Using Holocaust Short Stories and Poetry in the Social Studies Classroom

Carol Danks

Unfortunately, most history textbooks contain little information on the Holocaust. For the teacher who wants to assist his or her students in exploring the Holocaust in greater depth, there exists a multitude of non-fiction including survivor accounts, primary documents, and essays. An ever-increasing number of fictional texts are also available on the Holocaust, and these, too, should be considered. Having students read fiction and poetry related to the Holocaust may reveal unique insights that are not always apparent or readily gleaned by students when they read non-fictional, historical accounts.

Caveats and Guidelines
Caveats and guidelines must accompany the use of fictional texts to elucidate a subject as horrifying and far-reaching as the Holocaust. First, some caveats. Students often find the events of the Holocaust unbelievable-"How could such a thing have happened?" "Surely it wasn't so bad; if it had been, someone would have stopped it." Introducing fictional accounts might give rise to students dismissing them as "just stories," as "not true." Thus, the teacher must take care to place the fiction and poetry in context, accompany it with historical information, and address at least briefly the differences between historical "truth" and fictional "truth."
Teachers must help students avoid the tendency to try and find direct correlation between events in fictional accounts and historical ones. Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer says, "When the Holocaust is the theme, history imposes limitations on the supposed flexibility of artistic license."1 Because we are still so close in time to the events and facts, we tend to impose them on the fictional accounts, expecting fictional truths to correspond exactly with historical ones. This unwillingness to blur the boundaries between fiction and fact exists, according to Langer, "because the urgency of the historical event continues to exert its mysterious power over modern consciousness."2

Finally, just as we need to be careful not to insist upon direct correlation of what Langer calls fictional fact and factual fact, we must not use the literature to try and teach historical facts. Literature adds to and works with historical facts to bring events, places, and people to life. Literature universalizes specific occurrences so that the meaning reaches beyond the historical facts themselves. Fictional accounts and poetry should augment, not replace, factual, historical accounts.

The fictional literature we select needs to fulfill at least four criteria. It must be (1) accurate in reflecting both historical facts and perspective, (2) authentic in the voices it portrays, (3) developmentally appropriate for students, and (4) practical in length for the time constraints of the classroom.

On another note, less is more. In other words, have students read one or two short stories or poems and give them time to think and write and discuss both what they have learned and their reactions to that new knowledge.

While a large number of novels and young adult fiction exist about the Holocaust, this article will not address them, primarily because of the practical time constraints that exist in the already overloaded social studies curricula. Instead, the focus is on two short stories and some poetry, any of which can be incorporated into existing lesson plans without requiring large amounts of time.

Incorporating Short Stories into a Study of the Holocaust
Holocaust literature can be used in social studies classrooms in a variety of ways. In a unit on World War II that has established a context for the Holocaust, the literary texts can move students beyond strings of facts to feeling the pulse of emotions in which they come to empathize with others' pain, challenges, despair, and/or joy.
If a thematic approach is used, then the literature can be incorporated in discussions of prejudice, propaganda, forced separation from established society, scapegoating, and methods of totalitarian state control. This Holocaust literature can stand on its own as an exploration of the human spirit and can challenge students to consider issues of ethics, morality, control over others, and consequences-issues vitally important in the study of history.

The Shawl
Cynthia Ozick's widely anthologized short story "The Shawquot; was written in 1989 as both a short story and a novella. The short story sears into readers the overwhelming sense of hunger, exhaustion, and impotence within the characters as Rosa, her infant Magda and a 14-year-old girl Stella are forced to march to a concentration camp with its barracks and roll call arena. Through Rosa's eyes, we experience the dehumanizing results of the Nazis' actions, which denied these characters, and millions of other people, their basic rights.
Regardless of a reader's sex or age, we cringe at a mother's futile-yet instinctive-challenge of saving her infant from the enemy's hands. Through Rosa, we feel the utter emptiness, not only of her milkless breasts but also of her hopeless protective actions. Only the shawl has any protective powers, and it gains a magical status as it provides "milk of linen,"3 nourishing Magda for three days and nights. Suffering from almost unbearable hunger and cold, Stella's jealousy for the sustenance of the infant Magda's food and the warmth of her shawl causes her to steal from the young child, an act that ultimately contributes to the child's death. The normally protective response of an older human to a helpless young one goes awry, self-preservation sets in, and "Stella's heart was cold."4

Ozick informs readers about the setting quietly, focusing on the responses of the characters rather than on the perpetrators. Magda's face is rosy with blue eyes and wisps of hair "nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa's coat."5 An infant who instinctively learns to refrain from the one thing infants do best-cry-suggests the powerful forces of self-preservation. Magda continues to adapt to inhuman situations, to realize the need to remain mute when she becomes a toddler and Rosa hides her under the shawl in the barracks.

Finally, Magda no longer can contain her silence and screams during roll call. Rosa looks across the arena and sees Magda high up on someone's shoulders. This someone, who wears a helmet that sparkles like a goblet and who has "a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots,"6 proceeds to throw the child against the electrified fence. As Rosa mutes her own shrieks with Magda's shawl, we share her emotions of loss, impotence, and futility. Drinking "Magda's shawl until it dried,"7 Rosa leaves readers with an unfillable emptiness.

While teachers may be reluctant to have students encounter such powerful literary experiences that suggest little or no hope, we cannot lead students to believe in false hope. Anne Frank may have believed that in spite of everything, people are good, but in fact, the events of the Holocaust were heinous, despicable, dehumanizing, and without redemption. We need to help students confront these realities and work together to try and understand them.

Ozick's story can help us when students ask, "Why didn't the Jews do something?" The world into which these characters were forced gives only one real option of "doing something." To survive under these circumstances is "doing something." Rosa faces three dilemmas regarding her infant daughter, and her response to each is the same. While on the march, Rosa thinks of leaving the line momentarily to "push Magda into the hands of any woman on the side of the road"; but she does nothing because "if she moved out of line they might shoot."8 As Magda screams on the roll call arena, Rosa wrestles with whether or not to try and retrieve her. But, given the shawl's magical qualities of sustenance and silence, grabbing her back without the shawl would not stop her shrieks and finding the shawl would make Magda mute again. Finally, Rosa must decide whether to run to try and save Magda as the helmeted figure carries her off. But "she only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda's body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf's screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot."9 There is no such thing as options in these situations, and this short story helps readers grasp that truth in ways that historical facts cannot.

How can teachers use "The Shawquot; in the social studies classroom? First it can-and should-be read as literature. Ask students to write their response/reaction to the piece. What shocks them? Upsets them? Confuses them? Horrifies them? Intrigues them? Sustains them? Sharing these responses in class raises issues that are concerns of the students themselves and provides a means of discussing points of importance to them. From my own classroom use of student responses to literature, I never cease to be amazed at how insightful and honest they are. Rather than the teacher trying to guess or imagine what students need and/or want to discuss or have clarified, the students themselves take more ownership of their reading and direction of their learning.

Discussion and/or mini-research projects could focus on a variety of topics raised in the story: (1) What are some of the ramifications for the victim who was forced to wear the yellow star? For the oppressor? What issues does it raise in regard to identity? Ostracism? Otherness? (2) How were victims transported to camps? What impact could this have on the victims? Why would the oppressors utilize these means? (3) Given that the camp guards had weapons, were well fed, and were treated well, what impact could this have on the victims' behavior? On the oppressors' behavior? What implications are raised about resistance? (4) The story suggests the starvation of victims. Have students research how much food victims were given. What are some of the ramifications of this? The short- and long-term effects on the victims? What does the control of food intake suggest about the underlying motives of the oppressors? (5) What were some of the physical, psychological, and emotional consequences for people who were forced to stand for hours on the roll call arena? What are some reasons the oppressors might have had for using this tactic? (6) This story suggests various methods that the Nazis used to dehumanize victims and maintain control over them. What do these suggest about the use and abuse of power? About the Nazis' awareness of psychological tactics? Of human needs?

Students could compare and evaluate their textbook's information with their literary experiences. What types of information were conveyed in each? Which experience affected them more? How and why? What else would they like to know on the topic?

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Tadeusz Borowski's book of short stories, titled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, looks at the author's Holocaust experiences through the lens of fiction. As a non-Jewish member of the Polish underground and a writer, Borowski was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in 1943. He was later incarcerated at Dachau until the liberation in 1945. Because he was not Jewish, he was not sent to the gas chambers, and he enjoyed a more privileged place in the camps. Distinctions were made among prisoners and his stories help us see them.
Borowski's tone suggests that the events on forced marches and in the camp were normal and commonplace. He completely detaches himself from the scenes and causes his readers to ask questions about the type of world that could sustain this type of normalcy. The stories show people doing what they must to survive. Borowski felt responsible because he survived; and for anyone who survived there was "an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp."10 Borowski committed suicide in 1951.

Any of his stories could be incorporated into the history classroom, but one, "The People Who Walked On," is filled with historical details as a background to powerful human emotions. The story is permeated with a sense that humans can get used to anything-soccer fields at Auschwitz, one needle for numerous injections, hundreds of people walking past and disappearing into gas chambers and crematoria.

The first-person narrator relates his activities in Auschwitz, including soccer games and work as a roofer. The story shows camp life and structure with the S.S. guards, kapos, and block elders, some of whom were humane, and the prisoners, who were only waiting for death.

Death's presence is commonplace. Knowledgeable readers understand that the thousands who "walked on" were Jews who were marked immediately for death or work preceding death. The women, being warehoused for some unknown reason, were also marked for death. As a protective Block Elder shouts to them when she can no longer stand their ignorance of historical fact, "Your children, your husbands and your parents are not in another camp at all. They've been stuffed into a room and gassed! Gassed, do you understand? Like millions of others, like my own mother and father. They're burning in deep pits and in ovens."11

The narrator and other men roofing the shanties are clearly privileged among the prisoners, with their freedom to move around sectors of the camp and to observe rather than be forced to participate in the "walks" to the ovens. All prisoners were not alike, just as the narrator realizes that the women "were not so much alike as it had seemed when we looked at them from another sector, from a distance of twenty metres."12 We, as readers in sectors far removed from the camps, may tend to see the camp population as alike. But Borowski forces us to look clearly at the differences of the prisoners.

Borowski juxtaposes key questions relating to the Holocaust. For some prisoners, the elemental ones end the story as the narrator sees a Jew asking insistently, "Any packages today? Couldn't you sell me some eggs for Mirka [a guard]? I'll pay in marks. She is so fond of eggs. . . ."13 Those key questions involve physical survival-additional food or clothing-and barter with which to gain preferential treatment from the Block Elder guard. But another question was there for prisoners who had the energy and strength to ask it. It is the question that we as human beings who have come after these events and as teachers of young people ask today: "Will evil be punished? I mean in human, normal terms!"14 The story leaves us with no answer.

A variety of activities could accompany this story. (1) Having students write their responses, reactions, and questions about the story is powerful. Their comments and questions can help guide class discussion. (2) In order to emphasize the normal deeds done in abnormal situations, students could list examples of apparently normal activities in the camp, such as soccer, medical injections, roofing, etc., and then discuss (a) how and why these activities are seen as completely normal by the narrator even in the ugly light of Auschwitz, (b) what this suggests about the life and ethics in the camps, and (c) what this suggests about human nature itself. (3) This story reveals that distinctions were made among prisoners, with some having more freedoms than others. Why would the oppressors choose to make these distinctions? What are some of the ramifications that these differences could have for the more privileged victims? For the less privileged ones? (4) A continual image in this story is the line of victims who "walk on" to the gas chambers. What impacts would this continual reminder of the nearness of death have on those who were not selected immediately? What do their responses suggest about human nature? About the need for self-preservation?

Incorporating Poetry into a Study of the Holocaust
Poetry filters human experience, making the particular both specific and inclusive. Poetry about various aspects of the Holocaust can provide another way of incorporating literature into the social studies classroom. From a practical standpoint, poetry is easy to include in tight time frames within classes. It can be read as homework or read together in class; in any event, the poetry should be read aloud so that students can hear the voice of the poet.
The poetry and drawings of the children who were in the ghetto and camp at Terezin in Czechoslovakia vividly re-create the experiences of these young people. The poems in I Never Saw Another Butterfly can be read orally together in class and provide a catalyst for discussion about the historical town of Terezin and the model ghetto and camp established there by the Nazis. The images of trains rolling over foreheads, of butterflies no longer existing in the camp, of young voices crying out for humane treatment and life all create personal connections between students and these young authors. The poems can also be used to impress upon students that the tentacles of the Final Solution reached out to entrap all Jews, including young children; by using poems in this way, questions of Nazi intentions and purposes are raised.

A very short poem by Dan Pagis titled "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car" connects the transforming of poetry with the transportation of human cargo. The unfinished nature of the poem suggests the unexpectedness of the interruption of activity and the onset of death.

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him i 15

The physical place of the narrator in a "carload" immediately calls up questions about cattlecars and train operations. The names Eve, Abel, and Cain suggest that the killer and victim are within the same family, here the same biological family of Adam and Eve, but also, by implication, the larger family of humans.

One way to approach this poem is to omit the title and author's name. Then, readers might see this as a form of graffiti and would have to have knowledge of the story of Adam and Eve's son Cain killing his brother Abel. After some general discussion of the more universal elements in the poem, the title could be introduced. Within the specific events of the Holocaust, the poem becomes laden with images of train transports.

The teacher could tie the poem into the historical facts of the efficient train system that transported victims from the ghettos to the camps. One and one-half million transport workers ran the trains under the leadership of technocrats who used time charts and memoranda to accomplish their deadly tasks. The train companies were paid to transport the victims, full price for adults and half price for children. Ministry of Interior memoranda specify when, where, and how people were to be transported and the amounts of payments to be received by the railroad management. These straightforward historical facts become freighted with human meaning when discussed in connection with the Pagis poem.

Nelly Sachs fled Germany in May 1940 and spent the war in Sweden, thanks to the intervention of novelist Selma Lagerlof, with whom Sachs had corresponded. During the war, she started writing poems about the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust, and in 1966, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A poem titled "You Onlookers"16 squarely addresses the issue of the bystanders, those who neglected to assist the victims and who, in turn, "contributed" to the ultimate actions of the Holocaust. Discussions about the role of bystanders could be generated by this poem. Sachs is almost accusatory in her tone toward those "whose eyes watched the killing" and "who raised no hand in murder,"17 but did nothing to try and stop it. Issues of inaction because of fear for one's family and one's self and a real fear of retribution need to be addressed, as well as inaction based on true complicity and agreement with the anti-Semitic tenets of the Nazi regime.

Another of Sachs's poems, "If I Only Knew," brings a clear and personal focus on the victims at their times of death. In that poem the narrator has a plaintive desire to know "On what your last look rested."18 There follows a naming of specific elements on which he or she might have looked-a stone, earth, a puddle, the enemy's belt buckle, some sign of heaven. The poem ends by asking if the earth sent some sign "Reminding your soul that it quivered/In the torment of its burnt body?"19 This recognition of the humanness of the victims, of the existence of a soul, even within the hell of its burned body, must never be forgotten as we study the Holocaust. Sachs's poem reminds us that behind all of the train schedules, memoranda, orders, and other attempts to dehumanize the victims were human beings whose lives were snuffed out.

When we present our students with the historical facts and explanations regarding anti-Semitism, racism, intolerance, desire for power, and attempts at survival so evident during the Holocaust, we must also help them connect with the events and participants on an emotional level. When we vicariously experience Rosa's powerlessness and loss, or see the distinction between prisoners who had freedom within the camps and those who walked on to the gas chambers or when we sense the disappearance of butterflies and freedom or the humanity of the victims, then we learn truths about ourselves. The truths of literary fiction can help illuminate and humanize the truths of historical facts.

1Lawrence L. Langer, Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 76.

2 Langer, Admitting the Holocaust, 76.

3 Cynthia Ozick, "The Shawl," In The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 602.

4 Ibid., 604.

5 Ibid., 602.

6 Ibid., 605.

7 Ibid., 606.

8 Ibid., 602.

9 Ibid., 606.

10 Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (New York: Penguin, 1983), 22.

11 Tadeusz Borowski, "The People Who Marched On," in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, ed. Tadeusz Borowski (New York: Penguin, 1983), 91.

12 Ibid., 87.

13 Ibid., 97.

14 Ibid., 97.

15 Leatrice Rabinsky and Carol Danks, eds., The Holocaust: Prejudice Unleashed (Ohio: Ohio Council on Holocaust Education, 1994), 14.

16 Nelly Sachs, "You Onlookers," in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, ed. Lawrence L. Langer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 641.

17 Ibid., 641.

18 Nelly Sachs, "If Only I Knew," in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, ed. Lawrence L. Langer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 642.

19 Ibid., 642.

Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.-----. "The People Who Marched On." In This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, edited by Tadeusz Borowski. New York: Penguin, 1983.Hana Volavkova, ed. I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. New York: Schocken Books, 1993.Langer, Lawrence L. Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.Ozick, Cynthia. "The Shawl." In The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.Rabinsky, Leatrice, and Carol Danks, eds. The Holocaust: Prejudice Unleashed. Ohio: Ohio Council on Holocaust Education, 1994.Sachs, Nelly. "If Only I Knew," and "You Onlookers," In Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, edited by Lawrence L. Langer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Carol Danks teaches English at Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. Actively involved in Holocaust education for over a decade, she conducts workshops, serves on the Ohio Council for Holocaust Education, and was co-editor of Ohio's Holocaust curriculum.