Teaching the Holocaust: Light from the Yellow Star Leads the Way
VOLUME 86, NUMBER 8
Copyright by the National Council of Teachers of English
Access NCTE’s web site: www.ncte.org
Reprinted with permission
The Journal of the National Council of Teachers of English
Published since 1912
This lesson plan was prepared for use with the text
Light from the Yellow Star by Robert O. Fisch
Teaching the Holocaust:
Light from the Yellow Star Leads the Way
by Nancy Gorrell
“The Holocaust —I’ve heard all I want to hear about that.” These words were mumbled under the breath of Jane, an eleventh-grade student in my honors English class. She said them to a girl seated beside her as I was explaining our impending field trip to the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Institute at a neighboring community college. Jane’s hushed words shocked me, for as an inquisitive learner, I expected her to be enthusiastic about the trip. Ignoring her remark; I continued to explain to the class that New Jersey had recently adopted an historic law mandating the teaching of Holocaust education and genocide studies to all students in the state. As an English class, we would be reading an example of Holocaust literature, and then we would attend the Institute’s program. I stressed that we would also have the rare opportunity of hearing the firsthand testimony of Holocaust survivors and liberators as well as those of other nationalities worldwide who have experienced oppression and survived genocide.
That evening, Jane’s remark continued to bother me. Although I had been teaching American twentieth-century literature for over two decades, I had never before taught Holocaust literature. Was her remark a bellwether? I knew from prior class discussions that my students had little or no experience with Holocaust studies or literature. Their knowledge was limited to the information in their American history texts and the reading of The Diary of Anne Frank, frequently taught in our middle school. None of my students had read Night by Elie Wiesel, required reading in several local high schools, but not ours. With the exception of a few Jewish students who learned about the Holocaust from religious school, none of my students had ever heard a Holocaust survivor’s testimony seen Holocaust art, or read Holocaust poetry In addition, I had never before taken the potential to engage them with possibly painful and traumatic human experiences. I wanted to prepare my students, but how?
LIGHT FROM THE YELLOW STAR
The gem that fell into my hands was Robert 0. Fisch’s memoir, Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust (1994, Minneapolis: Frederick Weisman Art Museum of the University of Minnesota). Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this brief memoir by the Minnesota pediatrician and visual artist would open “windows” into the lives of others for both myself and my students, and it would provide “mirrors” to reflect back into our own selves and lives (see Notes). Light from the Yellow Star would provide the experiential, anticipatory set I was seeking for my students, and, most importantly it would become the critical corrective we needed in our confrontation with prejudice, moral choice, and personal responsibility.
In his opening remarks Fisch states. I have been thinking for quite a long time whether any medium is appropriate to describe the scope of the tragedy of the Holocaust. How can “sorrow, suffering, and atrocities of this magnitude be expressed?” After reading those words, I could not help but think to myself, how can the sorrow suffering and atrocities” of the Holocaust be taught? And yet, the paradox is, it must be expressed, and it must be taught if we are to remember and to prevent future genocides from happening.
I knew what I did not want—a purely factual approach of abstract numbers and events; although vitally important for a balanced history I wanted my students to place faces on those numbers. I wanted them to empathize, to be respectful of the subjects and the subject matter, and to be sensitive to the complexities of human behavior, roles and choices. Most importantly, I wanted my students to realize the consequences of the most extreme form of prejudice, genocide and how those consequences affect generations to come. The poetry of Fisch’s words in Light from the Yellow Star, the authority of his restrained voice, and the great humanity of both his artwork and message, “love overcomes hate,” enabled the realization of these objectives.
Fisch’s memoir functions on three levels. First, we see his powerful and compelling art. It adorns the cover and serves to illustrate the brief narrative text on every page. Second, we note the quotations from the gravestones in the memorial concentration camp cemetery where his father is buried. These quotations provide a head for every page of text and function as a second narrative—a “walk” for the reader through the Budapest cemetery itself. Finally we read Fisch’s personal narrative with its startling revelations and final, uplifting message.
DAY ONE: RESPONDING TO FISCH’S ARTWORK
Two days before our trip to the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Institute, I introduced Fisch’s memoir by asking my students to engage in a visualization exercise. All they would need was their response journal and an open mind. I told them to close their eyes and breathe deeply While I guided them in a few minutes of relaxed breathing, I asked them to imagine themselves in a cemetery one they had experienced or one they thought might exist in postwar Europe. I explained we were going to take an imaginary “walk” through that cemetery. While they kept their eyes closed, I read the quotations heading each page:
“These words are their flowers—”They were killed by hatred; their memory is kept alive in love.”
“I heard the news; I trembled and became speechless.”
“I cried our against the brutality, but no one listened.”
“Outside, we were destroyed by weapons; inside, by terror.”
“Death rushed through our windows.”
“The songs of the sanctuaries turned into screams.”
“Oh, God, in my sorrow, I turn to Thee.”
“How the heroes were falling!”
“Behold my misery and save me.”
“Like dawn in the darkness, Thy light arises.”
“Even death could not come between us.”
“And the whole country mourned—families and individuals”
“Because of them, our eyes are full.”
“Those martyrs live”
“After all this, should not the world tremble and every person mourn?”
“Even the stones weep.”
When I was finished, the emotions in the room were palpable. I looked at Jane; she seemed engaged and reflective. I instructed students to list in their journals words to describe how they were feeling at the moment. While they were writing, I placed on each student’s desk a copy of Light from the Yellow Star I told them not to open the book but to continue writing. When everyone was finished, I called their attention to the cover design with its red and black colors and the bold image of a hand crossed with barbed wire, fleeing figures, and a single yellow star and number.
I then asked students to observe Fisch’s art. How did it make them feel? What emotions did it evoke? I told them to write these words down in a second column in their journals. Then I asked them to consider Fisch’s intent. What emotions did they think he was feeling when he created this work of art? We listed on the board students’ personal emotional reactions and the feelings they imagined for the artist.
Remarkably, students saw connections. Many observed that the emotions they had listed “while walking through the cemetery”—anger, sadness, fear, pain, confusion, and grief—were similar to those they imagined for the artist. Students freely offered interpretations: “The black is hatred; the red suffering and blood; it looks like people fleeing the camps, could the number belong to Fisch himself’?” Captivated, they readily browsed through the rest of the text, sharing the artwork with each other Although we had not yet read the text, I asked them to reflect as to the meaning of the illustrations by choosing one they “thought they understood.” As each volunteer offered a painting and an interpretation, I asked if anyone else had viewed the illustrations differently. Thus we had a rich array of commentary worthy I believe of Fisch’s intentions,
At the conclusion of the class. I asked, “Why do you think Fisch created this artwork?” Students freely responded that he wanted to express his pain and grief; that he wanted the world to remember; that he wanted to honor the memory of those he lost. I called their attention to Fisch’s explanation at the end of his memoir:
I have painted the illustrations in this book because I felt that, as one who was there, I could justifiably attempt to describe the desolation of those who were part of the Holocaust. . . Each line, form, and color is a different shade of sorrow. (34)
At the conclusion of our first day of preparation, I felt my students had experienced some of those “shades” and were now ready to hear Fisch’s voice and to read his words.
DAY TWO: RESPONDING TO FISCH’S NARRATIVE TEXT
After distributing Light from the Yellow Star I asked for volunteers to read out loud. Six students raised their bands, and I directed them to stand and space themselves around the room in choral fashion. Then I asked each of them to read a page of the brief narrative text. I told the “audience” to observe the adjacent illustrations or to follow along without interruption. I have rarely seen my students so focused, reflective, and deeply moved. At the conclusion of the reading, silence prevailed. I allowed a few moments for reflection, and then I asked the students to “share and pair” to consider Fisch’s title. How could the Holocaust teach “a lesson of love”?
When the class reconvened to share the results of the paired discussions, I was amazed at the insights which surfaced. Students readily identified several extraordinary moments of “love” in Fisch’s narrative. After describing the brutal shooting by the Nazis of a peasant woman who attempted to feed a group of starving marchers, several students pointed out how Fisch also relates:
Yet the SS members sometimes surprised us with their actions. Together they performed their duties without hesitation, whatever the cruel or vile act. However, alone, . . . some of them behaved quite differently . . . once during a march, an SS soldier rudely broke the line, then secretly handed out sandwiches. On another occasion, the soldiers mistakenly gave out more food than the ration permitted. Humanity can he seen even in such a place as this! (20)
Another student mentioned Fisch’s Catholic nurse, Anna, who had given refuge to his mother during the war. When Fisch arrived home in Budapest, he found his mother alive, thanks to Anna and her family Students also recalled the humanity of Fisch’s father who gave his food in the camps to the needier ones, explaining, “I always have enough” (28). One student pointed to a critical moment later in the narrative after Fisch was liberated:
On my 20th birthday I had to crawl over a single step because I was too weak to walk up on it. My hatred of the Germans was simple: “I will kill them all!” Then on encountering my first German as a free man, I had to make a choice. He was dirty and hungry begging for food. I asked myself whether I should do to him what they had done to us, or if I should do what my father would do . . . I gave him some food. (30)
I called my students attention to Fisch’s words on the last page, and we read together: “We have to make a choice either to become a suppressor, taking advantage of the misery of others, or to remain humane even in an inhumane environment” (36). As the bell was about to ring, I told my students to keep Fisch’s words in mind since we would be hearing the testimony of other survivors of genocide during our trip. Little did I realize at that time how important Fisch’s words and “lesson of love” would become.
DAY THREE: RESPONDING TO LIVING HISTORY
The following day two colleagues and myself loaded three classes of junior English students onto two buses to travel to the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Institute. In the morning we heard a keynote address from a prominent civil rights leader, Samuel Proctor, followed by the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Each student had previously filled out a registration form choosing among several afternoon workshops: Second Generation, Righteous Gentiles, Native Americans, Japanese Internment, Bias and Hate Crimes, Prejudice in Urban America, among others. Finally we reconvened to hear closing remarks from Dith Pran, a Cambodian survivor of the killing fields.”
From the moment we entered the college auditorium, an air of respectful solemnity prevailed, and I could see my students responding accordingly I was proud of them, their demeanor, their attention, and their attitudes. Samuel Proctor’s personal story of his African American struggle and triumph over prejudice and discrimination brought applause from the hundreds of students in the audience. His keynote address was followed by that of a Holocaust survivor. From the moment she began to speak, she engaged the students. In matter-of-fact honesty she related the horrific events of her life from infancy to age seven when she was liberated from Auschwitz. She took us step by step, image by image, first as an infant in the ghetto, then as a three-year-old in the labor camp, and finally in Auschwitz, the death camp. When she described “through the eyes of a child,” how her mother saved her life time and time again, and how they survived and were liberated together from Auschwitz, many students were visibly moved. She also spoke of her postwar years, and coming to America with her father and mother at age twelve. Afterwards, she encouraged the students to ask her any questions they wanted, validating their thoughts and feelings as she responded.
Although I did not know it at the time, one barely audible question from the audience would profoundly affect my students. We did not clearly hear the question, but the answer would dominate our classroom discussion for several days. In response to the question, the survivor said she had not been back to Germany; “No,” she said, “I couldn’t go back there.”
Then she related a story. Years after the war, she was on an airplane. An older man was sitting next to her. She said she knew he was German by his speech, and that by his age, he must have been alive during the war. She said she could not sit next to him and had to have her seat changed. She stressed that she did not feel this way toward young Germans today or toward any Germans who were not living during the war.
DAY FOUR: RESPONDING TO LIVING PREJUDICE
The following day I was filled with anticipation. How would my students react to their encounter with living history? What would they want to talk about? What affected them the most? What would they remember? I wondered about Jane; had her attitude changed in any way? Since students attended different workshops, my plan was to allow them to share their various reactions and experiences. From the moment first period honors English began, it was clear what my students reacted to. All they wanted to speak about was the Holocaust survivor’s “answer.”
It began with a boy who said that he was shocked at the survivor’s comment that she could not sit next to a German man on a plane; this he said was clearly prejudice, since she couldn’t know anything about the man, whether he was in the war or not. He went further. “It would be as if I wouldn’t sit next to a white person because of slavery” From that moment, the discussion took on a life of its own. A girl quickly responded to the boy. She analogized, “If a man with a yellow scarf and a red hat raped you, and then, years later, even though you knew it wasn’t the same man, a man with a yellow scarf and red hat sat next to you on a plane, I can see why you would want to get up.” Another student pointed out that the boy’s analogy was “wrong.” The survivor was a victim directly hurt by the Nazis; he was not directly hurt by slavery.
The class seemed evenly divided; those struggling to understand the survivor’s reaction to the German man; others pointing to her prejudicial reaction. One student expressed concern that anyone could judge or blame a person who had gone through what this woman had experienced. “It might not be right, but it was perfectly understandable.” Others asked, “Wasn’t she supposed to be teaching us not to be prejudiced? Wasn’t that the point of the conference?”
Then Jane raised her hand. She said she was offended by the prejudicial comment of the Holocaust survivor; she herself was 40% German, her grandfather, a German-American, fought for the Allies during the war, and she still had many relatives living in Germany today “Not all Germans were Nazis,” said Jane, “Not all agreed with Hitler.”
At that moment, Light from the Yellow Star came to mind. I asked the class to speculate what Robert 0. Fisch might have done in the “airplane” situation. Students thought that Fisch would have reacted differently, recalling how he had given food to the German soldier after his liberation. “Why did he do that?” I asked. “Because he didn’t want to be like them,” Jane replied. I took the memoir off my desk and read to the class Fisch’s Afterword:
What could those silent, slaughtered millions ask us now? To hate, and to be unforgiving (the very qualities that led to their demise)? Unlikely I believe they would want us to have understanding, compassion and love.
After reading Fisch’s words, I knew we were at a critical juncture. With little time remaining, I said to the class, “Let’s think about what Jane has said; let’s think about genocide, the most extreme form of prejudice.” I pointed out, “None of us in this room was alive during the Holocaust, but look how it has affected us today” Then I wrote the first homework assignment on the board. Write one page in your response journal on the following question: What are you learning about genocide and its consequences?
To my amazement, the remaining two classes that day followed the same pattern as first period, focusing exclusively on the “answer.” Although Jane’s comment was absent from subsequent discussions, all students were affected by the survivor’s reaction. As they struggled to reconcile it with their compassion for the victim, Light from the Yellow Star continued to pave the way for understanding the complexity of various individual responses to oppression and genocide.
DAY FIVE: RESPONDING TO GENOCIDE
That evening I planned a lesson to address the complexities of my students’ responses. I began class the next day by writing on the board the following words: perpetrator, collaborator, bystander, victim, and rescuer. I explained that situations of prejudice, discrimination, and genocide confront us as human beings with grave moral choices.
Pointing to the concepts on the board, I asked students to speculate as to the various roles individuals and groups might assume in situations of genocide.
Students easily defined the roles on the board: perpetrators being the agents of genocide, collaborators aiding the perpetrators, bystanders as “doing nothing,” victims as objects of the genocide and suffering, and rescuers as saviors or heroes. I then asked students to think about the Holocaust, and the various roles individuals and groups assumed in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Students quickly identified the roles: the Nazis were the perpetrators, the Jews and other targeted groups, the victims, people from all walks of life were bystanders, and only a few were rescuers.
I then asked if individuals or groups could assume more than one role. Could a victim also be a collaborator? a bystander? a perpetrator? Could a perpetrator also be a victim?
We focused first on Robert 0. Fisch. Clearly, the class saw him as victim. What other roles did he play? Now they were able to see him as bystander and rescuer as well. Although he wasn’t a collaborator or perpetrator, they realized historically victims were forced into these roles. We reflected: is a Kapo morally less reprehensible than an SS guard? And what about the Holocaust survivor we heard? Clearly she too was victim. Is the prejudice of a victim different than the prejudice of a perpetrator? Is it justifiable as self-defense or survival? Can a perpetrator become a victim? Once again, Light from the Yellow Star led the way with its affirmation of the importance of a single human life. I read from the text where Fisch quotes the Talmud: “The destruction of a single life is like the destruction of the entire world… the death of my father was the death of the world as I had known it before” (30). We speculated, could this be why Fisch fed the starving German soldier?
I divided the class into small discussion groups and posed the question: if you were a survivor of genocide and years later you somehow found yourself sitting next to a person you associated with that genocide, how would you feel and what would you do? I allowed students ten minutes to discuss this question, and then we reconvened to share our thoughts. The universality of responses was clear: all students said they would feel incredible grief because seeing the perpetrator would remind them of their unbearable losses and experiences. Many said they would feel anger and hatred toward the person. Others said they might feel guilty for not being able to do anything.
We spoke about these “‘prejudicial” reactions as understandable human responses. The class was divided on “what they would do.” Some students said they would remain in their seats because they could not know exactly what this person had done. Others said they would most certainly leave. “What makes it possible for some survivors to remain and others not?” I asked. “It’s all how they feel,” Jane said. “It’s all how they deal with their grief and loss.” “Yes,” I responded, every survivor has to decide for himself or herself what to do with the anger, hatred, grief and sorrow, and that’s why many speak out, write memoirs, and create art.”
We “concluded”‘ that day with no final answers, but rather, with a host of questions, the kind which I believe are portable and life altering. Comments from student response journals reflect the impact of our study:
I will never forget the courage of Robert 0. Fisch. It’s hard to believe someone who suffered so much could be so kind to his enemy.
Robert 0. Fisch is an incredible example of forgiveness. I don’t know if I could have fed that German soldier.
I’m glad Jane told us about her grandfather and being German. I never thought I was prejudiced, but I too was talking about all Germans as if they were Nazi killers. You can be prejudiced when you don’t even realize it.
My first experience in teaching Holocaust education changed me as well as my students. Jane opened my eyes; I had not considered the third generation German American students in my class and how this education might affect them. Clearly all Germans cannot be characterized as Nazis, nor should any nationality be reduced to a singular or one-dimensional description lest we perpetuate stereotypes, prejudice, and hatred. Similarly though Jews and others were targeted for destruction by the Nazis, their experiences were not all the same, nor were their reactions to oppression and genocide. Holocaust education demands language sensitivity and language precision if we are to be true to the complexity of history and the nuances of human behavior. Most importantly it demands that we see all people involved as human; that is, capable of great humanity as well as cruelty
In this regard, Robert 0. Fisch’s ultimate message on the final page of his narrative is both provocative and inspirational:
Even among the most sorrowful memories, the humanitarian acts performed by compassionate individuals shine above the dark side of brutality I wrote this book because good can be learned even from the worst human tragedies. In life—and even in death—the human spirit, love and fine principles lead the way for the survivors. (36)
Light from the Yellow Star remains an invaluable testimony among the rich and diverse literature of the Holocaust, one which I will continue to use in my teaching for years to come.
I am indebted to Emily Style, national director of the SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) for the conceptual framework of “window and mirror.” Style suggests that a balanced and framed curriculum should open “windows” into the lives of others as well as offering “mirrors” for the experiences of self. See “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” Listening for All Voices: Gender-Balancing the School Curriculum (1988, Summit, NJ: Oakknoll School Monograph).
Nancy Gorrell teaches at Morristown High School in New Jersey. A 1991-92 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year her poetry has been published in English Journal and Reflections on the Gift of Watermelon Pickle, second edition (1995, Glenview IL: Scott, Foresman), among others.
Ozick, Cynthia. 1992. “Prologue,” Rescuers: Portraits in Moral Courage in the Holocaust. Gay Block and Ma1ka Drucker, eds. New York: Holmes and Meier. Ozick discusses the roles of criminal, victim and bystander in the Holocaust and a fourth category, the rescuers. The introduction by Malka Drucker outlines “characteristics and conditions” shared by the rescuers of the Holocaust. These testimonies coupled with Fisch’s work speak to the best of humanity in an age of brutality offering a portrait of human capacity.
Teaching about the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators. Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. An invaluable resource with teaching guidelines, goals and objectives and a detailed, annotated bibliography of resources for all levels of students. (Note: no publication date or editors credited.)