Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 27, 2014

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014

How to remember and teach the Holocaust have always been issues of debate, further complicated by the passage of time and the dwindling number of survivors. The Shoah Foundation started by Steven Spielberg has done an admirable job of capturing survivors' stories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum remains an extraordinary resource. For high school students and younger, the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum has proven useful. And in past posts in this category, we've discussed some of the many books, films and other works that grapple effectively with the Holocaust.

If it's offered again, I'd also recommend the Coursera MOOC The Holocaust. (If it's not, I hope the video lectures are put online for public access.) I went through it last year, and it was one of the best Coursera classes I've taken. For those already familiar with the subject matter, there are still new details and stories to discover. (For instance, a fascinating guest lecture focused on various Holocaust memorials around the world and the thinking behind them.) For those new to the subject, the course introduces basic key history, major themes and some notable stories.

A brief aside on MOOCs (massive open online courses). They're great for lifelong learners interested in studying something new or revisiting a beloved subject. They're also good for students with limited educational opportunities otherwise. They're not, however, a substitute for a solid overall education or good classroom instruction. (They're definitely not a good reason to fire teachers or pay them less.) MOOCs with written assignments use peer review. It's a necessity given the number of students normally involved, but it's the weakest element and (in my experience) ranges from adequate to maddening. (Critical thinking and advanced writing can't really be taught with a blunderbuss approach.)

Anyway, here's the course's blurb:

This online course grows out of the "on-campus" version that has been co-taught by Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature (Literature Department), and Peter Kenez, Professor Emeritus (History Department) for over 20 years, and has been aptly dubbed a “Legacy Course.”

The cross-listed and interdisciplinary nature of this course is its very force. Murray and Peter locate the theoretical stakes of the Holocaust at the nexus between history and literature. To this end, students will be asked to explore memoirs, historical documents, poetry, documentary footage, filmic representations, novels, and many other forms that attempt to convey the multiplicity and variety of human experience.

By the end of the course, students will have expanded their knowledge of Eastern and Western Jewish communities, the origins and development of antisemitism, the formation and operation of concentration camps, resistance movements, and the Holocaust as a problem for world-history. Additionally, students will have engaged with the problematics of representation, memory, "the memorial", and witnessing.

The assignments consisted of three short essays based on the lectures and readings. The essays were then peer reviewed.

Peter Kenez is a Holocaust survivor and Murray Baumgarten's family fled Europe before he was born. Kenez would lose his train of thought occasionally when lecturing, but he's a thoughtful man and knows the subject extremely well. Baumgarten's the more sardonic of the two and the more entertaining lecturer, but the two play off each other well, filling in important points for each other and pointing out areas of dispute between them (mostly semantic). They also have great warmth for one other. This is a class taught by two old friends who know their stuff. No doubt the real class is much better, and I doubt most of the online students went through all the materials (I still need to finish some myself). Still, given the limitations of MOOCs and the weightiness of the subject matter, I thought it was well done (helped immensely by a great teaching assistant who was very active on the discussion forums). This is material I think I know to some extent, care deeply about, and have a little experience teaching. This course and others like it could be another valuable option for teaching the Holocaust to new audiences.

Besides the lectures and some essays, these were the core materials:

Suggested Texts

Appelfeld, Aaron. Badenheim 1939
Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men
Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz
Kertész, Imre. Fateless
Schwarz-Bart, André. The Last of the Just
Tec, Nehama. Dry Tears
Wiesel, Elie. Night

Related Films

Image Before My Eyes Everything Is Illuminated
Shoah (excerpts)
Night & Fog
Europa, Europa
Partisans of Vilna
Divided We Fall
The Wannsee Conference
The Pianist
Shop On Main Street

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, also known as If this is a man, is probably my favorite piece listed above (I wrote about in a previous year), along with Alain Resnais' short but powerful documentary, Night and Fog. Anyway, it's a good list of recommendations. (Feel free to pass on any other favorites in the comments.)

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