Holocaust handbook helps educators teach in morally gray zone

About 15 years ago, a 20-something Debbie Findling — then an educator with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and the Bureau of Jewish Education — struggled to teach teenagers about the Holocaust.

That might surprise some people, considering she wasn’t exactly inexperienced on the topic. She had earned a graduate degree in Jewish education, a doctorate in Holocaust education and led numerous trips to Poland with March of the Living. Her father, who lives in Michigan, is a Holocaust survivor.

Still, she struggled. She’d develop ideas and activities and talking points, all the while wishing she could get her hands on some sort of manual or teacher’s guide, and wondering why such a guide didn’t exist.

“There are libraries full of scholarship on the Holocaust, but there was nothing resembling a handbook for teachers,” she said. “It took a long time for me to realize I could be the person to write one.”

This summer, Findling can celebrate the publication of that book, “Teaching the Holocaust.” She co-authored it with Simone Schweber, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former educator with the BJE. Schweber’s father is also a Holocaust survivor. They dedicated the book, which took six years to complete, to both men.

“I always felt like we could do this, but given my naïve hubris, I never thought it would take us six years,” she said.

Findling currently works as a director at the Goldman Fund. Previously, in addition to BBYO and the BJE, she worked at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

The book is unique in its content, structure and voice. It’s not a textbook, nor is it a guide filled with strict and detailed lesson plans, activities and writing prompts. Rather, the book builds shelves and hooks on which middle and high school teachers can hang their own ideas.

“The goal is to present it as complicated and messy and sticky,” she said. “It’s like [author and survivor] Primo Levi once said — we should be teaching this in ‘a morally gray zone.'”

Each chapter is set up with five sections. The authors include content and context for a specific historical period (Germany 1933-39), key terms, resources for further reading, teaching ideas and “big” ideas, as opposed to specific dates and vocabulary.

“It’s engrained in us that rote memorization is important, but what’s really important about any history is the life lessons and notions of humanity,” Findling said. “The dates just give us a context.”

Findling and Schweber recount their own missteps throughout the book, as examples of what not to do, and how to learn from those mistakes.

The authors intend for the book to be embraced and used in a variety of settings: Public, private and Jewish day schools, youth groups, summer camps and Israel trips. While they acknowledge it’s written from a Jewish perspective, they also hope that non-Jewish educators — for example, a teacher at a Catholic school — will use it, too.

With “Teaching the Holocaust,” Findling and Schweber encourage educators to explore the complicated elements of this time in history, and to avoid portraying it from the singular perspective of victimization.

“Too much of history is not taught, it’s cleaned up and censored,” she said. “But we do a disservice to education, humanity and history if we teach anything less than the truth.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.