Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

The Start is as Important as the Finish: Establishing a Foundation for Study of the Holocaust

Samuel Totten
Over the past several years, I have given considerable thought to the question of how best to initiate a study of the Holocaust. As with any study, it is vitally important to ascertain the knowledge base possessed by students before examination of the subject begins. Also important is for students to express their interests and concerns about the subject. Towards these ends, I have designed a series of opening activities with the express purpose of discovering:

This article delineates four types of opening activities that can help frame a study of the Holocaust. Quite obviously, they are not the only tools available for assessing student knowledge of the subject. But they are some of the most powerful methods I have used up to this point.

Developing a Cluster
A particularly effective manner for engaging students in an activity that helps measure the depth of their knowledge is to have them develop a cluster (mind-map, web, or conceptual map) around the “target” word/event, “Holocaust.” A cluster has been defined as “a nonlinear brainstorming process that generates ideas, images, and feeling around a stimulus word until a pattern becomes discernible.”1 More graphically, teacher Michael O’Brien defined clustering in the following manner: “Think of them as flowers. Clusters do, after all, resemble flowers whose petals burst forth from the central corolla. Note that clusters do beautifully in both remedial and advanced classes... .”2
To develop a cluster, have students write the term “Holocaust” in the center of a piece of paper (81/2" by 11"), circle it, and then draw spokes on which to place related terms or ideas. Each time a term is added, they should circle it and draw new spokes for relating it to other terms and concepts. Each new or related idea may thus lead to a new clustering of ideas. As Rico points out: “A cluster is an expanding universe, and each word is a potential galaxy; each galaxy, in turn, may throw out its own universes. As students cluster around a stimulus word, the encircled words rapidly radiate outward until a sudden shift takes place, a sort of ‘Aha!’ that signals a sudden awareness of that tentative whole... .”3 Clustering is a more graphic and, generally, easier way to delineate what one knows about a topic than by outlining it.4
To help students understand clusters, the teacher should choose a topic and demonstrate the development of a cluster, progressing from simple to more complex stages. However, it is important not to develop a cluster on the Holocaust, as students may be tempted to (or simply unable not to) replicate the same kinds of information and connections that the teacher has demonstrated.
In directing students to develop a cluster, teachers should encourage them to develop the most detailed, comprehensive, and accurate cluster possible. At one and the same time, students should delineate the meaning of, and connections between or among, key items/concepts/events/ideas. If such directions are not given and emphasized, then many students are likely to develop very simple, if not simplistic, clusters.
Once each student has completed a cluster, groups comprised of three or four students meet in order to share and discuss their individual clusters. Each student should have time (one to three minutes should be ample) to explain his/her cluster by giving:

As students present their clusters, others in the group may add items to their own clusters in a color other than the one originally used in order to indicate the number and type of ideas shared. At the end of this session, all of the clusters may be taped to the classroom wall or stored for revisiting during the course of the Holocaust study.
Developing clusters serves a number of key purposes. First, a student may better recognize what he/she does and doesn’t know about the subject after tapping into an “intelligence” (in this case, “spatia#148;) other than the typical one of writing (“linguistic”).5 Second, the teacher gains a sense of each student’s depth of knowledge, as well as the sophistication of his/her conceptual framework, of the subject. Third, the teacher pinpoints specific inaccuracies, misconceptions, or myths that students hold about the Holocaust. In other words, the activity serves as a powerful preassessment exercise.
At the conclusion of the study (and perhaps at a midway point) students could be asked to complete another cluster. Doing so provides both the students and the teacher with a vivid sense as to the students’ acquisition of increased knowledge, insights, and connections between and among topics, and whether this newfound knowledge is of a greater depth and sophistication than at the outset of the study.
As a post-assessment exercise, the same kind of small group discussion that began the study might take place. Alternatively, students could be asked to individually compare and contrast their clusters (initial, mid-point, and final) by addressing one or more of the following questions:

Defining the Holocaust
Based on their clusters, students now try to develop a working definition of the Holocaust that is as accurate and comprehensive as possible. In doing so, I tell students they are free to add new ideas and concepts to their clusters, but that they should do so in a different color than previously used.
Once everyone has developed a definition, I place the students in groups of three or four (the original or new groups) to share their definitions. A recorder is chosen to take down the salient points of discussions that ensue as each definition is read. At the conclusion of the small group discussions, we hold a general class discussion during which we place any questions or points about which students are unsure on a large sheet of paper with the heading, “Holocaust: Issues to Resolve and/or Examine in More Detail.” I explain that we will use these questions and concerns to help clarify our understanding of what the Holocaust was (and wasn’t) as we proceed with our study.
To simply provide students with an accepted definition of the Holocaust (for example, the one used by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), would be more easy but less pedagogically sound than the method I’ve described. By using their own knowledge and insights to construct a definition, students are likely to develop an understanding of why scholars too wrestle over definitions—and why definitions are so important in framing an understanding of complex issues and events. This process, of course, does not preclude the examination of various scholars’ definitions of the Holocaust at a later time.
What follows are samples of the definitions that high school students in grades 10, 11, and 12 came up with at the outset of our study of the Holocaust. These examples are purposely grouped in sets according to the types of information found in them. The initial set includes those definitions that were the least inaccurate (Note: The wording “least inaccurate” has been chosen to highlight the fact that all of the following definitions lack key ideas or information as to why the Holocaust was implemented.)

Holocaust: When the Nazis decided the Jews were the cause of Germany’s problems. In WW II the Nazis tortured and killed Jews. The Nazis wanted a genocide of the Jews.

Holocaust: To gain political power, Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s hardships after WWI. This created much of the negative sentiment necessary for Hitler to come to rule Germany. He began imprisoning Jewish people in concentration camps. Eventually millions were murdered and treated like animals.

Holocaust: the persecution and/or extermination of people of primarily Jewish background by the Nazis during WW II, involving the creation of Jewish ghettos, forced labor forces and concentration camps.

Holocaust: Persecution of Jews during 1940s in Germany and near areas of Europe; led by Adolf Hitler, a Nazi dictator; took place during WWII; many Jews died in concentration camps due to crowded housing and gas chambers. They were cremated.

Holocaust: A time during WWII when Hitler’s Nazi party punished the Jews for “causing all of Germany’s problems.” The Jews were forced to wear the yellow star of David and had virtually no rights. Many were sent to concentration camps, and many died.

Holocaust: Hitler forced Jews into hiding and killed 6 million Jews in concentration camps. Jews were forced to wear the Star of David, and be segregated from others because Hitler believed that the Germans were the supreme race.

When comparing these definitions with the one used by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, one can readily discern the gaps in the students’ definitions:

The Holocaust refers to a specific event in 20th-century history: the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.6

In addition to leaving out a good number of these concerns, very few of the students’ definitions show awareness of the major historical trends that contributed to the Holocaust. As scholar Donald Niewyk has pointed out: “A number of historical trends combined to make the Holocaust possible: anti-Semitism, racism, social Darwinism, extreme nationalism, totalitarianism, industrialism, and the nature of modern war. The absence of any one of these trends would have made the genocide of the Jews unlikely.”7 Also obvious is the fact that some students confused “concentration camps” with “death camps,” or at least didn’t seem to distinguish between the two. That said, the students who developed these definitions were at least on the right track in regard to what Nazi Germany was about and who was victimized.
The next set of definitions not only are bereft of key information but are all flawed in major ways. More specifically, many include various inaccuracies and misconceptions:

Holocaust: The destruction of an entire race by a pathological maniac who felt he was in his right as playing God destroying one race and creating a better one.

Holocaust: The Germans boycotted the Jews and Adolf Hitler had his army ship them off to concentration camps where they were starved to death.

Holocaust: Discrimination against Jews by Germans in which they were forced into concentration camps, tortured, murdered, gassed, and it caused a world war. Hitler ran the Nazi party.

Holocaust: A time in history many of us wish we could forget. The Nazi German type of people were beaten, raped, murdered, put in concentration camps and shot just because they look (sic) different or other things.

Holocaust: The Holocaust was between 1939-1945. It was when Hitler gathered people (mostly Jews) and put them into death camps, or just killed them. Jews were educated people, and when they started taking most of the jobs, that’s when the trouble started. Millions of people died and families were torn apart.

Holocaust: During WWII Nazi Germany had a problem with Jews. The Holocaust was when the Nazis killed 45 million Jews during that time period.

As one can see, the mistakes contained in these definitions are, to say the least, glaring. One refers to the Jews as a “race” (which they are not, though the Nazis referred to them as such).8 Several insinuate that the Holocaust was the result of one man’s efforts (when in fact it involved the Nazi hierarchy, the S.S. who ran the camps, and thousands of others who contributed in various ways). Others suggest that the destruction of the Jews was the cause for the world to go to war (it wasn’t the persecution of the Jews, but rather, the Nazis’ bellicosity); that the Jews were prospering in Germany while no one else was and/or at everyone else’s expense (which is simply flat wrong); that the Nazis killed 45 million Jews (in fact, they killed approximately six million Jews and five million other people); and that the sole mistreatment of the Jews was their starvation by the Nazis (they were murdered in numerous ways, including being shot, hanged, starved to death, worked to death, beaten to death and, of course, gassed).
The most glaring misconception, of course, is that of the student who totally misconstrues who the victims and perpetrators were (“the Nazi German type of people were beaten , raped, murdered, put in concentration camps and shot just because they look (sic) different or other things”). Again worth noting is the fact that not a single student mentions the issue of anti-Semitism, let alone the rabid and poisonous form of anti-Semitism practiced by the Nazis. Nor do any mention Nazi racism.

Posing Crucial Questions
After we have discussed students’ definitions of the Holocaust, I ask each student to write down (anonymously) three to five “crucial questions” they have about the Holocaust. I explain that their questions can be about any and all facets of the Holocaust, and that throughout our study, we will make a concerted effort to try to find the answers. I also suggest that some questions may never be answered—that both scholars and survivors are still wrestling with the questions and that in certain cases no answers may ever be found. In such cases, we will try to figure out why.
Soliciting students’ questions and concerns helps to make our study of the Holocaust more focused and personal. Moreover, it encourages students to become active researchers versus passive participants in a class. By raising their own questions, students can actively seek answers to the conundrums in history.
While I request that students submit at least one question, a vast majority of them come up with at least three questions. This, I believe, is indicative of their genuine interest in the subject matter and their appreciation of having their own concerns and questions solicited. Among the many questions (all quoted exactly as they were written) students have posited are:

Many of these questions penetrate to the core of the Holocaust tragedy. Others are more concerned with key facts (chronology, number of people who were murdered by the Nazis, number of survivors). Some questions, not listed here, were indicative of certain misconceptions (for example, that Hitler was the one and only person behind the genocide of the Jews). Whatever the nature of the question, it is acceptable, as the purpose of the study is to help students gain a deeper, more accurate, and ultimately more profound understanding of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Some teachers may perceive the soliciting of such questions/concerns as an added burden. I see the task as an opportunity to help me frame the study in a way that becomes even more meaningful than it might be otherwise.
At the conclusion of the study, it is important to ascertain whether all students feel their questions have been, if not answered, at least examined in some detail. Those questions that remain unexamined should have a period or two dedicated to them, if possible.

Questionnaire: Another Option
At the conclusion of the above activities, I ask students to answer a short questionnaire about the Holocaust. While some teachers may consider this too much, I have found the additional information it provides about the students’ knowledge base to be useful. Indeed, throughout the study, I refer to the questionnaires to refresh my memory as to the critical need for both breadth and depth in order for students to gain a deep understanding of the history.
The questionnaire includes some key questions that students may not have addressed in their clusters, definitions, and discussions of the Holocaust. Depending on the group of students, it can be as sophisticated and detailed (or as simple) as the teacher sees fit. A sample questionnaire that I recently used with a combination of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students appears in Figure 1.

A Unique Chronological Approach
Still another approach to introducing study of the Holocaust is used by Steve Feinberg, a middle school teacher in Wayland, Massachusetts. This chronological approach aims at assessing students’ knowledge base while generating an initial discussion of various aspects of Holocaust history. On one side of the blackboard, Feinberg writes the dates 1933-1939, and on the other side he writes 1939-1945. The Holocaust period is, generally speaking, divided into these two periods (1933-1939 being the rise of the Nazis to power, and 1939-1945 being the dates of World War II and implementation of the “final solution”).
Feinberg calls out a series of items (an event, the imposition of a law or act, the establishment of a ghetto or camp, etc.) and asks the class which heading each belongs under. As a student calls out an answer, Feinberg asks whether there is general agreement with the student’s decision. If not, a discussion ensues during which he encourages all students to share their ideas. Feinberg interjects information when appropriate. This ostensibly simple process is in fact a thought-provoking jumping off point for a study of the Holocaust. It also provides students with a visual aid that they can revisit during the course of the study, and to which they can add additional information as they wrestle with this complex history.

Experience has taught me that a study of the Holocaust which begins with an examination of what students know, don’t know, and want to know ultimately contributes to a more potent and meaningful understanding of this tragic event. The activities described in this article are only a few of the many effective ways a teacher can initiate this study. My ultimate goal is to devise a study of the Holocaust in which all students are left with something to ponder for the rest of their lives. Then and only then, it seems, will such a study be worth the time, effort, and agony of confronting such horrific events and issues.

1. Gabrielle Rico, “Clustering: A Prewriting Process,” in Carol Booth Olson, ed., Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process (Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, 1987), 17-20.
2. Michael O’Brien, “Propagating Clusters,” in Olson, Practical Ideas, 25.
3. Rico.
4. For thought-provoking discussions by classroom teachers on the clustering method, see Olson, Practical Ideas.
5. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983) and Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (New York: Basic Books, 1993); Thomas Armstrong, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1994).
6. William S. Parsons and Samuel Totten, “Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust” in Teaching About the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994), 1-15.
7. Donald Niewyk, “Holocaust: Genocide of the Jews” in Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny, eds., Genocide in the Twentieth Century: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts (New York: Garland Publishers, 1995), 167-207.
8. Milton Kleg, Marion J. Rice, and Wilfred C. Bailey, “Appendix D. A Catechism on Race and Racial Prejudice” in Kleg, Rice, and Bailey, eds., Race, Caste, and Prejudice (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, Anthropology Curriculum Project, 1970).

Samuel Totten is a professor in the College of Education, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Figure 1

Questionnaire on the Holocaust

1. What does the word “holocaust” mean? (When answering this question, don’t tell what the Holocaust was, but rather tell what the word “holocaust” actually means.)

2. What was the Holocaust? (When answering this question, try to tell what actually happened, who was involved, why it took place, when it took place, etc.)

3. How many people, altogether, perished (due to murder, starvation, slave labor) during the Holocaust?
A.____ Five hundred thousand people
B.____ Six Million people
C.____ Eleven Million people

4. How many Jewish people perished (due to murder, starvation, slave labor) during the Holocaust?
A. ____One million people
B. ____ Six million people
C. ____ One hundred thousand people

5. During what period did the Holocaust take place?
A. ____ 1850-1900 B. ____ 1900-1925
C. ____ 1933-1945 D. ____ 1945-1956

6. Place an “x” next to each of the historical trends that combined to make the Holocaust possible (you may mark as many or as few as you see fit):
A. ____ Anti-Semitism B. ____ Racism
C. ____ Social Darwinism D. ____ Extreme nationalism
E. ____ Totalitarianism F. ____ Industrialism
G. ____ The nature of modern war

7. What were the Nuremberg Laws? (Try to answer each of the following: purpose of the laws, who implemented them, date when they were implemented, and type of restrictions they imposed.)

8. The Holocaust was not inevitable. In other words, it did not have to happen. Rather, it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination, but allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately, mass murder to occur.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

9. All concentration camps were “killing centers.”
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

10. All Germans were Nazis.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

11. The Jews did not resist, that is, they did not try to fight back.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

12. At best, less than one-half of one percent of the total population (of non-Jews) under Nazi occupation helped to
rescue Jews.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

13. The Jews were the only people whom the Nazis purposely murdered.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

14. The Holocaust was a result of the fact that the Jews did something wrong and thus were being punished by the Nazis.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

15. Since the conclusion of World War II, and the end of the Holocaust, no genocide has taken place in the world.
____ True ____ False ____ Not Sure

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