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Holocaust Museum Reflective Essay Example

As students explored in Lesson 16, judgment and reparations were a crucial component of the aftermath of the Holocaust. Testimony in the Nuremberg trials provided the world with clear evidence of the human devastation wrought by the Nazis and preserved this information in the historical record. In this way, these trials were a step toward another stage of the postwar process: remembrance.

Philosopher George Santayana declared, “Those who cannot remember the past are con- demned to repeat it.”1 These words gain heightened significance when juxtaposed to Hitler’s comments in 1939, the year that the Nazi government began to support and implement state-sanctioned violence against Jews. As he was planning how to rid Germany of Jews, he asked, “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”2 Hitler was referring to the mass murder of over a million innocent Armenians by the Turks during World War I. Nearly twenty years after that genocide, the perpetrators had gone unpunished, the Turkish government denied these murders had occurred, and this tragic episode was largely forgotten by the media and those outside of the Armenian community. Thus, one reason it is vital that we remember “the evil in history” is as a defense against it happening again. As journalist Judith Miller explains:

Knowing and remembering the evil in history and in each of us might not prevent a recurrence of genocide. But ignorance of history or the suppression of memory removes the surest defense we have, however inadequate, against such gigantic cruelty and indifference to it.3

Agreeing with Miller, most scholars and journalists believe that we must challenge “revisionist” attempts to deny that the Holocaust happened. “If you have a hundred books in the world today that are all devoted to teaching that the Holocaust did not happen, imagine the seeds that can fall on unsuspecting minds,” Bill Moyers said in an interview. “Unless we keep hammering home the irrefutable and indisputable facts of the human experience, history as it was experienced by people, we are going to find ourselves increasingly unable to draw distinctions between what was and what we think was.”4

The nation of Germany bears a unique challenge and responsibility in remembering its past. Many perpetrators and bystanders had a blind spot, consciously or unconsciously, which kept them from recalling events during the Holocaust and the years leading up to these atrocities. Bini Reichel, born in 1946 in Germany, describes how, in the postwar years, “amnesia became a contagious national disease, affecting even postwar children. In this new world . . . there was no room for curious children and adolescents. We postponed our questions and finally abandoned them altogether.” In her history books, the Nazi years were covered in 10 to 15 pages of careful condemnation.5 Yet, marking the fortieth anniversary of World War II, West German President Richard von Weizsaecker warned his citizens against ignoring past history, declaring:

The vast majority of today’s population were either children then or had not been born. They cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes they did not commit....But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it. The young and old generations must and can help each other to understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.6

In these words, President Richard von Weizsaecker emphasizes the need for Germans to confront their past without becoming paralyzed with a collective guilt for the crimes of the Nazi era.

There are many ways individuals, groups, and nations, in Germany and around the world, have confronted the memory of the Holocaust. Some countries, including Germany and France, have made Holocaust denial a crime, punishable by a fine and imprisonment. Governments have also encouraged or mandated education about the Holocaust. German schools are required to teach their students about the Nazi era and the Holocaust, and in addition to classroom learning, most German students visit either a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial.7 Scholars, journalists, survivors, and novelists have helped the public remember the Holocaust through their writing. When Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the chairman of the Nobel committee remarked, “Through his books, Elie Weisel has given us not only an eyewitness account of what happened, but also an analysis of the evil powers which lay behind the events.”8

Another way that communities around the world have remembered the Holocaust is through building memorials and monuments. These buildings are created for many reasons: to preserve the past, to honor heroes (such as the resisters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising or the rescuers of Le Chambon), to commemorate tragedies, and to inspire action or reflection. These monuments raise questions about appropriate ways to study and remember the Holocaust. To what extent can any memorial help us truly understand the experiences of victims of the Holocaust? How can we symbolize the vast number of victims while still honoring each unique life that was lost—the schoolchild, the aunt, the tailor, the physicist, the sister, etc.? Who should decide how the Holocaust is represented and remembered—what  symbols are used, what facts are presented, and whose stories are told?

When creating the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, the students and teachers at Whitwell Middle School had to answer questions like these. The school’s principal, Linda Hooper, describes Whitwell, Tennessee, a rural community of less than two thousand people, as lacking diversity. “We are all alike,” she shared. “When we come up to someone who is not like us, we don’t have a clue.” To help her students learn about tolerance and diversity, Ms. Hooper and two teachers thought it would be a good idea for students to study the Holocaust. In response to learning about this human tragedy, Whitwell students decided to collect six million paper clips, one paper clip to represent each of the Jewish children, women, and men murdered by the Nazis. The idea of collecting paper clips came to the students once they learned that during World War II, many Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels as a sign of resistance to the Nazis. To this date, the students have collected over thirty million paper clips. Eleven million paper clips (representing 6 million Jews and 5 million Gypsies, homosexuals, and other victims of the Holocaust) are housed in an authentic German railcar that was used to transport Jews and others to concentration camps. This railcar is the site for the “Children’s Holocaust Memorial,” a museum and monument to the victims of the Holocaust.9 The memorial, which was dedicated in 2001, has received thousands of visitors from all over the world. Whitwell Middle School students conduct tours of the memorial and guide visitors through learning activities about the Holocaust.

The story of Whitwell Middle School presents an example of a memorial that serves several purposes. Displaying the collection of 11 million paper clips is intended to help visitors visualize the extraordinary number of lives lost during the Holocaust. Tours and learning activities associated with the memorial educate visitors about this history. Additionally, through the process of creating the memorial, the perspectives of participants in this project expanded. They received visitors from other countries, including German journalists Dagmar and Peter Schroeder, and they invited Holocaust survivors to Whitwell to speak to their community. Whitwell students met with Jewish students from other parts of the country, including an in-depth experience with Jewish students and their families in New York City. In the film Paper Clips, David Smith, a Whitwell Middle School teacher, described how his participation in the Paper Clips project has “made me a better father, a better teacher, a better man.” “When the project first began, I was prejudiced,” he shared, “I was ... quick to judge and quick to stereotype...I had stereotyped children in my classes.”10 Thus, not only does the Whitwell Middle School Paper Clips project demonstrate how the Holocaust can be remembered, but it also exemplifies how studying the Holocaust contributes to our own growth as individuals and as communities.

The creation of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial depended on the decisions made by thousands of other individuals: the Schroeders who publicized the project and obtained the railcar, the people who sent in paper clips, and the community members who helped build the memorial. In this way, the Paper Clips Project represents what can happen when individuals and groups participate in their broader community and world. Facing History calls the last stage in its journey “choosing to participate,” in recognition of the hope that after learning about the history of the Holocaust students are better equipped to make thoughtful choices about how to act as a member of a larger community. The completion of the Facing History unit is not meant to provide a naïve sense of optimism for students, where they believe they can change the world overnight. Nor is it meant to leave students feeling helpless in the face of bullying, oppression, and prejudice. Rather, after reflecting on their learning in this unit, we hope students have a more confident and informed sense of the role they can play, however small, in creating more tolerant, humane communities—in their classrooms, their schools, their homes, their neighborhoods, and in the larger world.

In 1938, Hitler told a crowd of thousands of young people, “Never forget that one day you will rule the world.”11 When making this declaration, he recognized that the youth shape the future. Hitler’s commitment to controlling the schooling of German students shows that he understood that how the young are educated influences their beliefs and attitudes as adult citizens. One of the most significant lessons gained from studying Nazi Germany is the role civic education can play in preparing youth for their role as members of society—be it a totalitarian regime or a democratic community. What we teach and how we teach can foster the skills, habits, and attitudes required for thoughtful, civic engagement in a diverse nation.

One essential aspect of students’ civic education is instilling the belief that choices matter—that students’ choices, as young people and as adults, have an impact on larger society. As journalist Bill Moyers explains:

The problem of democracy is the problem of the individual citizen who takes himself or herself lightly historically....By that I mean if you do not believe that you can make a difference, you’re not going to try to make a difference, you’re not going to try to matter, and you will leave it to someone else who may or may not do what is in the best interest of your values or of democracy’s values.12

Through helping students consider the significance of the choices made by ordinary people—people like you and me—during and leading up to the Holocaust, students will hopefully learn to see their own choices as significant. In the words of Moyers, they will not take themselves “lightly,” but will appreciate how their choices matter to themselves and to the larger society. The words of Robert F. Kennedy articulate this idea best: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope."13

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior:

Suggestion for how to divide this lesson over three class periods: We suggest that students spend the first day doing the opener activity, watching Paper Clips, and beginning to plan their memorial. Students build their memorials during the second day, completing them for homework if necessary. During the third day, students share their memorials and do the follow through activity. If you only have two days for this lesson, students can work on their memorials for homework, rather than during class time.


Before students learn about how middle school students in Whitwell, Tennessee, responded as they learned about the history of the Holocaust, give students the opportunity to reflect on their own experience as students of this history. You might begin class with 10 minutes of silent writing on one of the following prompts:

  • Should students study this history? Why or why not?
  • What do you think are the most important ideas you will remember from this unit?
  • What has this unit helped you better understand about human behavior—about why people make certain choices about how to think and act?
  • What has this unit helped you better understand about yourself and your world?

You could also have students respond to these questions using the Graffiti Board teaching strategy.

Main Activities

The purpose of this lesson is to help students reflect on their learning in this unit through the creation of a memorial that represents a message, inspired by the material in this unit that is important to them. Many of the messages students take away from a study of the Holocaust and human behavior relate to their own decision-making and capacity to “choose to participate.” The film Paper Clips presents an example of both a memorial and a “choosing to participate” story. We suggest showing excerpts from this film to help students think more deeply about the purpose of memorials and the opportunities for civic participation, even for middle school students. Handout 1 includes comprehension questions related to three excerpts. As students watch these excerpts, they can answer the questions on handout 1. Between each excerpt, you can also give students the opportunity to discuss questions raised by the film. The viewing guide below includes sample questions. Most likely, you will have time to discuss one or two questions per excerpt. You can select the question for discussion, or you can distribute the viewing guide to students. In discussion groups of four to six, students can select which question or questions they will discuss.

Paper Clips Viewing Guide

(Note: The total viewing time of all three excerpts is approximately 18 minutes.

  1. Excerpt 1 (0:33–8:54): This clip introduces the viewer to the Whitwell community and explains how the Paper Clips Project began.

    Suggested discussion or journal questions:

    • In the film, the principal, Linda Hooper, said she wanted the students to work on a project that would focus on tolerance and diversity. Do you think she made a wise choice selecting the Holocaust to address these goals? Why or why not? In what ways, if any, can a study of the Holocaust help students better understand tolerance and diversity?
    • In this film clip, one of the teachers tells her students, “Hitler murdered six million Jewish people.” Who do you think was responsible for murdering all six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust? If you were teaching a group of middle school students, how would you express in one sentence what happened during the Holocaust?
    • Whitwell Middle School students were inspired to collect paper clips when they learned how wearing a paper clip became a silent form of protest by Norwegians after Germany occupied their country during World War II. Would you consider the Norwegians’ wearing of paper clips to be an act of resistance? Why or why not? What do you think they hoped to achieve by wearing paper clips on their lapels? What is the purpose of a “silent form of protest” like the wearing of a symbol?
    • Whitwell Middle school students decided to collect six million paper clips as a way to better understand and represent the horrors of the Holocaust. What do you think of their decision to collect paper clips from people around the world? What do you think they hoped to achieve with this project? What are other things that could be done to help remember the victims of the Holocaust?

    [Note: In the minutes between excerpt 1 and excerpt 2, the German journalists Dagmar and Peter Schroeder learn about the Paper Clips Project and then take a trip to Whitwell to find out more about it. The Schroeders become deeply involved in this project, writing stories about it for German newspapers.]

  2. Excerpt 2 (44:06–48:20): This clip shows the origins of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, including the acquisition of the railcar that would be used to house the memorial and the participation of community members in developing the memorial.

    Suggested discussion or journal questions:

    • Do you think that a railcar used to transport victims to concentration camps is an appropriate place for a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust? Why or why not?
    • Why do you think that two German journalists who were born during World War II would be interested in this project? Why might they go through such great efforts to help the students at Whitwell Middle School?
    • Whitwell Middle School was able to get the railcar for free. The Schroeders raised money in Germany to purchase the railcar. The Germans shipped the railcar to Baltimore, Maryland, free of charge. Then the port in Baltimore also waived their shipping fees, as did the train company that transported the railcar to Whitwell, Tennessee. Why do you think so many people donated money or time to help Whitwell get the railcar for their memorial?
    • Once the Whitwell community learned that they were getting a railcar, many people, students and adults alike, volunteered to help build the memorial. What do you think motivated people to get involved? Has anything ever motivated members of your community to work together to achieve a common goal? What do you think could inspire members of your community to work together to achieve a common goal?
  3. Excerpt 3 (1:14:20–1:18:44): The final four minutes of the film shows the finished Children’s Holocaust Memorial and presents testimony from a Holocaust survivor and Whitwell Middle School students describing the impact this memorial, and the process of creating it, has had on them.

    Suggested discussion or journal questions:

    • What are the different purposes of memorials? Why do people build them? What do you think is the purpose of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial?
    • What is the significance of the fact that students are the teachers—that they lead the tours through the memorial? What purpose is achieved by having students as the teachers, as opposed to having adults as the teachers?
    • What do you think is the impact of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial on the students who participated in the project, on the Whitwell community, and on the thousands of people who tour the exhibit or watch this film?
    • What does the phrase “choosing to participate” mean to you? What does this film teach us about “choosing to participate”?

    After viewing and discussing Paper Clips, students can begin creating their own memorial. As part of introducing this assignment, you might want to review the meaning of the word “memorial.” Any act or product that strives to remember an event, idea, or person might be considered a memorial. While Whitwell Middle School students created a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, for this assignment, we suggest students create a memorial to their own learning in this unit. Looking over the past five weeks, what do students hope to remember? What ideas are most important to them? Students’ memorials should represent their answers to these questions.

    Handout 2 is a worksheet designed to help students plan their memorial. Before students begin planning, you can brainstorm possible themes or messages students might represent in their work. Many middle school students gravitate toward concrete ideas, such as a memorial to children who died in the Holocaust or a monument to commemorate the upstanders who rescued victims. Encourage students to think about not only the specific historical facts and stories they explored in this unit, but also the concepts and questions that they addressed—the ideas that relate not only to understanding the past, but also to understanding our lives today. For example, students’ memorials could express a warning about falling prey to propaganda, or a memorial could convey the idea that it is wrong to label others. For inspiration, students can review their responses on the graffiti board from the opening activity. They can also review their journals and any artifacts from the unit in the classroom, such as a word wall.

    Once students have brainstormed a list of possible themes or messages that they could represent, then spend a few minutes listing the materials they could realistically use given how much time they have to work on this project. Examples of memorials students have created include the following: poems, children’s books, sculptures (with clay, paper, or found objects), drawings, paintings, songs, short stories, web pages, power point presentations, comics, one-act plays, community service projects, and acts of kindness and responsibility. If students are having a difficult time coming up with an idea, you can suggest that they write a found poem. Handout 3 provides directions for writing a found poem. Alternatively, you could have all students write a found poem as their memorial to their learning in this unit.

Follow Through (in class or at home)

Give students the opportunity to share their memorials with their classmates. You can give each student a few minutes to present their memorial to the class. Or students can set up an exhibit in the classroom showcasing their memorials.  As students view the exhibit, they can respond to prompts such as:

  • A memorial I found particularly interesting is _________ because _________.
  • A memorial that helped me think of something in a new way is ________ because ___________.
  • A memorial that expressed an idea I agree with is __________ because _____________.

Volunteers can share their responses to these statements with the whole group. Alternatively, after everyone has had time to tour the exhibit, each student could be given a minute or two to say something  positive about a particular memorial. They might mention a question that the memorial raised for them or how the memorial confirmed one of their values or beliefs. To ensure that everyone’s memorial is recognized, you could assign each student a memorial to celebrate. (You can make these assignments by having students draw names from a hat.)

As a final reflection, you might have students end this unit in a similar way to how they began it: by thinking about the meaning of the words “Facing History and Ourselves.” Ask students to identify a specific moment in this unit when they feel like they faced history and a moment when they feel they faced something familiar from their own life. (This could be the same moment.) Allow volunteers to share these moments with the class. Other questions you can raise with students include: What does “Facing History and Ourselves” mean? Do you think this is a good name for this unit? Why or why not? How can studying the past help you better understand yourself and the world today?

Students can also express their thoughts about this unit by journaling about or discussing the following information:

  • Something important they hope to remember from this unit
  • A question that is still on their mind at the end of this unit
  • Advice for teachers using this material


The memorials can be evaluated for quality and content. Teachers often ask students to write a brief artist’s statement that explains the decisions they made when creating their memorial. Questions students can address in their artist’s statement include:

  • What is the message of your memorial? Why is this message meaningful  to you?
  • Who is the audience for your memorial? Why did you select this audience?
  • Explain two or three specific decisions you made to help express this message to this audience.
  • What did you learn from creating this memorial?

Students can turn in an Exit Card with their responses to the statements listed in the follow through activity. Responses on the exit card will provide information about the ideas students took away from viewing their classmates’ memorials.

Students’ reflections on the unit will reveal the ideas students have found most important. These reflections can provide interesting information about the design of this unit, your own teaching, and students’ learning. You can apply students’ insight to your teaching of this unit in the future—emphasizing the ideas that students found most compelling while finding new ways to explore material that might have confused students.


Facing History teachers often invite parents and members of the school and local community to attend a public exhibition of memorials. In the same way that students in Whitwell Middle School guide tours of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, your students can serve as docents for this exhibit.

You might ask your students, in small groups, to develop an outline for a unit of study for 7th graders to help young people develop as moral thinkers. What do they think is important for students to learn about decision-making? What ideas, questions, or readings from this unit might they include? What other materials, ideas, questions, and concepts might they include? How would they begin the unit? How would they end it? 

April 26, 1995|By Donald Elliott

THE HOLOCAUST Museum in Washington is dedicated to the remembrance of that infamous period of human history when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis perpetrated unspeakable horrors, cruelties and injustices primarily on their Jewish brethren. It is a graphic representation of the worst things that presumably civilized people can do. It contains, among many other items, an actual box car that was used to transport prisoners to the death camps and part of a barracks that housed them before they were herded to their deaths. No one, I think, can fail to be moved by the great number of exhibits that remind us of a depth of human degradation that is a fact of history. It is real, it is poignant, and it is anguishing.

Why, then, did I, after a recent visit, come away with a feeling of disappointment, a feeling that something was missing? Of course, we must keep forever before us images of our past lest we forget and allow such things to happen again. But such things have happened again, and they continue to happen, and we, even in our anguish, seem powerless to prevent them. Is the museum a help to us in our vague aspirations for a more perfect humanity?

And, suddenly, I think I know the cause of my disappointment. The museum, with what I know are praise-worthy intentions, is, nonetheless, dedicated to hatred, to, in a sense, the very thing that it is at such great pains to depict as depraved and immoral. It is saying: Here is evil, here is something that must be immortalized in order for its viewers to be fired with a zeal to hate it and to be dedicated to the fighting of any resurgence of the evil it depicts. The museum is a monument to evil; it is at pains to show us the evil that existed in Nazi Germany for a time. And that is probably good, or, at least, necessary for all of us. We should be aware of what happened. But in another way, the emphasis is all wrong. The museum is calculated in some sense to make us hate the evil that was Hitler and to teach us, as I recently read somewhere, "the commitments which we can make to work against that which is evil."

And that, it seems to me, is somehow backward. The museum is totally unleavened by any human feeling or aspiration to good. It is a paean against evil. It is the kind of thing we do when we punish malefactors with the same evils we condemn them for. If you steal, the state will steal from you by imposing a fine on you. If you kill, the state will kill you. And who is to say that the evil the state or institution practices on you is any less bad than the evil you committed? St. Augustine, some 1,500 years ago, delivered himself, painfully, of a theory that held that evil did not exist, that all that existed was merely different degrees of good. One did not, then, fight evil as an existing entity. Rather, one concentrated on the good and on the doing of good. And there is nothing in the Holocaust Museum that even remotely suggests that idea. The thought is that if we are reminded of the evils of the Nazis, we will perforce resist their like in the future. But that is akin to Nancy Reagan's facile admonition to say "Just say no" drugs. It gives no idea of what to say "yes" to. It is mired in the notion that evil is something to be combatted, and it misses the fundamental and, in the end, enabling idea that a positive effort for the good makes evil impotent and, in a sense, nonexistent.

I was, nevertheless, much affected by my visit to the museum. But these reactions were, I am convinced, the normal ones of a person directly confronted by a palpable evil. What I missed were any notions of redemption, of a possibility for good, of a hope for a humanity less concerned with evil than it is with its aspirations to brotherhood, forgiveness and an understanding of what the term "humanity" really means.

Donald Elliott writes from Baltimore.

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