Academic journal article English Journal

Teaching Night: Humanizing the Story of the Holocaust

Academic journal article English Journal

Teaching Night: Humanizing the Story of the Holocaust

Article excerpt

[T]he opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.

-Elie Wiesel, "One Must Not Forget"

Shortly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel told an interviewer, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference" ("One Must Not Forget" 68). Wiesel spent his long life battling indifference, "the epitome of evil." Even though he often claimed that no words were adequate to describe the horror of the Holocaust, he was nevertheless a prolific writer. Night, his first memoir, was perhaps his most effective and powerful statement intended to shock its readers out of indifference.

Today, Night is probably the most commonly taught work of Holocaust literature in the United States, read by middle school and high school students alike, even though US adolescents were not the author's intended audience. Having vowed to remain silent for ten years before writing about his experiences in Auschwitz, Wiesel pared down his 882-page memoir to its essence, publishing And the World Remained Silent in Yiddish, his mother tongue, in 1956. Two years later, the book was translated into French as La Nuit. Night was first published in English in I960 but not read widely until the 1990s. When Oprah Winfrey chose Night for her book club in 2006, sales skyrocketed and a new edition was released. This is the version most students read today (Echoes & Reflections). What do these students make of this spare and harrowing account of how a Hungarian teenager survived the Holocaust?

Unfortunately, too many react with what Simone Schweber called "'Holocaust fatigue,' the sense that 'this particular event is being taught to death'" (46). By the time students meet Night, it is likely that they have previously encountered some form of Holocaust education in multiple grades. Additionally, as the Holocaust recedes into the past, students' knowledge of its historical context can be woefully inadequate, frustrating teachers who find themselves spending more and more time just helping to build basic background knowledge.

We can think of no more appropriate place than this themed issue devoted to "Death in the English Classroom" to offer some suggestions for teaching Night in ways that engage students, challenge them to think critically, but most importantly enable them to develop empathy for the victims of the Holocaust, thereby transcending Wiesel's archenemy-indifference: "If the Jews had been able to think they had allies outside, men who did not look the other way, perhaps they might have acted differently. But the only people interested in the Jews were the Germans. The others preferred not to look, not to hear, not to know. The solitude of the Jews, caught in the clutches of the beast, has no precedent in history. It was total. Death guarded all the exits" (Legends 189).

Teaching about the Holocaust

We are two English teachers committed to Holocaust education. Liz is a professor of English education; Brandi is an experienced high school English teacher. We have both benefited greatly from the numerous professional development opportunities afforded to us, especially by Echoes & Reflections, a multimedia Holocaust education program developed by three world leaders in Holocaust education-the Anti-Defamation League, the USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies. In this article, we draw on ideas and strategies developed and recommended by Echoes & Reflections, as well as other Holocaust education organizations. The strategies we describe have been used with high school students and adults. Middle school teachers would need to make developmentally appropriate adaptations.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), "The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral issues . …

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