When I was growing up and attending my Bay Area synagogue’s Sunday and Hebrew School, the way that we commemorated Yom Hashoah was by having our community’s survivors come to speak about their experiences. I still remember their stories– the story about escaping the ghetto, about fleeing to China after the Shoah, about meeting a spouse in a refugee camp.
These stories were personal, and they connected me - historically- to the Shoah. Later, as a Jewish studies teacher at Heschel Day School in Northridge, CA, we worked for months with our eighth graders so that they could interview survivors, making sure they got the nuance of the stories, the larger implications, and to make those connections which allow history, even the worst of history, to matter to the next generation.
And now we have basically reached the educational plateau we all knew would happen: there are very few survivors we can call upon to come tell their stories- and those with stories were very young and don’t always have the same kinds of connections to our students as I did to the survivors who I saw each and every weekend during Shabbat.
It begs the question: how do we teach the Holocaust now? And more relevantly, how do we teach the Holocaust at Hausner? We can’t simply bring in survivors to share; we are in the new age of Holocaust education. However, as a school named after Gideon Hausner, the lead prosecutor in the Adolf Eichmann trial, we have a throughline and connection that allows us to wrestle with the history and the larger themes of the Holocaust through the legacy of Hausner himself.
Gideon Hausner did not just prosecute Adolf Eichmann. He didn’t just present train tables and other discoveries that clearly showed Eichmann’s culpability in what the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” What Hausner did, as he laid out in his opening speech, was to give a voice to the voiceless– to be the mouthpiece for those who were killed and, even more, he amplified and provided a platform for the voices of survivors, who had not had this kind of audience for their stories before. This not only created a sea change for Israeli society and the way they treated Holocaust survivors, but was a template for survivor stories to follow: unflinching, moving, and authentic accounts of the most traumatic time a human can experience.
And that is one of the challenges, too, of Holocaust education: we have a mandate to somehow convey the importance of this shocking historical event– to children– when these stories are, by all accounts, the most traumatic experiences in human history.
This is why the story of Hausner is so powerful: it isn’t a universal truth that is specific to the Holocaust: it is story that is key: and the opportunity of a platform to share stories and to convey experiences- to be a mouthpiece for those who cannot speak– and to give time and space to those who haven’t had that opportunity. Each of our Upper School classes learns about Hausner and his legacy and impact.
We are very sensitive to the fact that the details of the Shoah can be challenging for students– especially at younger ages. We begin a more in-depth Holocaust curriculum in Upper School in fifth and sixth grade, where they approach the subject through art, poetry, and individual testimonies. For example, students engage with teacher-curated paintings of Moshe Matarasso, a survivor from Salonika who painted his life before, during, and after the Shoah. This allows them to uncover larger themes and notice details in a manageable way.
Our Holocaust curriculum in Upper School overall focuses intently on the idea of the story and witnessing: our seventh graders read Anne Frank and while reading it are immersed in a historical study of the global and regional factors that led to the Shoah, the rise of Hitler, and the Third Reich, and of course, centering this around Anne Frank’s experience experiencing these things herself. Again, the idea of being able to connect and relate and to make this history as personal as possible is at the forefront of our teachers’ minds as they are planning to teach this subject. The students then have a very strong background to read Elie Wiesel’s Night the following and take their studies further both historic and personal discussing the very challenging pieces of the history of the Holocaust.
In our 8th-grade Jewish studies class, our students research family Holocaust stories– they talk to relatives and do research to uncover these stories, some of which haven’t seen the light of day in years, if not ever. These stories are the backbone of the students’ Holocaust education: they share these stories with each other and the larger community during Yom HaShoah. While they read Night as an integrated unit in Humanities and Jewish studies, it is this personal story that creates the connection which will allow the memory of the Shoah to continue– and the truths that we need to take with us and pass down from generation to generation. It is not easy to do the right thing; it isn’t easy to speak up against injustice, but these stories, and all of the stories the students encounter throughout the years as they go through Hausner’s Upper School, provide examples of those who have– and cautionary tales for our present and future about what happens if we do not.
The mural outside our art room, designed and created by the classes of 2020 and 2021, highlights these themes- of story, of justice, of being a mouthpiece for those who cannot speak– and providing a platform for people to share their stories so that we, as a community, can connect and remember, generation to generation.