Teaching the Holocaust 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz: Contextualize the history.Translate statistics into people.



Update: USC Shoah Foundation & Discovery Education are hosting Auschwitz: The Past is Present Virtual Experience this Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 1:00 PM (EDT). Click here to register.

Holocaust survivors, teachers, and students gathered this past January in Poland to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Now, you are invited to participate in the Auschwitz: The Past is Present Virtual Experience so your students can hear from the participants first-hand.

Join Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics, students, and teachers to learn about the importance of remembrance and why the past is ever present today. Explore the rich history of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, visit authentic memorial sites, and discuss the consequences of hatred and intolerance.

“We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies, and chocolate. Being so alone a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human worth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness.”

-Eva Mozes Kor, age 10, survivor of Auschwitz


A photograph of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. Eva and Miriam are shown holding hands in the very front.

Eva and her twin sister Miriam were Holocaust survivors freed from Auschwitz when it was liberated 70 years ago this month.  Eva and Miriam were one of about 1500 sets of twins subjected to horrific and torturous medical experiments by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Both of Eva’s parents and her two older sisters were killed at Auschwitz.

Eva provided nearly 3 hours of survivor testimony on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995. As we mark the 70th anniversary this month, her testimony is now part of an extensive “IWitness” digital library of nearly 1,300 full life histories and testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. IWitness was developed by the USC Shoah Foundation, and is now integrated with Discovery Education Streaming and Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook.

Along with the integration of USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness with Discovery Education’s digital services and resources, the Discovery Channel will air One Day in Auschwitz on Sunday, January 25th. One Day in Aushwitz is a one-hour original special following one woman’s poignant return to Auschwitz-Birkenau 70 years after her liberation. That same day, the American Heroes Channel will air Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List at 8pm ET/PT, without commercial interruption.

USC Shoah and Discovery Education also partnered to host a contest for educators who support grades 5-12 to participate in a professional development workshop, called Auschwitz: The Past is Present ITeach Professional Development. 25 teachers from across the world were chosen to travel to Poland to attend a four-day professional development program that includes intensive courses on digital literacy, using digital assets, Polish Jewish history and incorporating a visit to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and culminates in the opportunity to attend the official 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27. In addition, video from the four-day program, as well as first person testimonies and other original programming elements will be available to students in classrooms across the United States through an exclusive Virtual Field Trip in Spring 2015.

The availability of these online testimonies and lessons as part of Discovery Education’s digital services and resources provides a valuable teaching tool. Rather than teach about Kristallnacht in a traditional lecture format, students can listen to Holocaust survivor Eva Abraham-Podietz describe her experiences being sent home from school in November 1938, walking by burning synagogues and encountering Nazi Youth.


Holocaust survivor Herman Cohn recounts the effect of Nuremberg Laws on student lives in an excerpt of his survivor testimony available on Discovery Education Streaming.

Students can examine the effects of the Nuremberg Laws by listening to Holocaust survivor Herman Cohn describe how the laws specifically affected him as a student.

The testimony of Holocaust survivor Alfred Gottschalk would also be quite engaging for students. His grandmother, a Jewish female, was elected mayor of Oberwesel, Germany in the late 1920’s. Her two sons were killed fighting for Germany during World War I. But none of that mattered when anti-Semitism wreaked havoc on German Jews in the 1930’s. Their contributions to Germany didn’t matter. Alfred explains in the testimony that they were singled out for being Jewish, irrespective of their contributions to society as German Jews.

In addition to the individual testimonies as stand-alone video segments, teachers can use the video testimonies as part of lesson plans and student activities already constructed and available on Discovery Education’s Streaming and Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook.

Students use video testimonies to help contextualize photos in Activity: Arrival at Auschwitz – Images and Individual Experiences.

In Activity: Mini Quest: Auschwitz – Inner strength, outward resistance, students use testimonies to write poems or construct collages to demonstrate their understanding of what it meant to resist in the Auschwitz camps.

These resources and activities help accomplish several important educational objectives in teaching the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum publishes guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust. Two guidelines appear glaringly aligned to the resources made available by the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education:


Events of the Holocaust, and particularly how individuals and organizations behaved at that time, should be placed in historical context. The Holocaust must be studied in the context of European history as a whole to give students a perspective on the precedents and circumstances that may have contributed to it.

Similarly, the Holocaust should be studied within its contemporaneous context so students can begin to comprehend the circumstances that encouraged or discouraged particular actions or events. For example, when thinking about resistance, consider when and where an act took place; the immediate consequences of one’s actions to self and family; the degree of control the Nazis had on a country or local population; the cultural attitudes of particular native populations toward different victim groups historically; and the availability and risk of potential hiding places.

Encourage your students not to categorize groups of people only on the basis of their experiences during the Holocaust; contextualization is critical so that victims are not perceived only as victims. By exposing students to some of the cultural contributions and achievements of 2,000 years of European Jewish life, for example, you help them to balance their perception of Jews as victims and to appreciate more fully the traumatic disruption in Jewish history caused by the Holocaust.


In any study of the Holocaust, the sheer number of victims challenges easy comprehension. Show that individual people—grandparents, parents, and children—are behind the statistics and emphasize the diversity of personal experiences within the larger historical narrative. Precisely because they portray people in the fullness of their lives and not just as victims, first-person accounts and memoir literature add individual voices to a collective experience and help students make meaning out of the statistics.

Elie Wiesel reminds us of this when he urges us to “…not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”



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