Thursday, October 9, 2008

Supplemental Reading

This semester, I have participated with several of my colleagues teaching a Tuesday evening class on The Holocaust. The format of the class follows what I believe one of the most effective teaching models: Rather than having one teacher who, through study and preparation, becomes an expert on the topic, we have close to a dozen teachers and presenters with a varying degree of time commitment in the class.

The core group that plans the sequence of the course includes two English teachers and one social studies teacher. In addition, one of our religions teachers gave a lecture presentation on Judaism, and an art teacher used art and advertisement from WWII to discuss propaganda, reasoning, and logical fallacies. Two sessions on topics related to the war were presented passionately by an adjunct faculty member who teaches American History full time at a local high school. Other participants present lessons regarding financing of the war, the Hitler Youth movement, the psychology of obedience, and even modern-day genocide.

Other guest speakers include a German woman, now an American citizen and retired teacher, whose father was a German officer during WWII, and a local Belgian man who participated in the underground resistance movement.

Throughout the class, we incorporate film, readings, student research, and presentations. What has fascinated me is the wealth of material at our fingertips. The challenge then is what to leave out. Each week, I've noticed, the various speakers make supplemental reading suggestions. Naturally, I'm compiling a running reading list. We have discussed adding a growing list of additional resources--print and nonprint media--to our Blackboard site. I have noticed, though, that many of my own suggestions are works of fiction.

Our German speaker had grown up in the Rhineland, and she said the Ursula Heigi's novel Stones from the River "could have been my life." I also suggest Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, one of the most intriguing books I've read in a long while. Short stories with a strong
Holocaust connection come to mind as well: "Winter Night" by Kay Boyle and "The First Seven Years" by Bernard Malamud. Beyond the required reading of school--Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel's Night--I learned first about the Holocaust through Leon Uris' novel Exodus. Later I revisited the camps in James Michener's Poland.

Though completely fictional and based on a flawed premise (that Anne Frank's friend Peter had survived), The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is a moving story that examines a young man who immigrates to American, tries to pass as a Gentile, then marries a Jewish girl who knows nothing of his past. His reaction to the publication of the diary (in which his family's last name was changed) and to the production of the play based on its story is poignant and heartbreaking.

For the millionth time, let me climb on my soap box: Literature doesn't have to be nonfiction to be true. While I would never want to take away from first-person accounts of such pivotal periods in history, I do know that those characters in the novels I read also taught me so much about human beings and our reactions in the face of the worst kinds of adversity. Through these books, I learned things I might never have sought out in a history book or an autobiography. Through my encounter with these books and stories, though, I have turned to nonfiction to feed my need to know more.

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