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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Beyond Anne Frank

    Exploring the Holocaust through literature, teachers touch issues that shape the values of their students.

      “I keep my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”—Anne Frank
      I first saw The Diary of Anne Frank on the old “Saturday Night at the Movies.” I was 14, just her age. By the following Tuesday, I had finished the book. Until then, no reading or discussion of persecution had shocked my sense of justice like that story. How could a Holocaust happen? I read all I could find on that period in human history. I asked my parents and teachers unanswerable questions, starting the inquiry that has continued for 30 years.
      “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I quoted Santayana for my first high school English classes. We compared Anne's diary to current events and made broad connections to students' lives, but in my inexperience, I only scratched at surface issues.
      Eight years ago, I started teaching 8th grade and found a play based on the diary in our text. After the students had read it, we discussed it, but questions remained. They needed answers as I had, so I went beyond Anne Frank to push deeply into topics of genocide and racism, prejudice and persecution.
      Are they too young? Too young to begin to construct a system of beliefs? Will they be too horrified? Horror defines absolutes. Perhaps earlier in my teaching career I feared disturbing them too much. Now, as they face the news each evening, I wonder, Do I dare shock their convictions too little?
      Eighth graders—inquisitive and opinionated—have not failed to grasp the impact of the Holocaust. Every year as we start the unit, I charge them with finding examples of human rights violations. Cautiously, they start at the wide edge of real events—apartheid, AIDS, Kuwait, Bosnia, Somalia. They explore and inquire, one induction at a time, until they are ready to absorb the compounded individual tragedies that marked the Holocaust.
      Before too long, one kid (like Americo, last year) frames the inference and won't let go. “Why did people allow the Holocaust to happen? Why didn't they do something?” he asked in a different way, every day. Soon others probe, challenging what they knew (or thought they knew) about human rights, justice, cruelty, and persecution.
      We talk after every reading, confronting the limits of our thinking. What does obedience mean? Who holds our freedom? What pressure makes one a persecutor? Who are we scapegoating? The students scour current trade books, poetry, short stories, and documents from the Holocaust Memorial Council. Their questions shape the unit.
      When classes investigate an article about the lives of Third Reich officials, they learn that the official's children inherited responsibility for the grievous actions of their parents. Students read documented and fictional accounts of pogroms. They discover that persecution did not come from governmental decree alone, but from frightened, misdirected individuals as well. They take discussions beyond the bell with their own eloquent: “Yeah, but what if...?”
      Viewing a stark public affairs documentary from 1960, they see Otto Frank sitting in the attic where he hid his family for two years. His choking voice has broken into tears, and mercifully, the film editor spliced to a new take. The film jerks, and Americo's eyes fall to his hands; he has no questions that day. And that's fine, because I have yet to find an appropriate closure for the suffering of that father who lived, and yet, lost his life.
      Our last trip to the edge of the darkness comes when survivors, patient but spontaneous, recount their horrors and interpret forgiveness. Parents and staff are invited, too, and as Sam rolls up his sleeve to reveal the number that was his name at Auschwitz, the moment pierces us, defines us.
      Students may not remember all the data or detail, but they know that 6 million is the figure and that the Holocaust was real. They see that horror and hope intertwine, just like good and evil. They challenge the values they once took for granted and form complex questions that linger. They have learned from this unit that, contrary to Santayana's belief, memory and study alone are not sufficient. Free and tolerant citizens question, verify, and reassert every liberty and each belief they claim if they hope to keep their generation away from the darkness.

      Kim Kunczt has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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