with the students.
The other way is organizing regular but optional extra curriculum lessons (study circles) in the afternoons for those interested, in this case we can discuss the topic more exhaustively.
In the following we would like to share our experience in both of the above described approaches, which have been put into practice in our twelve-grade (elementary and secondary) school.


Tommy in the classroom

After we have persuaded our colleges to separate some place for treating the Holocaust in a special way in their high-speed, tense syllabus, it is very important to decide on the methods by which we wish to bring the tragedy and horror fallen on the Jews closer to students.
Our aim can be anything but try to belittle all that happened, however, students` emotions and minds cannot and should not be exposed to a naturalistic depiction of disgust.
In order to raise sympathy towards the victims, resistance to the murderers' theories, and understanding of the rescuers in students, we need to make them behold the victims not as a faceless mass of people, but as individual human beings. It is the only way of getting our disciples not to behave like the group of people who were passively witnessing the rage of the evil forces.
Throwing bare numbers at the students will never get the job done, we must achieve that they can look on the victims with compassion.
Though there might be many possible ways to reach this goal, we would like to concentrate on the one we prefer the most and like very much: a picture book titled "Tommy".
We discovered the book with its story and touching message in the International School of Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem.

Tommy came into life in the Theresienstadt camp in January, 1944.
The creator of the book was a Check artist called Bedrich Fritta, who, together with his wife and small child, were deported to Theresien by the Nazis.
The Frittas were made to work for the publicity department of the ghetto, where their main task was to draw and paint the posters and bills showing what a great life the Jews were "enjoying" in the camp.
Actually, this place served as a display establishment of the Nazis for the outside world.
Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann decided to evacuate the fortification town and turn the place into a gathering center of Jews in 1941.
According to the original plans, German people were to be settled down in the privileged town, after all the Jews had been deported, of course.
At a time when resettlement to the east was looked upon as the increase of workforce, Theresienstadt became the bulwark of a great deception.
Since the resettlement of old people to the east (revealing the original purpose of the Nazis, that is killing every one of them,) would have ruined the whole plan, the elder and the honored veterans of the First World War were first transferred to Theresien, and deported to the east later.
But Theresien had a special status, it was open to the organizations of the Red Cross and to all who had to be convinced; the rumors about the mass murder of the Jews had nothing to do with reality.
These visits to the camp were, of course, well prepared, the number of people suddenly decreased at the overcrowded place, ruinous houses were decorated, and the people to take part in the "performance" were nicely dressed up.
"As many times as these visitors arrived, life in the ghetto was completely stirred upů curfew was imposed on certain zones, nobody who lived there was allowed to leave the buildings.
Only those were let to show up who still had a human appearance.
Decorations started everywhere, some places were cleaned and tidied up, houses were painted on the outer walls and huge boards were hung on the facades: "Central Synagogue", "Ghetto Theater."
Even groups of children were gathered as if they were preparing for football matches.
For these occasions children clubs were organized as well, where skating and riding were possible.
Many children were put in cribs in which heart shapes were engraved. As if in a castle.
Rehearses had to be held one after the other, since the children much too quickly devoured the food put in front of them. However, many times the Jews deliberately sent different children to the rehearsals, so, at least once, they could have enough food" recalls Mordechaj Ansbacher.
The population of the town was not more than ten thousand before it was turned into a "model camp", but now a great number of people were pouring in mainly from Germany and the Czech territories.
They pretty soon outnumbered sixty thousand, so transports had to be launched to the East to relieve the crowds.
All together around 141 thousand people entered the Theresien ghetto during its existence. Thirty eight thousand died in the camp, and appr. eighty thousand were deported to the eastern death camps.
Death was the punishment for almost everything.
Childbirth was strictly forbidden, and if someone was caught not only the mother, but the father, the child and the assistant doctor were sent to death camps as well.
This was the gathering place of the significant and well-known Jewish scientists, artists and community leaders, whose sudden disappearance would have caused trouble even in the West.
For the shake of appearances the Gestapo officially sold out the houses in the town for those to be deported there. But the newcomers, in spite of all the papers in their hands confirming ownership, could be happy to get a small place in a shabby house.
As Mordechaj Ansbacher recollects his memories: "Two weeks after our arrival half of my group was dead.
Starvation was unbearable. Water nowhere. Hygiene nothing. People were fighting for potato skins soaking in dirty water, and they pounced themselves on garbage and carts loaded with corpses in hope of a crumb of food. Very often these were millionaires, outstanding business men or honorable persons with degrees.
Those of us charged with carriage had to be very strict with them, since filthy leftovers, raw and dirty potato skins caused illnesses, epidemics, and death in many cases."
The propaganda film made about the camp was given the following, grotesque title: "Theresien, the Fuhrer's present to the Jews."
In February 1945, when the unavoidable defeat of the German army became clear, the Nazis began converting one of the underground passages of the fortress into a gas chamber. However, by the time the prefabricated chimneys arrived, the information had somehow slipped out.
The SS whipped the suspects, but the construction works came to a halt and the captives' lives were spared.
This was the place where the Frittas, Bedrich, Hanzi and their little boy, Tommy lived.
Since the father was responsible for making propaganda pictures for the Nazis, he could, for long, disguise his real activity with his official work.
Actually, the members of the propaganda group were, in secret, writing down, drawing and painting the true to life version of everyday life in the model ghetto.
Obviously, these documents were carefully hidden, since it was clear to every painter, the moment their activity would be discovered, they would be promptly executed.
Tommy Fritta had his third birthday in January, 1944. His father, having nothing him as a present.
Though the small book was completed in time, the father could never give it to his son; the members of the art workshop were nabbed, their illegal activity was brought to light and all of them were deported.
Nevertheless, the book, just as some other documents, remained in secret. Little Tommy was turned over to the Hess family and brought up by foster parents, so it was not his third, but his eighteenth birthday when he was finally given the album. We can imagine what emotions the boy went through when, after one and a half decade, his father spoke to him again via this book.
Everything that Tommy conveys can be easily understood by both a three - and an eighteen-year old.
The pictures and the complementary notes written by Bedrich Fritta are just suitable to open a discussion with those who know very little or nothing about the topic.
The introduction of the album is recommended at a phase when the students have already covered what happened to Jews in the Second World War in the territories occupied by the Germans and their allies.
Actually, in case of this subject, it is much better to avoid exposing students to a great amount of lexical data to be mugged up, on the contrary, what we should try is to find a reasonable answer for the question why?, instead of what? and how? By this time you might be wondering: what is the point in approaching the Holocaust through a picture book made for a child? How can it be used to reveal a whole period in history which is still a question even for professors and experts who wish to find out how a civilized, leading nation in the heart of Europe could be able to carry out such barbarous deeds?
We have to point it out again, our first aim is not to teach students the whole truth in details, but to raise interest and sympathy in them. Let us tell some more about how Tommy's story can be used in the classroom.
As far as possible, try to obtain an edition of the book with the pictures attached in card form. These cards will later help to involve students more in the lesson. Though the original pictures came out with Hebrew and Check titles only, the authors of this article are ready to send the Hungarian translation via e-mail to everyone interested (tpecsi@szpa.hu, szdittel@bpg.hu). More information about the book can be found in Hungarian on the homepage of Yad Vashem, under education: www.yadvashem.org/educationalmaterials in Hungarian.
When introducing the topic it might be useful to briefly remind students of their former studies about the Nazi rule. Refer to some historical facts and the German race policy in large, then point out how this policy was put to practice in the occupied European territories.
In the next phase focus students' attention on the subject of the ghettos and try to refresh their memories again by recalling the most well known facts.
What is indispensable is to compare ghettos in the middle age and those set up by the Nazis, to define and discuss the main differences and similarities.
Following this we can come to the questions of why, how, and to what purposes the Theresien ghetto was set up. Now we can acquaint students with everyday life in the ghetto. If available, try to use personal recollections, photos, or, in today's media based world, we can even present relevant film extractions as well. Having introduced life in Theresine we turn to the story of the Fritta family, and along with that, the story of the Tommy album, of course.
So far we have spent appr. 15-20 minutes of the lesson, which is important to keep in mind so the teacher will not tell everything in details, just to the essential extent. However, to find this measure we must rely on the information about what exactly the students have mastered, so we should consult with the history teacher of the class. This way we can avoid restating the already discussed points and concentrate on areas untouched.
After the introductory part, during which it is mainly the teacher who speaks, we change concept and take aim at an interactive teaching method more influential on emotions. We spread all the postcard sized pictures on the teacher's desk then ask students to come forward and pick up the picture (or pictures, in case it is a double, 90-minute lesson) that inspire or capture them the most. Students can take seats again, but for an irregular lesson like this desks might be reorganized so a more informal working atmosphere can be created. At this point we ask students to show their cards and share their thoughts on them; what they think our protagonist, Tommy is doing in the picture. We are also interested in what message they find behind the portrayals. We would like to remind our readers that Tommy conveys a message for children, teenagers, and undergraduates alike. Obviously, each age group will discover different traits in the pictures and will acquire different meaning from every story. While students are speaking the teacher can lead the conversation and complement what has been noticed about the pictures, or even correct students if needed. Meanwhile we might as well read out the original subtitles. Together, we may try to find out and analyze what the father probably intended to say to his child through the different paintings. In the album you can also find thematic picture sequences drawn by Fritta, through which he wished to raise faith in his child in a more human world and a better existence.
This is something the teacher should strongly emphasize. Actually, an almost playful atmosphere should be maintained throughout the whole lesson, since this way, as we have experienced, students will get the hang of the conversation and many will be still pondering on the story of little Tommy even weeks later.
What is the basic aim of a lesson like this? First of all to make the Holocaust more comprehensible and bring it closer to students of various age groups. Apart from this, through Tommy's story and the picture book made for him students can easily sense the horror of race policy and where these wolfish principles lead to. Our experience (in accordance with other teachers' perception who were present at these lessons) has showed that even the otherwise rather passive, not very talkative students will open up and form opinion. To sum up, we can confirm that Tommy is able to come to life in the classroom and tell his story, while students can listen to him and understand what he is saying.

Teaching without lessons
As we have already mentioned, the exact form of teaching the Holocaust, the number of lessons on the subject and the details teachers should go into are not regulated in the Hungarian public education at all.
Consequently, very often there is not enough time and energy at history lessons for a thoughtful discussion of the events of the Shoah and the questions of ethic that arise with the topic.
To be honest, in some cases it is the teacher himself who feels uneasy about the question and hinders an open discourse and interpretation of the period. Yet, we are not to suppress students' interest. Since they must have all heard of the events from one source or another, we strongly suppose that they do have a number of questions to be answered. In case the lessons still fail to fully meet this need, the other thing we can do is to organize optional, extra curriculum study circles in the afternoon. In the following we would like to share our half-year experience regarding this latter method. The study group meets on one particular day of the week for two lessons(90 minutes) right after the compulsory period, which allows for appr. seventy lessons per year. All participants have taken up the course voluntarily, so missing a few occasions has no consequences.
The number of students at one lesson usually varies from three to twelve, with a standard average of five or six.
There are many different methods that we use in the activities, for example open conversations, reading or listening to memoirs, watching extracts from documentaries and feature films, etc. We also visit places and buildings of Jewish interest mainly in Budapest, and we personally meet survivors of the Holocaust whose recollections we record (with their kind permission.) Besides this, we would like to take the group to Yad Vashem once, so they can see the place where the most has been done to keep the memory of the victims and heroes. According to their type and topic, the activities can be divided into four different categories as follows (though an overlap is also possible):
    First of all, we introduce the basic facts and events of the Holocaust, and their culmination in the final solution.
The discussion should be started with describing the pre-war Jewish life and world. Here we should comment on the assimilated communities, just as well the orthodox and Chasid world. We also speak about the Yiddish culture, klezmer music and the great diversity the Jewry had enriched life in Europe and Hungary with.
Following this we teach abut political anti-Semitism and the rise of national socialism, putting strong emphasis on the effects this policy and the accompanying brainwashing had on everyday people.
After covering the breakout of the World War we turn to fate of Jewish people in the order their home countries fell to the Nazis or became allies to them. The ghettos, the living conditions or the possible choices people faced might be other independent topics. Then can we switch to the official agenda of the mass murder, with the Wansee Conference in focus. Even when considering the final solution our goal is not to give a shock to our students by showing them heaps of corpses but to find an answer for the question why? We also confer about the attempts and endeavors of the Jewish resistance, and try to work out what it was that gave strength to survivors to start a family again after losing the old one and to stand all the challenges of life after the war. We also dwell on the fall of the Nazis, liberation, and the proceedings closing the war, with the main stress on the Nurnberg and Eichmann cases. The students are also asked questions like why at all is it important to make legal judgement about crimes of the past. Of course, the righteous of the world are mentioned as well, those who were resolved to save Jewish lives during the war.
    Secondly, breaking up the chronological order of events we draw the students' attention to certain incidents which can be linked to specific dates during school time. This way we wish to speak the language remembrance, instead of using the language of teaching alone. Thus we commemorate the rescue of the Jews in Denmark, the set up of the Theresien ghetto, the Wansee Conference, the occupation of Hungary, the establishment of the ghettos, and the deportations. It is not a secret, by doing this we would like the students to realize; the events of the Holocaust do not cover a day, a short period, months or seasons only, but they went on for years and years.
At these special occasions we also recommend students the relevant books of world literature, and specialist books which can help them get a deeper knowledge and understanding of the facts they learn about.
    Thirdly, we have our students as consultants and proofreaders, that is they review a book (more exactly, a reference book) on the Shoah we are working on.
From time to time we provide them with the chapters of the book in preparation and we ask them to read the text carefully and report on it next time.
First of all we are interested in whether the book is comprehensible to students and not too abstract or vague. Since our aim with the book is to make it available to anyone in the public education (e.g.: for similar study circles, for the Holocaust Day, as resource material or material of debate,) it is very important that students can work it up even on their own. In our experience students still need to get a little braver to honestly express their thoughts, but, having developed a good work relationship with them, we are convinced that with time they will open up and help us put the book in a form which is useful for their contemporaries as well.
    Fourthly, we take part in different competitions organized in the subject, we help and encourage our students to complete their competition works. This is, again, highly important that they become able to make creative work based on the information they have previously absorbed, and not be afraid to openly express and defend their thoughts, opinions and emotions via essays, drawings or shorter films.

  In order to find out more about how the students themselves feel about the subject and the activities of this special study group we questioned them on why exacty they decided to take up this course, why they consider it very important to deal with the topic, and finally, which areas they would like to learn more about.

In the following we are going to briefly sum up their responses and main ideas.
  "The Holocaust is something that every nation feels rightly ashamed of, nevertheless, we should get informed all about it (Teodora, 18).
   I used to read a lot about the topic when I was smaller, and I watched many films as well. I was deeply moved when I imagined the situation of the victims (Dorisz, 18).
   It is important to deal with the topic when one is about to step out into the adult life, and find his own place in the world. You have to have an idea what man is capable of doing (Adam, 18).
   The activities of the study group are very interesting, since they are interactive, it is not only the teacher who does the talking, like in many regular lessons, but we watch different films and we visit the relevant places. I would like to go out more to these places, and other places as well, even where not everyone is allowed to (Teodora, 18).
  I think it is very important to learn more about the Holocaust, because it will help us to understand today's world better. It will help us to recognize the signs of the same, hidden powers working behind the scenes of our days that lead to the Holocaust (David, 14).
  I like the best when we make interviews with survivors who tell us their personal stories, they are very instructive for us even today. I would like to meet more of these people (Dorisz, 18).
  I did not know so much about the Holocaust before, but it has changed now (Karolin, 14).
   It is very good that we can get absorbed in the topic, and the deeper we get the wider we can see. Earlier, when I met the topic I only heard about the concentration camps. Now I can understand other, important aspects as well (Anna, 14).
   In connection with the Holocaust people usually think of a great mass slaughter and nothing else. Here in the course we also find out about the ways the Jews tried to relieve themselves, how they tried to make their and their children's lives "colorful" despite the oppression, how they were fighting to survive. We have learned not to observe the Shoah in an impersonal way, as in the history lessons, where only the numbers are pointed out, but we never know who these people were, how they had been leading their lives, and first of all, the fact that they were exactly the same individual human beings as any of us living today (Teodora, 18).
   It would be desirable for everybody to understand, that the Holocaust is not something we can simply forget about just because it took place half a century ago. We cannot ignore its traces today (David, 14).
It is very useful to analyse various points of views, not just the Jews', but the Germans' as well (Dorisz, 18).
   We should talk about the events so the truth will come to light (Bianka, 14).
   I like it very much that at these lessons we can freely and honestly ask our questions. We always hear about new, thoughtful and surprising stories, testimonies. Afterwards we always discuss what we see or hear (David, 14).
   We should learn more about the people involved, they were the same human beings as we are, and only one or two sentences cover their lives in our history books (Anna, 14).
   It is also important to talk about these events because of the survivors. It is very difficult for them to cope with the past, we should help them and deal with them (Teodora, 18).
   We have to talk about these things, for today's people must see where hatred towards different groups of people can lead to (Karolin, 14).
   The young know very little about the Holocaust. The older ones know more, but if the young were better informed, anti-Semitism would probably not be so popular among them." (Noemi, 18)

Though it may sound more like a cliche, Adorno's often quoted thought says: "The aim of education is not to repeat Auschwitz." This is how, with the means available to us, we try to influence our students in the school (Bornemisza Peter Gimnazium, Budapest) to become people working against this sinister repetition. And we hope, we do it not in vain.
Szilvia Dittel
Tibor Pecsi