Teaching students about the Holocaust
Published in the July 22, 2016 Santa Maria Times.
“The past is the best prophet of the future,” wrote English poet Lord Byron, and nothing in our past speaks more poignantly to this than the Nazi Holocaust.
But like many other important historical events, it appears to me students coming out of our local K-12 educational system know very little about this most terrible crime in human history.
I often teach a lesson on the Holocaust as a component of critical thinking in my classes at Allan Hancock College.
“Don’t think of this as a history lesson, but as a warning from history,” I tell students. “This is where hatred and bigotry can lead.”
I frequently begin by posing questions I have been asked: Why do we need to learn about this? We can’t change what happened. We can’t bring anyone back. Why not let the dead bury the dead? This is one instance where I never need to say anything, because inevitably one of the students will say, “So it can’t happen again.”
The rise in right-wing hate groups and the growing number of Holocaust deniers make it all the more imperative that students learn about what happened in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1941 and 1945.
While there are many other examples of genocide in history — the Turks’ slaughter of Armenians during World War I, the massacres carried out by the Khymer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s, the mass murder in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s — the Holocaust stands out because never before had industrial methods been used in an attempt to exterminate an entire ethnic group based solely on their being who they were.
Students are often shocked at the extent of the horror.
“I knew it was bad,” a student once said, “but no one ever went into depth about it.”
They are also surprised to learn the perpetrators were, for the most part, “ordinary people,” as Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal observed, people who under normal circumstances would pose no threat to anyone.
That often puzzles students, who find it hard to comprehend. But in a typical class, one or more students has studied the Milgram experiments, in which people were told they were giving dangerous jolts of electricity to a person who failed to answer a question correctly. Even when the subject protested that the pain from the shock was becoming extreme, perhaps to the point of injury or death, a majority of people continued administering the electricity as long as the person in charge of the experiment continued to tell them to do so.
Students are often nonplussed when, after this lesson, they discover how many Holocaust deniers there are.
“How can people refuse to believe what is right in front of them?” they ask. And yet there are numerous websites featuring articles with titles such as, “The Top Ten Reasons Why The Holocaust Didn’t Happen,” and statements that proclaim, “Within five minutes any intelligent, open-minded person can be convinced that the Holocaust gassings of World War II are a profitable hoax.” Another site goes even further and claims to provide “50 Reasons Why The Holocaust Never Happened,” and asserts, “No proof has even been given that 6 million were murdered.”
Students realize the importance of this lesson.
“I should have learned about this in middle school,” one student wrote.
“Thank you for informing me even further on the Holocaust,” wrote another.
“We have to learn more about history so history won’t repeat itself,” another commented.
If students take anything away from this lesson, that sums it up.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA