Open source: Fortunoff Holocaust curriculum builds bridge to local schools

The curriculum, which officially launched this month, engages students in historical inquiry and close listening through 14 lessons.
A laptop screen with images of old photographs and documents.

(Photo courtesy of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies)

Leon Bass was 20 years old in April 1945 when his army unit helped liberate Buchenwald, a sprawling concentration camp outside Weimar, Germany. Martin Schiller, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, was 12 years old on the day he watched the American soldiers roll through the camp’s gates in jeeps.

Decades later, both men recounted their experiences in recorded interviews with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. Those interviews, taped in the 1980s, help form the backbone of a new testimony-based high-school curriculum the Fortunoff Archive, a part of the Yale University Library, has developed in partnership with Yale scholars and teachers from public schools in New Haven and across Connecticut.

The curriculum, which officially launched this month, engages students in historical inquiry and close listening through 14 lessons that combine primary and secondary source documents, historical scholarship, and individual testimonies from the archive. While designed for high school students, it can be adapted for students in grades six to eight.

The testimony of Bass, a Black man who grew up in Philadelphia and did his military training throughout the Jim Crow South, drives the curriculum. In describing his experiences at Buchenwald, Bass draws comparisons between the racism he endured in the United States and what he views as racism’s ultimate end: the horror he witnessed at the camp, where about 280,000 Jewish people, political prisoners, and other human beings the Nazis had declared undesirable were imprisoned and where 56,545 prisoners died.

The curriculum is aimed at teaching students to make complex historical comparisons responsibly and carefully without equating vastly different systems,” said Agnieszka Aya Marczyk, the Fortunoff Archive’s curriculum development fellow, who led the project. “It is anchored in the traditions and strategies of historical scholarship. How do you read a primary source? How do you read a secondary source? How do you contextualize events described in testimony?”

The curriculum centers the voices of survivors and witnesses, such as Bass and Schiller, preserved in the Fortunoff Archive, which holds more than 4,500 testimonies of individuals’ firsthand experiences of Nazi persecution. The curriculum’s developers sought to honor the archive’s interview method, which allows the survivors and witnesses to take the lead in shaping their stories, Marczyk said.

If you only use a snippet of testimony to illustrate a historical theme, there is a risk that the survivor’s story and individuality are lost,” she said. “For many young people today, their only encounters with Holocaust survivors will be through recorded testimonies. It was important that the curriculum preserve the deep sense of humanity and dignity contained within the testimonies.”

Keen understanding of right and wrong’

Before coming to Yale, Marczyk was director of education at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, where she teamed with historians and educators to develop and test curricula designed to help students analyze historical arguments and evidence. In developing the Fortunoff curriculum, Marczyk worked closely with Leslie Blatteau, who taught social studies at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven for 12 years before being elected president of the local teachers’ union in December 2021.

Blatteau explained that a strong curriculum is one that is inquiry-based and composed of materials that are accessible, clear, and visually appealing. Making curriculum accessible, even when it concerns subjects as fraught and challenging as the Holocaust, does not involve dumbing down the material, she said.

High school students, regardless of their reading level, are deep thinkers with a keen understanding of right and wrong and they want to consider questions of justice when they’re wrestling with historical crises, historical events, and primary and secondary sources,” Blatteau said. “It was our job to make sure the curriculum provides them the support they need to work through complex questions.”

The curriculum is designed so that teachers can pick and choose among the lessons or teach the entire unit from start to finish. Each lesson includes guiding questions to help students approach the material, clear and concise text providing context, and support to help students with tricky vocabulary and difficult concepts. Teachers are provided additional resources to augment the materials presented in the curriculum.

The opening lesson familiarizes students with the Fortunoff Archive’s testimonies and methodology. It cites an excerpt from an essay by Lawrence L. Langer, a noted Holocaust scholar, to help students realize that Holocaust survivors and witnesses speak about events people cannot fully fathom — and advises them that learning about these realities requires gaining historical knowledge and practicing close listening.

Students watch a brief excerpt of Schiller, at the start of one of the two testimonies he recorded four decades ago, explaining how he would inflate his age while a prisoner in Nazi labor camps because young children were not productive enough to justify being fed.

We just weren’t cost effective for them because we couldn’t produce,” Schiller says, “so you always made yourself older.”

The next lesson introduces students to Bass — and to the challenges involved in conducting historical comparisons and analysis. Several subsequent lessons chart the rise of the Nazi regime and its oppressive race and citizenship laws. Students listen to excerpts of testimony by John Weil, a Jewish refugee who was a teenager in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and who was expelled from school — because he was Jewish — when he was 15. In lesson 7, Weil describes the effects of the Nuremberg Laws, which provided the legal framework for the Nazis’ persecution of Jewish people.

I couldn’t go to sporting events,” Weil recalls in the recorded interview. “My parents couldn’t go to the theater. We couldn’t go to certain hotels. We couldn’t go into swimming pools.”

Students then analyze excerpts from the Nuremberg Laws and explore the full text of the statutes.

From there, the curriculum transitions to analyzing racial discrimination in the United States during the Jim Crow Era and comparing the Nazi race laws with those that systematically denied Black people in the United States their civil rights. The penultimate lesson asks students to use their close listening to analyze the testimony of Bass and Schiller concerning the liberation of Buchenwald. A final lesson sums up everything that preceded.

A bitter taste’

Lesson 9, “The Nazis Look to American Race Laws,” is illustrative of the curriculum’s approach. It poses a central question: “What elements of U.S. race laws drew the interest of Nazi lawyers and government officials in the early 1930s? How do you know? How could you learn more?”

It briefly revisits the stories of Weil and Bass before introducing students to “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law,” a 2017 book by James Q. Whitman, the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School, that describes parallels between Nazi and American race laws in the 1930s and uncovers evidence that Nazi lawyers may have been influenced by America’s racial codes as they drafted the Nuremberg Laws.

The lesson describes some of the key primary and secondary sources Whitman examined and summarizes the book’s arguments. Then it invites students to consider an example of one of his primary sources: A map from an essay entitled, “How Race Questions Arise: White and Black in America,” published in a 1936 issue of Neues Volk (A New People), a monthly Nazi propaganda newsletter. The map depicts the Nazis’ summation of the race laws in states across the country. An interactive, digital version in English allows the students to explore the map and explore the Nazis’ claims.

Students are provided background information to help them put the map in context,” Marczyk said. “They then analyze what the Nazis claimed about American race laws and ask: Were these claims accurate? The remainder of the unit helps them test the accuracy of the Nazi claims.”

In subsequent lessons, the students examine America’s race laws and de facto segregation during Jim Crow. They are exposed to primary sources, such as Mississippi’s racist 1890 constitution, and secondary sources, including a 1972 scholarly article that civil rights icon John Lewis published in the Notre Dame Law Review on Black voter registration in the South around the turn of the century, and Bass’s accounts of his experiences both as a child in Philadelphia and during his military training in the Jim Crow South.

In an excerpt from his testimony, Bass, who enlisted in the U.S. army after graduating high school in 1943, describes having to stand up at the back of a bus for hundreds of miles due to his skin color while seats up front were empty. He also recounts being in uniform and prohibited from dining where German prisoners of war had been seated and served.

It left me with a bitter taste,” he said.

An amazing collaborative effort’

The curriculum breaks new ground for the Fortunoff Archive, which has always produced materials suitable for educational purposes, but never something so extensive and classroom ready, said Stephen Naron, the archive’s director.

Aya is really building a bridge between the collection, Yale scholars, and Yale scholarship, and the New Haven educational community,” he said. “Her work is so vital, and now more than ever. There are mandates on teaching Holocaust and genocide studies here in Connecticut and across the country. As an organization founded in New Haven, I think it is our obligation to help local teachers meet these mandates with high-quality curricular materials steeped in current scholarship and debates.”

Marczyk and Blatteau shared their work with public school teachers in New Haven and around Connecticut, soliciting their feedback and gathering insights into how students responded to the lessons. The Fortunoff Archive has hosted events, including two summer professional learning institutes for history teachers, centered on the curriculum. Yale scholars, including Whitman and historians David Blight, Marci Shore, and Timothy Snyder, participated in the institute and shared their insights with teachers, Marczyk said.

The archive is working with Facing History & Ourselves — a U.S.-based organization that seeks to help educators prepare students for civic life — to share the curriculum with teachers across the country and offer joint professional development programming.

One of the great things the curriculum does is that it doesn’t just present testimonies, it also teaches students how to use them. What to listen for and how to process what they hear from the survivors and witnesses,” said Yehuda Potok, director of the organization’s Jewish Education Program. “And it is amazing how it weaves together the Holocaust and the Jim Crow era, guiding students through understanding the similarities and differences.” 

Joseph Goldman, a social studies teacher at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Connecticut, has used several lessons from the curriculum in an elective class he teaches about genocide. His students responded well to the lessons and were particularly struck by Bass’s testimony, he said.

The curriculum finds a very nice balance between presenting content and developing historical thinking skills,” he said. “The two must go hand-in-hand because in order for learning content to be meaningful, students must be able to organize that learning around key central ideas or questions or skill development.”

Goldman credited Marczyk for creating a network of teachers who worked together to perfect the curriculum.

The Fortunoff curriculum was designed with teachers offering advice throughout the process … so the final product is the result of a really amazing collaborative effort, and I feel that it is better tailored as a teaching tool as a result,” Goldman said.

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