The study of literature and history are intertwined. While history provides background and context for works of literature, literature puts a human face on history. The activities in this chapter will encourage you to engage with the Holocaust and its lessons for humanity at a visceral level. By studying art, music, film, and drama, as well as poetry, novels, autobiography, memoir, and primary source documents, you will grapple with the question of what it means to be truly human in a world rife with the temptation to be otherwise.
- What does it mean to make moral choices?
- What does it mean to accept responsibility for living a moral life and what are the challenges?
- How do art, music, drama, and literature inform our moral choices?
- How does language function to clarify or obscure our moral choices?
A glossary of terms
In this chapter, you may encounter new vocabulary and unfamiliar terminology because they have been borrowed from other languages (e.g. German).
A. Working with your classmates, either the whole class or a small group, create a glossary of the unfamiliar words or phrases you encountered in this chapter.
B. Write down the word or phrase, and its meaning (make sure that the meaning is accurate and reflects how it is used in the selection from which it is taken).
C. Where appropriate, create illustrations or use original drawings, internet art, or pictures clipped from newspapers or magazines to illustrate the meaning of the word or phrase.
D. You may alphabetize your entries or place them in the order in which you found them in the selection. Everybody in the group is invited to contribute the words and phrases that are new to them. Put the sheets in page protectors, assemble them in a binder, and place it in a prominent spot in the classroom for everyone to read.
E. Alternately, the glossary may be created as a website to which all members of the group or class contribute and have access.
Identifying and Researching People
As you read Voices into Action, you will also encounter references to people who may be unfamiliar to you. Research them to learn more about them. Create a resource of biographical sketches. Include the name of the person, a photograph if possible, the dates of their birth and if applicable, death. Include where you came across the reference (title of book with page number, poem, etc.) and a comment on why there is a reference to this person. This information, like the glossary above, should be made available to other members of your class.
Responding to a Photograph
Warsaw Ghetto – Photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943 and one of the best-known pictures of World War II. The original German caption reads: “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs.”
Photo Credit: Yad Vashem
A. Examine this famous photograph of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. What do you think is happening in this picture? Identify the different groups of people. What is the most striking image and why do you think so?
B. Working with a group of your classmates, share your responses to the above questions. Then create a tableau (theatrical freeze frames) to represent the photograph. Present your tableau to your classmates. Explain why you arranged the tableau as you did.
- Who was in the foreground?
- Who in the background?
- Who was higher; who was lower?
- Which people were close to one another; which ones were farther away?
- What did the facial expressions communicate?
- How effectively did you replicate the photograph and communicate your understanding of it?
C. Create a series of three tableaux.
- Tableau 1: illustrate what you think might have occurred in the moment before the photograph was taken;
- Tableau 2: dissolve into your original tableau of the photograph;
- Tableau 3: dissolve into what you think might have occurred in the moment following the photograph.
Be sure to explain what you did and why. How effective were your tableaux in extending the story depicted in the photograph?
This photograph has inspired two poems: The Newspaper by Ralph Gustafson
Creating Poetry From Art
DEFINITION An ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired by a work of art. (See Wikipedia: Ekphrasis)
Visit one of the many on-line Holocaust art sites
A. Select a piece of art that “speaks” to you. In a journal, explain why that piece stands out for you. Do a little research to learn more about the artist, what the piece is attempting to convey, and what techniques the artist has used. This is particularly important if you selected a piece of abstract art.
B. Create a poem based on the piece of art you chose. You may choose whichever form of poetry you think is most appropriate. Make a copy of your chosen art piece. Working with the other members of your class, create a classroom exhibit of art and the poetry it inspired. Do a gallery walk through the classroom to view what your classmates produced. Discuss the art selections and accompanying poetry. Parents, administrators, other teachers and students may be invited to your class gallery.
Art Inspired by Poetry
There are many sources of Holocaust-themed poetry. Select a poem that you find personally meaningful and create a piece of art to express what it means to you. You may paint using various media, sketch, sculpt, create a collage, etc. Be prepared to present your selected poem and explain your artistic creation, what it means, why you selected the materials and media you did, your use of line, colour, and perspective.
Additional Recommended Poetry
Read the poem The Hangman by Maurice Ogden.
Explain how the poem is an allegory. How does this connect with the Holocaust? What roles are assumed by the various characters in the poem? What imagery and other poetic devices does Ogden use? Create a chart, graph, or timeline to trace the progression of the hangman and his victims.
Credit: Reprinted from the Study Guide from Durham West Arts Centre, Reading and Remembrance Project, 2006
Watch the animated film of The Hangman. Is the film effective? Why or why not? Comment on the following aspects of the film: use of music; the characters–dress, demeanour, facial representations; imagery; irony; narration. How do they contribute to the overall effectiveness of the film?
A. Compare and contrast The Hangman with the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller, “First They Came for the Jews.” What similarities do you notice? Note the biographical data, in particular the note at the bottom of the page following the poem. Pastor Niemöller was an early supporter of the Nazi Party prior to 1934. How do you account for the change in his thinking?
B. Read Riddle by William Heyen. Why does the poet call the poem Riddle? What is the riddle in the poem? Who were Adolf Eichmann and Albert Speer? Who do you think Fritz and David Nova, and Lou Abrahams were? Why did Heyen juxtapose the names of Eichmann and Speer with those of the Novas and Lou Abrahams? What is the answer to the riddle? What clues does he offer as to the answer? What purpose is served by the last stanza? Is the personification of the sun, the moon, and the stars effective? Why or why not? Note the poet’s use of repetition–to what effect?
Read the poem again and watch the YouTube video of The Hangman. List the images that accompany the lines of the poem. What effect does the addition of the images have on the reader? Note that the poem and the images are accompanied by a song. The Trains of No Return was written and performed by Israeli singer, Ofra Haza. Some of the verses are in Hebrew. Why is this appropriate? For the lyrics to and a translation of the Hebrew, see The Trains of No Return. How do the addition of both the images and the music affect the impact of the poem on the reader? In your response journal describe your feelings about the poem, images, and music.
Some additional poems to consider:
There Were Those by Susan Dambroff
Never Shall I Forget by Elie Wiesel
Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway Car by Dan Pagis
Night Over Birkenau by Tadeusz Borowski
Holocaust 1944 by Anne Ranasinghe
Poetry written by children in the Terezin Concentration Camp, including the following, and many others as well by Mif
The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann; Homesick by Anonymous; Fear by Eva Pickova; The Garden by Eva Pickova; and Untitled by Anonymous
Holocaust Novels/Holocaust Films
Many novels have been written about the Holocaust. See these suggestions.
Several Holocaust novels have been made into films, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Sarah’s Key, and The Book Thief. Can you think of any others?
Select one of these books to read, or perhaps your teacher will assign it to the whole class. Be sure to record your reactions, questions, and comments in your response journal. If you are reading the novel with the rest of your class and your teacher, make sure you have a good set of notes. After you complete your reading of the novel, watch the film. You will need a Venn diagram with two interlocking circles.
A. As you watch the film, stop periodically to make notes inside your Venn diagram. The common space where the circles intersect is where you write down the things that you think are the same in both the novel and the film. In the circle on your left make notes about the novel that are different from the film. In the circle on your right, make notes about the film that are different from the novel.
- What similarities and differences did you note?
- Focus on the ways in which the film is different from the novel.
- Can you account for the decisions of the film’s director to make these changes? Does the film remain faithful to the themes of the novel? To the characters? To the author’s purpose?
- Has the focus of the story shifted in the film?
- Which aspects of the novel would you represent differently in the film if you were the director–how and why? Which did you find most effective and why?
B. Compare your Venn diagram with that of a classmate or group of classmates.
Writing a Letter in Role
A. Required tools: paper, pen and highlighter.
B. For this task, you will have the opportunity to write a letter from a main character of a novel to another character from the same novel (or a different novel). For this writing activity, consider the following:
- How will the character describe their circumstances?
- What event(s) from the novel will you highlight?
- What feelings will the character convey?
- What words or phrases will be used to best convey the life and feelings of this character?
C. Once completed, exchange letters with a friend. Then, write a letter back (in-role) to that person, by asking questions, offering advice, or making connections. What words or phrases had an impact on you?
A. Required tools: a paper bag, scissors, markers, glue and magazines/newspapers.
B. As you read your novel, search through the magazines and newspapers (or use internet images) for images and words or phrases that represent both the way other characters in the book view the main character and the way the character feels or sees themselves. Glue your clippings that represent how the other characters view the main character into a collage-like arrangement on the outside of the paper bag.
C. Place the clippings that represent the feelings and ways in which the main character views themselves inside the bag.
D. Present your bag to a small group of your classmates. Explain the significance of the images and words and phrases you selected.
E. Staple or paperclip your bag to a page in your response journal. Make a list of the characters represented by the bags created by the other members of your group. Did some of your classmates choose the same character? How were their insights the same or different from your own? What insights into other characters did you get? What were the most striking images and words or phrases used by your group members? Why do you think so?
Read the Nuremberg Laws
Discuss them as a class to ensure you understand them and the context in which they were created. These are the laws that increasingly stripped Jews of their property, their identity, and their rights. Working together as a class, prepare a Readers Theatre presentation of the Nuremberg Laws. What effect do you want to create with your presentation? How will you use the voices of your classmates to achieve this?
Source: Courtesy of Paul Leishman, Toronto District School Board
Reading and Responding to a Memoir
Read a memoir, testimony, or biography from the Holocaust (see the list below). Pay careful attention to the experiences of the author. What were the major events recounted? How did they affect the author? What did the author feel or how did he or she react to these experiences?
A. Mapping an inner journey. Create a map of the author’s inner journey to parallel the events recounted. Here are some questions to consider: Using geological formations, how do you envision the author? Is he or she a continent, a country, an island, etc.? Why?
What things might you find on the map of the geological formation you’ve chosen and what is their symbolic significance? (e.g. lakes, rivers, ponds, swamps, mountains, jungles, volcanoes, meadows, forests, roads, railways, cities, etc.) A jungle might represent confusion, or losing one’s way. Using markers, water colours, pencils, or other media, create the map for the author. Be sure to label each element appropriately. When you are finished, write a guide to your map. Present your map and guide to your classmates.
B. Responding to the Memoir. In a response journal, answer to the following questions:
- Why do you think the author needed to recount his or her experiences?
- What represents the moral centre of the text? The immoral?
- Are there people in the text who may be classified as victim, perpetrator, murderer, bystander, voyeur, collaborator, advocate, rescuer? Identify them and explain why you classified them as you did.
- If you could interview any of the people in the text, who would it be and what three questions would you ask them?
Some titles include:
- Anne Frank Remembered (Miep Gies)
- Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl (Anne Frank)
- Night (Elie Wiesel)
- The Cage (Ruth Minsky Sender)
- A Childhood Under the Nazis (Tomi Ungerer)
- An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943 (Etty Hillesum)
- Survival in Auschwitz (Primo Levi)
- The Drowned and the Saved (Primo Levi)
- My Life (Gerda Weissmann Klein)
- After the Holocaust: The Long Road to Freedom (Erna Rubinstein)
Select one of the texts you have read, either a novel or a work of non-fiction (biography, memoir, etc.) Create a timeline for the main character, listing the major events in the text. For each event, select an appropriate piece of music and record it. Consider all kinds of music as well as music originating from different places. You do not need to record the entire selection. In fact, it is more appropriate if you select the particular part of the selection that you feel reflects the mood or tone of the event (e.g., fear, despair, hope, relief, etc.). You are in effect, creating a musical collage. Present your timeline and accompanying musical collage to your classmates. They should be able to identify the kind of events listed with the accompanying music. Explain the choices you made.
Reading a Graphic Novel: Maus by Art Spiegelman
MAUS, written by American artist Art Spiegelman, is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It is a story that operates on two levels: on one level it is the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor; on another level it is the story of the strained relationship between father and son, thus introducing a new dynamic–the impact of the Holocaust on the children of those who experienced it. The story is told using animals to represent people.
- What themes run through the story?
- MAUS represents the ongoing horror of the Holocaust for its survivors. How so?
- Why do you think Spiegelman chose to tell his story through cartoons?
- Comment on betrayal and luck as motifs in the story.
Responding to Quotations about the Holocaust
Using the texts you have read in this chapter, respond to one of the following quotations. Your response may take the form of a traditional essay (parameters to be determined by your teacher), a photo-essay with accompanying commentary, or an original short story (parameters to be determined by your teacher). Include the quotation to which you are responding and explain what it means to you.
- “My story is a story of very ordinary people during extraordinary terrible times. Times the like of which I hope with all my heart, will never, never come again. It is for all of us ordinary people all over the world to see to it that they do not.” (Miep Gies)
- “Beauty without an ethical dimension cannot exist.” (Elie Wiesel)
- “The opposite of goodness is not evil; it is indifference to evil.” (Elie Wiesel)
- “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are . . . the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” (Primo Levi)
- “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” (Yehuda Bauer)
- “We are alive. We are human, with good and bad in us. That’s all we know for sure. We can’t create a new species or a new world. That’s been done. Now we have to live within those boundaries. What are our choices? We can despair and curse, and change nothing. We can choose evil like our enemies have done and create a world based on hate. Or we can try to make things better.” (Carol Matas)
- “Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory. A storyteller can attempt to tell the human tale, can make a galaxy out of the chaos, can point to the fact that some people survived even as most people died. And can remind us that the swallows still sing around the smokestacks.” (Jane Yolen)
- “What I want you to take away from my life story is just how important it is to defend your freedom, at all costs. Experience has shown me that if you lose your freedom, you are condemned to fail.” (Leon Schgrin)
- “Consider why Germany, fighting a war on two fronts, desperate for fuel and material of every sort, would bother to load millions of Jews on railroad cars and transport them hundreds, even thousands, of miles to concentration camps. Camps built specifically to house them, where they would be fed, clothed, even tattooed so they could be inventoried . . . just to kill them.” (Edgar J. Steele)
- “The sanctity of human life is the most important moral lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust.” (Sandra Stotsky)
- “It is through the medium of language that intolerance initially manifests itself. Language is used in propaganda and in influencing public opinion. It is basic to the development of values, the institution of laws, as well as the formation of public policy. Language has the potential to liberate or imprison.” (Grace Caporino and Rose Rudnitski)
- “Studying the Holocaust is a study in choices: the deliberate choices of perpetrators, the choices shunned by bystanders, the choices embraced by collaborators, and the hollow choices of victims, helpless against a fate meted out to them.” (Grace Caporino)
- “Other media such as newspapers, film, art, and music can be used to influence human activity. They can also be used to examine the context of a historical event and the factors that helped shape it.” (Grace Caporino and Rose Rudnitski)
- “Literature engages the human character. It not only evokes a response, it also helps to illuminate history because it frequently serves as a response to it. Literature responds to this human record of history and evokes further responses in readers by bringing people to life and by putting a human face on history. It also helps us see what might be.” (Grace Caporino and Rose Rudnitski)
- “Literature resonates, helping us to see and know ourselves. It often does more, but it should not do less.” (Grace Caporino and Rose Rudnitski)
Joffo, Joseph A Bag of Marbles: The Graphic Novel, 2013
This graphic novel is an adaptation of Joffo’s 1973 memoir describing a young Jewish boy’s experiences in occupied France.
Kacer, Kathy We Are Their Voice: Young People Respond to the Holocaust, 2012
Canadian author Kathy Kacer (Hiding Edith) collects student responses to lessons about the Holocaust, in the form of journal entries, letters, drawings, and descriptive passages.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, 1986; Maus II; A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Trouble Begins, 1992. Graphic novels about a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe and his son, a cartoonist who comes to learn about his father’s story and history itself.
Teaching the Holocaust Using Film
The Book Thief, 2003
Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, this film tells the story of a young foster girl named Liesel who, once she learns to read, shares the books she has stolen from Nazi book burnings with her neighbours as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2008
Based on the novel by John Boyne, this story examines the Holocaust through the innocent eyes of a young German child.
Though a conventional war film, Defiance tells the story of Jews doing whatever is necessary to escape the horrors of the Nazis.
The Devil’s Arithmetic, 1999
Hannah is frustrated hearing about her relative’s experience in the Holocaust. Based on the time-travel novel by Jane Yolen, the young teenager is transported into the past and suffers at the hands of the Nazis.
Life is Beautiful, 1997
Depicts one man’s ability to remain strong for his child. A powerful film of resilience in the face of oppression.
Paper Clips, 2004 (documentary)
The students in a Tennessee middle school began to study the Holocaust as a way to learn about intolerance and diversity. As a result, The Paper Clip Project culminated in a unique memorial changing the lives of those who created it.
The Pianist, 2002
A talented musician struggles to survive life in the ghetto. This story is a reminder that amidst the worst conditions, there were those who chose to fight against prejudice despite the insurmountable obstacles they encountered.
Schindler’s List, 1993
Based on the true story of unlikely humanitarian hero, Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories.
Every effort has been made to gain permission from copyright holders to reproduce borrowed material. The publishers apologize for any errors and will be pleased to rectify them in subsequent reprints and website programming