Connecting youth to the lessons of the Holocaust

July 2018
Deb Brown

As an educator of history in the 21st century, it is sometimes challenging to approach historical events that will allow students to create meaningful connections in today’s world.  However, in Holocaust education, youth today powerfully connect and understand the lessons of this atrocity and the significance of these lessons in our world today.  Over the past 22 years of my teaching career, I have found the most powerful strategy for students to create meaningful connections to history is through the voices of the generations that have lived through significant moments; moments such as the Holocaust. 
Eight years ago I introduced the Grade 11 elective, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity course into our department.  Within this course students are able to critically explore various atrocities, both past and present; including an intensive unit of study on the Holocaust.  As an educator who had previously taught these lessons in a smaller scope and sequence, I was now presented with the welcoming challenge of developing unit material that would allow an intensive study of not only the Holocaust, but also multiple aspects of Jewish life that were an essential part of this narrative.  I was very fortunate to access support, resources, workshops and even international travel through two incredible organizations in Holocaust education: Yad Vashem and Facing History and Ourselves.  Through my work with these two organizations, I have been able to access multiple primary sources that have allowed my students to engage in this history through the use of primary source testimony and artifacts.  
Through the dedication and generosity of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, I have also been able to offer unique experiential learning opportunities to my students.  The annual Student Seminar on the Holocaust at Mohawk College is a learning experience that many of my students say will be with them for the rest of their lives.  
The following student reflections from this year’s seminar testify to the profound impact of the program.  
“Meeting and hearing a Holocaust survivor speak about their experiences made the Holocaust more personal. Understanding how survivors felt during and after the Holocaust allowed me to be able to relate to those feelings if not the experiences. It moved the Holocaust beyond being just numbers and facts to being about the individuals with lives and dreams and loved ones of their own.”  
 “We get to hear not only their experiences, but their view on the world today and lessons on how we should treat our fellow human beings.”  
“Meeting Holocaust survivors put a face to all the statistics, which made the entire experience surreal. As well, seeing how survivors continued with their lives after facing such unimaginable horrors, was inspiring. It made me realize that I can overcome my own hardships. It might take time, but it is possible to move forward.”
As students personally engage in listening to survivor testimony, they actively connect to their role in bearing witness and willingly take on the responsibility of sharing their learning and using it to make choices that will change and impact lives for the better.
Over the past 20 years, I have had the honour of taking hundreds of students to these events; and each year as we return to school and reflect on the day, I continue to be very moved by their responses. 
It is my hope that I, and other educators alike, continue to use the personal testimony of individuals who experienced not only the Holocaust, but the many other atrocities our communities have faced, and continue to face.  Whether those communities are international, national or local, using the voices of the past and present has the power to engage and connect our youth to the issues of our world, connections that will allow them to see that the choices they make are important and that by “bearing witness” they can make a difference in making the world a better place. 
Deb Brown is a history teacher and head of the Canadian and World Studies Department at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School. She is a recipient of Hamilton Jewish Federation’s 2013 Sharon Enkin Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education and the 2018 Legacy Award for Continued Excellence in Holocaust Education. 


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