For the past 14 years, Mahopac Middle School English teacher Beth Palmer has incorporated teaching about the Holocaust into her class and this year was no exception. Eighth graders read The Cage, a non-fiction book about the hardship and cruelty of being a Jew during the Holocaust written by Ruth Minsky Sender. “I find that if my students know the history, they get the more out of the book.”
Palmer works with the speakers bureau at the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains to make sure that the kids get to meet a survivor. “I think it makes it more real to them to hear someone who went through the actual events. It is much more impact than just watching a video or seeing pictures.” Typically the meeting happens in person, but this year 90-year-old Hanne Holsten “zoomed” into their classroom. This enabled all students, in-person and remote, to share the experience.
Holsten lived a normal life in Nuremberg, Germany in 1938 with her parents, sister, and brother. She told students the story of Nazis coming into her house on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), destroying everything her family owned and placing them in jail overnight. The students were enthralled as she spoke about her two year journey traveling around Europe and being hidden by smugglers to avoid being captured by the Nazis. She emphasizes to students that her family only survived as a result of the kindness of others
“We were really able to have a conversation with Hanne about history and the people who were persecuted, why it happened, and how not to let it happen again. Meeting a survivor is a tangible way for the kids to care about the people who perished,” said Palmer. “There will not be many, if any, survivors left in a few years, so it is important to me that students get the experience of meeting one.”
Palmer also uses the unit as an opportunity to discuss tolerance. In addition to reading The Cage, writing a research paper, and meeting a survivor, students create a wall of remembrance in the classroom. Everyday the class reads two names of people that did not survive and adds them to the wall. They also commit to performing random acts of kindness which they also document on the wall.
“It is important for students to understand the snowball effect of bullying and nasty comments. The Holocaust did not happen overnight and I want them to see that their individual actions can help, or hurt, others in ways they may not realize. I hope the whole experience inspires students to choose kindness, just as Hanne asked them to do at the end of her talk.”