by Gunther Volk
Gunther Volk, a teacher trainer of English in Germany, explains how the use of Holocaust drama can make for highly effective English lessons.
"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
~~ Edmund Burke
"Thou shalt not be a perpetrator; thou shalt not be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander."
~~ Yehuda Bauer
An email arrived out of the blue. A teacher from Beer Sheva had come across an article of mine on the ETNI Yom Hashoa webpage.
The article, entitled "Teaching the Holocaust through Anglo-Jewish Drama and Film " had aroused her curiosity. After a few emails back and forth, she suggested that I present my ideas on the subject at the ETAI winter conferences in Haifa and Beer Sheva. No sooner had I submitted my five-line summaries to ETAI than Kaye Academic College asked me to offer an extra workshop for its English majors. What had been planned as a relaxing Chanukah break suddenly had all the hallmarks of real work.
It is, of course, highly gratifying to feel that one's ideas are appreciated and to be asked to share them with like-minded colleagues. When fellow teachers in Germany learn that I teach about the Holocaust in my English lessons, their reaction is more muted and quite often tinged with astonishment: "In your English lessons? How do you square this with the curriculum?" I put their minds at rest by assuring them that my endeavour is perfectly above board. After all, I use contemporary English plays such as Taking Sides or The Handyman, both written by the Oscar-winning Anglo-Jewish playwright Ronald Harwood. Surely there can't be anything wrong with that!
To me, the two plays seem ideal for teaching today's youngsters about events that took place more than 60 years ago. They are well-written, gripping, provocative. Instead of confronting the students with dry historical facts and unfathomable figures, they draw them into the lives of fictitious or semi-fictitious individuals who find themselves in dilemmas. Wilhelm Furtwangler, for instance, the protagonist in Taking Sides, was a world-famous conductor at the time of the Third Reich. He faced the dilemma of either staying in Germany and acquiescing to the actions of his native land, or emigrating, like his Jewish colleagues, and openly criticizing the Nazi regime. His decision not to emigrate came to haunt him after 1945. It is hardly surprising that his dilemma provokes strong emotional responses in the students: It triggers feelings of empathy or dismay, compassion or anger, doubt or certainty.
The absence in the plays of a dramatist's voice that lectures at the audience or tells them how to think can be put to highly effective educational use. In Taking Sides and The Handyman, Ronald Harwood refrains consciously from taking sides for or against his two protagonists.
"I want members of an audience, after experiencing the plays, to make up their own minds, to decide on guilt or innocence each according to his or her conscience, like a jury."
The students will thus find themselves in the role of the jury and will have to arrive at a verdict themselves. This offers plenty of opportunities for lively discussion and debate.
The Holocaust is too monumental and complex an occurrence to be dealt with in one subject alone. Therefore the drama-based approach to the Holocaust suggested here is actually an interdisciplinary one in which the plays serve as a springboard for further historical analysis. This offers plenty of scope for student-centred project work and presentations. The study of the plays goes hand in hand with working with historical sources from history books and the internet, watching related films or documentaries, meeting and corresponding with survivors as well as going on excursions to Holocaust education centres.
I have been involved in Holocaust education for a long time. Maybe I am an idealist but as a teacher I am sustained by the hope that I can make a difference and change things for the better, albeit only in a small way. Ironically, the key to a better future lies in the study of one of the darkest chapters of human history. The study of the plays mentioned above has taught me that the road to the Holocaust was paved both with grave crimes and unspeakable atrocities but also with human failures and shortcomings that turned out to be equally deadly. At the most extreme end, there were the perpetrators whose minds had been so poisoned by anti-Semitic propaganda that they became active participants in Hitler's killing machine. Somewhere down the scale, but equally culpable, were the bystanders and hangers-on who, for reasons of prejudice, hatred, cowardice, selfishness, greed, indifference, inertia or fear, did not rally to the support of their Jewish friends, colleagues or neighbours. Evil flourished because good men and women did nothing. Holocaust education will, if successful, inoculate our students against the virus of anti-Semitism and ensure that, instead of being perpetrators or bystanders, they become vigilant citizens who have the courage to speak out where others might look the other way.
As a visiting lecturer, it was a wonderful experience to be allowed to share my ideas on Holocaust education with the highly committed teachers at the ETAI conferences, as well as with the inquisitive young English majors at Kaye Academic College. In response to my initial question to the students - why they had decided to go in for teaching - a young woman responded: "Because I want to change things". I could not have wished for a better answer. Teaching about the Holocaust will enable her to do just that.
For a more comprehensive discussion of the plays mentioned above as well as suggestions on how to teach them, please see my article "Teaching the Holocaust through Anglo-Jewish Drama and Film"
or on the ETNI YomYom Hashoah webpage.