The Work of Remembrance–A Lesson from the Holocaust

It takes work to remember. To honor a person’s suffering you cannot merely acknowledge it, you must open yourself up to it—you must be willing to engage and wrestle with the darkness.

I confess that I came close to giving into the comfort of apathy. For the seventh year in a row, I took my two ninth grade classes to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. And on this seventh time, I thought, “I just don’t want to deal with it.” It: the images, the discomfort, the surreal experience of connecting past events with current understanding, the depressing reality of humans destroying other humans.

A month before this most recent trip, I felt myself resenting the paperwork, the forms, the administrative tasks, and the stress associated with taking over fifty students and a few of their parent chaperons on an out-of-state excursion. I bemoaned the instructional time I was losing to help them understand what was appropriate dress and behavior at a place of such significance. I let the petty discussions of who-would-sit-with-who and how many pages of discussion questions were appropriate crawl under my skin and cause me to have a general sense of irritation for the whole process. In short, I was over it. My plan this year was to safely guide my students to the museum in one piece, and then I was going to camp out in the transition areas waiting for my kids to stream by. I was going to merely endure this trip– possibly for the last time.

But when I arrived and began walking through the first floor, I slowed down. I realized that my students were watching me and looking to me for cues on how to learn in this dark, information-laden environment. So I began taking notes with them. Almost instinctively, I began reading the same placards and watching the same movies that I have seen seven times before…and I began learning again. There were sentences that jumped out at me that I didn’t remember seeing before. And I began asking questions– why didn’t I know that the U.S. was a leader in policies promoting compulsory sterilization before the Nazis ever implemented it? How did that start and have those policies been reversed? I was engaged.

Then my students began asking me some great questions: How did Hitler rationalize his actions, beliefs, and policies against fellow humans? What makes a person a “gypsy” (one of the groups persecuted by the Nazi party)? Why were the Jews such a marked target for ethnic cleansing? And I suddenly realized that my convenience and my comfort means nothing in the face of this kind of learning experience.

At times, I felt myself being sucked into the worrying game– trying to keep tabs on all of my students, making sure all the chaperons were calm, and ensuring that everyone was taking full advantage of this experience. But that worry accomplished little and prevented me from my own learning, my own remembering, my own respectful acknowledgment of the lives who were lost. Instead of being pulled out by small concerns, I forced myself to slow down and become the learner I wanted my students to be. I thought about my recent summer trip to Israel and my reading of The Lemon Tree and the bombing that was currently taking place in Gaza. I actively looked for the connections I could make with these experiences and the history displayed before me.

At some point, I realized that this museum, this yearly tradition, had taught me the importance of remembrance. To honor the dead is to engage with their stories, and, in the case of the Holocaust, to stare in the face the darkest hours of our collective humanity. In thinking that I could be in this museum without engaging or remembering was to dishonor those who had endured absolute evil unleashed upon them, and I realized that remembering and honoring mean more than just “thinking about” and “showing up.”

Remembering is engaging. Remembering is work.

So I’m driving home and wondering what is in store for this trip and the study of the Holocaust. As an English teacher with a writing-centered curriculum, I have a hard time devoting the time and depth I feel is necessary to truly engage with the topic of the Holocaust without allowing it to become a centerpiece of my curriculum. And then I wonder if it isn’t more the task of the social studies department’s curriculum, which leads me to dream about interdisciplinary projects and ideals. But I return to the difficult reality that delving into the Holocaust requires a significant investment of time, resources, and careful planning. These are my struggles as an English teacher and curriculum writer.

But when I think with the broader scope of an educator, I cannot escape the feeling that this remembrance is some of the most important work we can do.

3 thoughts on “The Work of Remembrance–A Lesson from the Holocaust

  1. “Remembering is work.” Very powerful. Your idea about remembering is a form of acknowledgement, bearing witness. For those who are living, being present and bearing witness to joy and pain is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another human being. Bearing witness to the past brings a new clarity and opens up new possibilities for the present and future. Thank you for your insights.

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