Horrific events of Holocaust often hard to convey for educators

When she was growing up, Bailey Braner’s family kept Jewish traditions and observed Jewish holidays.

“My mom’s Jewish, but my dad is not Jewish,” she says, but “we were raised Jewish. We’d keep kosher in the house, and we’d do all the High Holidays stuff.”

But Jewish upbringing notwithstanding, Braner doesn’t remember learning much about the Holocaust as a child.

“I never really heard about it, or it was never talked about in the house,” says Braner, who’s a senior at the Adelson Educational Campus.

Then, in sixth grade, Braner’s teacher began to instruct students about Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. Braner was shocked, upset, disbelieving, even scared when she learned what had been done to the Jewish people only a few decades ago.

Now, several years later, Braner has learned much about the Holocaust, both in school and on her own. She understands more thoroughly the causes and consequences of the Holocaust.

The only things she hasn’t been able to understand since then: Why, and how, something so monstrous could ever have happened.

It may be a question nobody will ever fully answer, and that makes it vital for teachers to instruct students about the Holocaust, even if many teachers find it a particularly intimidating topic.

This evening, Southern Nevadans will honor the memory of Holocaust victims during the community’s annual Yom HaShoah- Holocaust Remembrance Day observance.

The program, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas in cooperation with the Board of Rabbis of Southern Nevada, will begin at 7 p.m. at Midbar Kodesh Temple, 1940 Paseo Verde Parkway, Henderson.

The internationally observed annual event serves as one means of continuing to educate the world about the Holocaust. But, for teachers standing before classrooms of students, teaching the Holocaust “is a challenge,” says Bryan Kessler, Upper School Judaic studies teacher at the Adelson Educational Campus and educational liaison with the Sperling Kronberg Mack Holocaust Resource Center in Las Vegas.

There’s the sheer, almost unbelievable enormity of the event. The challenge of conveying to students the horror of the Holocaust without frightening them. The intellectual challenge of picking apart the Holocaust to uncover the lessons, both human and political, it may teach.

But, Kessler says, “I think teachers, in some way, are afraid to teach it because they’re not sure how to convey the message.”

In the Clark County School District, students begin to study the Holocaust in fifth grade via their social studies text and literary works such as “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” Then, and in increasingly greater depth, students explore other political and historical aspects of the Holocaust in their U.S. and world history classes in seventh, 10th and 11th grades.

But, particularly in lower grades, “I don’t even start with the Holocaust,” Kessler says. “I start with intolerance.”

To understand the irrational emotional underpinnings of the Holocaust, students may be asked about times when they have prejudged someone and participate in activities aimed at helping them to learn about and cultivate empathy toward other people.

“One thing I ask is: What can make someone hate their neighbors — not just dislike them, but hate them?” Kessler says.

Another challenge a teacher may face is helping students to visualize the large numbers — 6 million Jewish people and about 5 million people of other social and religious backgrounds were killed — associated with the Holocaust. Kessler knows of teachers who had students collect 6 million paper clips, and then imagine each paper clip representing a Jewish Holocaust victim.

“That can at least get them in the mindset of understanding how enormous and monumental this number is,” Kessler says. “It’s making that initial connection, and you have to make that initial, emotional connection. Then, they don’t see it as just history.”

Deena Holloway, coordinator in the Clark County School District’s literacy services department, says even young children can learn from well-designed lessons.

“I think at the heart of most students … is an understanding that we are to care about others,” she says.

“Generally, students are very interested, and they also have, I think, a difficult time even believing that something like (the Holocaust) could happen.”

“The most difficult piece, I think, is that the teacher really needs to be sensitive to (students’) emotions,” Holloway adds, and offer students “a forum to write about, talk about and learn about this in a nonjudgmental atmosphere.”

Braner says that, in retrospect, her initial exposure to the Holocaust in sixth grade was “late, actually, because I have a sister in fourth grade and she knows as much about the Holocaust as I did in sixth grade.”

Then, “I couldn’t really believe it,” Braner says. Initially, she adds, “I think I kind of denied it as a Jewish person. I was looking at those numbers, and those numbers didn’t really seem to exist to me. Eleven million people (Jewish and non-Jewish) killed in the concentration camps; I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the number of people who died.

“And the magnitude of how horrific it was, it sounded to me like a horror movie at that age. I couldn’t believe it.”

Then, in ninth grade, Braner heard a Holocaust survivor tell her story, and “that’s when I really started to believe it.” Hearing the first-person story “triggered an emotional response,” Braner says. “So I started to kind of grasp it a little more.”

In learning about the Holocaust, Braner and generations of students before her have been able to hear firsthand stories about the Holocaust from those who survived it. Holloway recalls attending a conference at which students heard from, and met with, Holocaust survivors.

“First of all, they were just kind of in awe. The stories are so amazing,” Holloway says. “I sat beside a high school student who sat there and cried. As they were finishing speeches, they took pictures and they wanted (a survivor’s) autograph. Students are aware there won’t be very many years we can have this kind of conversation with survivors.”

“Our survivor community in Las Vegas is amazing,” Kessler says. “They’re willing to, with their last breath, come and meet with any school, any student who wants to come and meet them, and when students make that emotional connection with a person, you build empathy.”

Kessler adds that the imminent challenge Holocaust educators face “is to make sure teachers have tools so that when survivors are not here, they could still build that empathy.”

Successive generations of students “aren’t going to be privileged enough to have survivors to speak to,” Braner says, and the stories survivors tell “are important. Kids can hear dates and all that stuff, but the more personal you make it, the more real it sounds and the more emotional response you’re going to get from some kids.”

Kessler says that valley teachers who aren’t sure about how to design Holocaust-related lessons for students have resources available through the school district, as well as a variety of resources available through the Sperling Kronberg Mack Holocaust Resource Center here.

Even with the challenges it involves, teaching about the Holocaust remains as important as ever, Kessler says. And the most important lesson the Holocaust can teach?

“In the face of the ultimate dehumanization and every attempt to dehumanize people — taking away their names, taking away their homes, separating families — you’re telling the story of those who fought to keep their humanity in the face of this dehumanization,” Kessler says.

“It’s difficult to try to teach something like that to children,” Braner says, “but it’s something that’s very, very necessary, and it has to be done, because history does repeat. It’s a cliche, but it does.

“And something of that magnitude — 11 million dead, and something so horrible and nonhuman — we can’t let that happen again.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.

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