Classroom study of the Holocaust evokes strong emotions in teachers and students. Teaching, Learning, and the Holocaust assesses challenges and approaches to teaching about the Holocaust through history and literature. Howard Tinberg and Ronald Weisberger apply methods and insights of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to examine issues in interdisciplinary teaching, with a focus on the community college setting. They discuss student learning and teacher effectiveness and offer guidance for teaching courses on the Holocaust, with relevance for other contexts involving trauma and atrocity.
About the Author
Howard Tinberg is Professor of English at Bristol Community College. He is author of Writing with Consequence: What Writing Does in the Disciplines and (with Jean-Paul Nadeau) The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations.
Ronald Weisberger is Coordinator of Tutoring and Adjunct Professor of History at Bristol Community College.
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Teaching, Learning, and the Holocaust
An Integrative Approach
By Howard Tinberg, Ronald Weisberger
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2014 Howard Tinberg and Ronald Weisberger
All rights reserved.
It shows me that Nazis were men, just as we are now. Michael, reading journal, February 2011
Like the historian Paul Bartrop, we came to study and teach the Shoah "from somewhere else" (1). In some sense the phrase "from somewhere else" serves as an apt metaphor or trope for the journeys that each of us took to get to the Shoah classroom. Like the paths of so many of our students, whose experiences are often marked by aspirations checked by stark reality and the subsequent recalibration and adjustments, our journey to the present was hardly linear or predictable. Neither of us, for example, had intended from the start to teach at a community college, nor did either of us expect to teach a course on the Shoah, given our prior academic training as a historian and as a scholar in British Romanticism. Far from anticipating an opportunity to teach the Shoah, we regarded the Shoah, for our own personal reasons, as a subject to avoid. Indeed, the subject presented genuine risks for one of us, a child of Shoah survivors.
"From somewhere else": as we continue to think through the implications of that phrase, we note another aspect that strikes home. Even before undertaking the challenges of teaching a subject in which we had received no explicit training in graduate school, each of us had undertaken retraining of a different sort. In one case, it was the shift from teaching literature (British Romanticism, precisely) exclusively to teaching composition and rhetoric as well as directing a writing center. In the other case, it was the shift from serving as history faculty exclusively to studying developmental theory as applied to adult learners and becoming director of academic tutoring. Yes, we have come from somewhere else.
Howard Tinberg's Narrative
"Sha, shtil [be quiet]": I heard these Yiddish words often as a young child. I assumed then that my parents were simply reminding my siblings and me to mind our manners. In later years, I would see these two words as emblematic of my parents' predicament: quietly suffering Jewish refugees who lost just about all their relatives—both sets of parents, siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts—during the Shoah. I had not fully realized the import of those words until as an adult I read this passage from Alan Dershowitz's memoir, Chutzpah:
I am a proud and assertive Jew, and a proud and assertive American. Many in my generation no longer feel like guests in anyone else's land. It is not enough for us, as it was for our grandparents and parents, that we be tolerated as a minority in a country where only the majority are first-class citizens. We insist on being treated as equals. We have no qualms about seeing a Goldberg, a Shapiro, or a Cohen run for governor or even president. We need not sha shtil (be quiet) as my grandmother constantly warned. We don't have to worry about shande far di goyim or being "lightening rods" for anti-Semitism if we are too visible or successful. Maybe we are overconfident. Maybe we are no more secure than the Jews of Germany thought they were in 1929. Maybe we are tempting fate—and history—by our assertiveness. Again, as my grandmother would say, Keyn ayn hore, I hope not. And I don't think so. (19–20)
Reading this passage conveyed to me this unmistakable message: my parents, as a result of being singled out for destruction during the Shoah because they were Jews, wanted us all to remain under the radar. Calling attention to ourselves might bring terrible consequences. My family, as a result, did not exhibit the kind of chutzpah—brazenness—that Dershowitz claims proudly. We had lost too much.
My parents, both deceased, had not burdened us as we were growing up with stories from the war. Late in life, as is typical of Shoah survivors, my mother wanted to share as much as she could of what she knew from her past life during the war. This much my siblings and I have been able to construct, from my mother's account—our chief source of facts, although, as the citations indicate, I have begun to flesh out details of my mother's narrative and will continue to do so throughout this book: My mother grew up on a small, rural village—a shtetl, or collection of farms—in eastern Poland (now Ukraine), in a place called Jablonka, forty-three miles southwest of Krakow. Nestled in a small valley, Jablonka consisted of three streets, which, according to a former resident, "resembles an eagle, and since nearby was the river Raczka Jablon (and from this derived the name of town Jablonka), the shtetl had the image of an eagle landing from the heights to drink fresh and pure waters" (Wajsbord). According to a census taken in 1911, over 80 percent of the residents were Jewish; ten years later the number would decline to a little over 60 percent ("Jablonka Koscielna"). During the first two decades of the century residents numbered only in the hundreds ("Jablonka Koscielna"). Zionist ideals (supportive of the establishment of a Jewish state) were strong in the village, as was religious observance (Wajsbord). In contrast, my father was raised in Tarnow, forty-five miles east of Krakow. Before World War II Tarnow had some twenty-five thousand residents, half of whom were Jews ("Tarnow"). Rather than relying on farming, Jewish residents worked in clothing manufacturing and were quite diverse—even secular—in regards to religious identification ("Tarnow"). At various points, this part of the country—Galicia—became annexed into Russia, Germany, and Poland.
I suppose that my parents' war experience may also be characterized by the phrase "somewhere else," since they managed to avoid being deported and moved to a concentration or death camp. They were able to elude the Nazis, who were out to kill them for being Jews, as well as the Russians, who sought to impress my father into the army. Facing these pressures, my parents decided to leave their respective families and homes to live life on the run. Moving eastward, they survived mostly by their wits and, according to my mother's telling, her ability to pass as a non-Jew and her talents as a seamstress. But she also worked to dig trenches and in coal mines. One particularly harrowing episode occurred on the Russian side after my father had been ordered to go back home in order to fight the war for the Poles. To join my father, my mother would have to cross a bridge over a river without being detected by the soldiers, who were standing guard. A fellow Jew offered to help her cross over in his hay wagon. Here's how my mother told the story:
A Jewish guy, a communist, said, "Why don't you climb into that wagon in the hay. I'll cover you all up. Nobody will see you and [I'll] bring you over the bridge." ... I did and we start going over the bridge. The soldiers came in with their bayonets and stick them there. I feel it. I didn't scream. Finally, he took me over the bridge. (Tinberg, "Personal")
My father had not been drafted into the Russian army. My mother and he resumed their life together, growing their own food in a garden provided by a protector (who also employed my mother, as well as my father). They stayed for the duration of the war, making certain to be inconspicuous.
At the war's end, any thoughts of returning to either Jablonka or Tarnow were dismissed when, according to my mother, news was received that all members of the family had been killed. My parents found their way to a displaced persons camp in Germany, where my two brothers were born. In 1949, the family immigrated to the United States; they were sponsored by my mother's uncle, who had escaped Europe before the war. And so they began life anew, no doubt heartbroken and—despite having started a family—so very much alone.
Strangely enough, as I was growing up, I never thought of my parents as survivors. They did not have numbers tattooed on their arms, after all. Were my parents survivors, although they hadn't been in the camps? The fact is that most survivors indeed never set foot in the camps. Those who entered the camps were not likely to leave them alive, given Nazi efficiency. The "true" survivors were those fortunate enough to have escaped the Nazi trap.
When I was a child, my parents said little to us about the war. I've since learned, from authors such as Helen Epstein and Eva Hoffman, that Shoah survivors rarely talked about their war experiences in the years immediately following. The memories that I had of the Shoah, were, in Marianne Hirsch's well-known term, remnants of "postmemory," after-the-fact bits of information obtained from unknown sources. Eva Hoffman, a child of survivors, describes the phenomenon this way:
The Holocaust, in my first, childish reception, was a deeply internalized but strangely unknown past. It has become routine to speak of the "memory" of the Holocaust, and to adduce to this faculty a moral, even a spiritual value. But it is important to be precise: We who came after do not have memories of the Holocaust. Even from my most intimate proximity I could not form "memories" of the Shoah or take my parents' memories as my own. Rather, I took in that first information as a sort of fairy tale deriving not so much from another world as from the center of the cosmos: an enigmatic but real fable. (6)
"[E]nigmatic but real": the phrase goes to the heart of what I apprehended about the Shoah. I did feel certain, however, that my parents were, well, strange: quiet, exceedingly hard working, but whose ways and whose richly accented speech were so different from those of everyone else's parents. I also knew that I wished to be somewhere else—anywhere else. Being "here" meant being strangely sad and seriously observant of religious practice—obeying strict dietary laws, observing the Sabbath, and attending synagogue regularly.
As a teen, coming of age in California during the 1960s in a kind of dreamy Los Angeles surfing and Hollywood culture, I was hardly alone in trying to break from homely conventions and the strict requirements of realism. Nevertheless, my siblings and I felt the need to fit in even as our generally serious and somewhat private temperaments and work ethic set us apart from friends. For my part, around middle school, I threw myself into my studies and to getting the best grades I possibly could. The message was clear: school and learning mattered a great deal to our parents, although they were themselves uneducated (my mother had no formal education at all). Yet even as I strove to become different from my parents, I shared the value they attached to education for its own sake (as did my siblings, all of whom went on to obtain doctorates), and to hard work (my father would eventually own two tailor shops).
That said, I would choose to study an area that was as far from my parents' experience as could be: English literature. Truth be told, my brother was a strong influence. An English major in college, he brought books into the home—including the complete Yale Shakespeare, which I read in its entirety over the years—thanks to a membership in the Book of the Month club. It is one of many oddities in our home environment that although my parents were self-educated and spent a good deal of time (as we all did) watching television (it was still new when I was a child), reading was encouraged. After all, my mother had been fluent in several languages. And Jewish traditions privileged the reading of the Torah and Biblical commentary. Hence, when my parents purchased the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, a glorious event representing a significant financial sacrifice, it was not altogether surprising.
Still, I kept my distance from subjects that seemed to recall my parents' experience—reading little about the Jewish experience and, certainly, about Hitler's war against the Jews. I barely acknowledged bigoted references to Jews in Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot or Charles Dickens when I came across them. I was, after all, somewhere else than where I had started. I imagined myself happily ensconced in academe—teaching Keats or Wordsworth at a respected university, with summers off visiting Wordsworth's home in Grasmere and reciting passages from "The Prelude."
In the coming years, I would confront a far different reality: after a strong undergraduate career at UCLA, but an unsuccessful stint at its graduate school, I needed to decide whether I would continue to pursue a dream of college teaching and, if so, where. In the interim, I began to teach at a vocational college in Los Angeles, providing English grammar training to young women of color preparing to become court reporters in the city. I began to see ways that teaching might serve not only to satisfy my own particular ambitions but perhaps also to help other extremely motivated, if underprepared, students. Although teaching at the community college was not even on my radar yet, this experience—at a place called Southland College, located near Vermont and Western in Los Angeles—was something of a revelation for me.
But I continued to harbor a dream of continuing my graduate work in literature, this time far away from the confines of home (I had commutedbetween home and school for three of my four years of college and two years of graduate school). What follows might be seen as a Hollywood- movie or simply purely ironic: the university that took me in proved to be Brandeis University, established in 1948 by American Jews for American Jews.
Only twice in my life have I ever felt as if I were not a minority: once on a trip to Israel with my mother, and then during my time at Brandeis. It was as if a great burden was lifted from my shoulders: I would not have to apologize (to myself) for taking time off for Jewish holidays (the college was closed!) or eating certain kinds of foods. I was surrounded by buildings named after Goldbergs or Shapiros. As I look back at this momentous turn, I see that this step represented a move toward acceptance of my family's identity as Jews. In light of this return of sorts, it does not seem to be a stretch that I would eventually teach a course on the Shoah. Brandeis remains a symbolically important place for me: I met my wife at Brandeis, and we were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony there.
But that arc took years to complete, including a wide turn away—a year's stint of teaching (with my wife, Toni) in the People's Republic of China. But the shape of the river was becoming clearer: I turned to composition and rhetoric as my professional home. Moreover, after two years teaching writing at a private university and seeing little hope of obtaining tenure there, I heard of a full-time position opening up at a community college in Massachusetts. I took that job in 1987 and have been there ever since. I teach primarily first-year composition, have directed the college's writing center, and have published articles and books in the very welcoming field of composition.
In 2000, my mother passed away—and with her a firsthand knowledge of a world long gone: the shtetl and the yiddishkeit (the Yiddish culture) that shaped that small farming community. Would my mother have been surprised that I and a colleague would be teaching a course on the Shoah? Perhaps not. After all, my wife and I sent our two children to Jewish day schools, partly in the hopes of preserving the tie to traditions. But the Shoah? I wonder, now, whether she would welcome my revisiting that terrible time or regard it as a depressing and somewhat futile effort. After all, she and my father could not afford to think much about the terrible losses that they suffered (or they dared not). They were too busy starting a new life. I would like to think, however, that she would see my efforts to study the Shoah as an obligation fulfilled.
Ronald Weisberger's Narrative
I came to Bristol Community College in 1979 after teaching history at a number of colleges and universities. A child of the '60s, I have had a strong interest in social justice issues in general and education in particular. During the 1970s I was involved in a number of what were considered experimental or alternative institutions of higher education, including the Institute for Open Education and the University Without Walls, which had an important influence on my philosophy of education.
Excerpted from Teaching, Learning, and the Holocaust by Howard Tinberg, Ronald Weisberger. Copyright © 2014 Howard Tinberg and Ronald Weisberger. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
3. What We Knew and When We Knew It
4. Bystanders and Agents
7. Reclaiming Faith
Appendix A: Course Syllabus
Appendix B: Reading Journal Template
Appendix C: Critical Research Project
Appendix D: Midterm and Final Exams
What People are Saying About This
A concrete, thoughtful guide to teaching an important but difficult subject in a complex way, useful to both secondary and college-level teachers . . . a rich and critical case study of interdisciplinary teaching.
A fascinating account of struggling with the Shoah within a community college setting and an exemplary piece of classroom research. Tinberg (English) and Weisberger (history) bring their own disciplinary perspectives to bear on the challenges of making sense of what ultimately defies understanding, making use of rich documentation from class notes and student writing.