A range of classes helps teens put Holocaust in perspective

The Holocaust. Hitler. Eight million dead. World War II. Concentration Camps. Nazis.

The events of 12 terrible years in Germany carry important lessons for our young people. Students must understand events of the past and recognize how these events of prejudice, discrimination, and violence play out today in places like Bosnia or Rwanda.

In the Beaver Dam Unified School District, Holocaust instruction is spread throughout the curriculum. Seventh-graders learn about prejudice and meet a survivor of the Holocaust. Eighth-graders read Anne Frank's diary, and ninth-graders read Elie Wiesel's "Night." We also cover World War II in ninth- and 10th-grade history.

Our community values this breadth of coverage. Most of the curricula is continuous and addresses age appropriateness. The curriculum needs breadth and depth because of many lessons to be learned from the Holocaust.

Beaver Dam is fortunate to have a German-American Partnership Program partner school in Giessen, Germany. The purpose of the exchange is peace through understanding. It deals with prejudice and stereotypes by bringing people together. Students, who apply and interview before being chosen for participation, cover the $1,300 cost for 26 days in Germany. The German and US governments supply funding and support based on group size.

The trip helps students become responsible experts on Germany. They must realize how others view them after they return. Families and friends see them as "knowing" everything about Germany. The students realize they do not know everything. Chaperones prepare students to deal with overexpectations.

While in Germany, our students live with families, attend school, and participate in excursions. One trip is to Weimar and nearby Buchenwald, a concentration camp. Buchenwald connects to our students because they have read Elie Wiesel's novel based on his teenage experiences with the Holocaust and life in a concentration camp.

Students prepare for the visit. Important group dynamics are being sensitive to others' feelings, deciding to take pictures, and walking alone or in a group. Time during and after the visit focuses on student questions about what happened at Buchenwald. Follow-up when we return to Beaver Dam is important. Participants talk to the ninth-grade classes reading "Night." Ninth-graders are riveted to the impressions of their peers.

These "expert" students speak in the German classes as well. For several weeks, the German Four class studies the Weimar Republic, World War II, and the Holocaust. During this time, exchange participants share their impressions with classmates, some of whom have visited Auschwitz or the Holocaust Memorial in Washington. The course challenges students to gain the vocabulary and language skills needed to do independent reading about the Holocaust.

As a friend once said, "From whom better to learn about the Holocaust, than the Germans." The documents kept by the Nazis are in German. To empower students to continue learning on their own, they need the language used by the Nazi perpetrators.

Our curriculum is not all-encompassing, nor is it unique in addressing the Holocaust. Fortunately there are many programs bringing this experience to youths so the greatest lesson of all will be learned: Never again.

- Greg Smith

Greg Smith teaches German at Beaver Dam (Wis.) High School.

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