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The Role of the Artifact in Teaching about the Holocaust

While the Holocaust bears the distinction of being the most documented genocide, it also bears the weight of incomprehension. Oftentimes, this leads to pedagogical approaches that, though well-intentioned, distort or trivialize history. To better understand the factors that led to the persecution and murder of European Jews and millions of non-Jews, how do intentional encounters with seemingly ordinary artifacts—in the exhibition space of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and through its online resources—promote historical thinking for understanding the Holocaust's profundity?

First, artifacts facilitate translating the statistical millions into individuals.

First, artifacts facilitate translating the statistical millions into individuals. (1) This in turn demonstrates how chronology, geography, and circumstance led to persecution, murder, or survival for the mosaic of victims. When used as a sustained classroom teaching tool, the identity cards visitors receive when entering the Permanent Exhibition illustrate these factors. (Over 500 are now available on the Museum's website.)

For example, the identity card of Gad Beck reveals that as a Mischlinge—the child of a German Gentile mother and Jewish father—Beck was spared deportation to the killing centers in Eastern Europe. While many homosexuals lived in fear, and thousands were persecuted and murdered, being part of the homosexual community aided Beck’s survival. He turned to trusted non-Jewish homosexual friends to provide food and hiding places.

Beck's card also calls for inquiry into the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws. Under these laws, anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents was considered to be Jewish, regardless of whether that individual identified himself or herself as a Jew or belonged to the Jewish religious community. The card details his betrayal by a Jewish spy for the Gestapo near the end of the war in 1945. The year bears examination, for if his betrayal had occurred prior to 1945, this would have severely limited his chance to survive.

Second, artifact contemplation helps to contextualize the Holocaust beyond the brutality of mass murder.

Second, artifact contemplation helps to contextualize the Holocaust beyond the brutality of mass murder. On the Museum's third floor, visitors encounter a mass assortment of victims' shoes from the Majdanek killing center near Lublin, Poland. The shoes signify the systematic plunder of victims' belongings in the dehumanization process of the Holocaust. Students visiting the shoe exhibit notice the deterioration of the shoes, but they may also notice the variety of styles and realize that for many victims, the shoes may be the only personal items that survive them. The shoes remind students of the personal stories behind the artifact.

Next to the shoes, the Tower of Faces displays photographs of shtetl life in Eishyshok, now in Lithuania. These photos, available on the Museum's online archive, portray a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and in two days murdered the Jewish population. The photos speak not to the killing, but to the culture and inhabitants of Eastern European shtetl life before the war while ensuring that the victims not remain faceless or forgotten.

Third, analyzing artifacts of Holocaust history helps avoid giving simple answers to complex questions

Third, analyzing artifacts of Holocaust history helps avoid giving simple answers to complex questions. The voyage of the St. Louis, displayed on the Museum's fourth floor and in an online exhibition, frames the often-asked question, "Why didn't they just leave?" as a conduit to understanding how U.S. immigration quotas established in the 1920s prevented significant Jewish immigration in the 1930s and 1940s.

Examining the photo album of a St. Louis passenger increases students' understanding of the individuals who were impacted by the "push-pull-push back" factors of emigration and immigration. The album's photos depict passengers dancing and dining, roller-skating and sunning themselves on the ship's deck, blissfully unaware that they will soon be denied entry to Cuba and the U.S. Realizing that their lives were in peril if they remained in Europe, their fates were determined by factors beyond their control. The photo album prompts students to look at the social, diplomatic, political, and often anti-Semitic tone in the U.S. before and during the war. The St. Louis photo album provokes scrutiny of U.S. foreign policy then and now, and perhaps more importantly, the photo album conveys that history is not inevitable but is shaped by decision-making at all levels.

Analysis of the Museum's rich trove of artifacts can move the Holocaust from the abstract to the tangible. As the witness generation passes away, Holocaust education will rely increasingly on evidence from the era. Through contemplation of artifacts and other documents, studying the Holocaust will remain dynamic well into the 21st century.

Note: The views expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or any other organization.

1 The three methodologies the author outlines are based on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust.