Stories and Sages: New Directions in Holocaust Education

by: Rafi Cashman

Rafi Cashman teaches at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto and is a Wexner Fellow and Davidson Scholar in the doctoral program at the University of Toronto (OISE). In this article, he describes a curricular approach to teaching the Shoah using a combination of popular Holocaust literature and Torah texts.

As eyewitnesses to the Holocaust begin to disappear, and the event ceases to play a clear role in the formation of the Jewish identity of adolescents and young adults, urgent questions arise. Even as we seek to combat Holocaust revisionism, anti-Semitism, and neo-Nazism, how will we identify the enduring understandings of this watershed? How will we help students understand the extremes of human behavior and the need to act and not stand by idly when friends, neighbors, or “the others” are threatened? How will we make the event relevant to our students and connect it to how they understand themselves as modern Jews?

With colleagues, I have designed a curriculum that suggests new directions in Holocaust pedagogy. We focus on literature and the arts enhanced by traditional Jewish texts and contemporary Jewish stories that lead students to reflect on their lives as Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

The rationale for prioritizing narrative is that it allows for a profound internalization of the material, encourages a feeling of responsibility, and provides the context in which to carry the learning forward. The use of Torah text is intended to enrich and complement the Holocaust narratives by conceptualizing the ideas presented in the stories in a framework of Jewish identity. We believe this deeper connection is necessary as the survivors pass on and only our students are left to tell their stories.

This methodology gives it an ability to engage a broad range of students, including those who may not have access to direct survivor testimony, who may not be effected by historical facts alone, who may have no background or knowledge of the event, and those from the ultra-religious world who generally learn about the Holocaust only in the context of global Jewish tragedies. As such, it creates a more seamless relationship between the subject of the Holocaust and the educational goals of the students’ learning environments.


Darrell Fasching (1992) describes narrative ethics as a response to the ethical failure that occurred in the Holocaust by people who thought that a secular Western system of morality was sufficient to guide one’s ethical decisions. He suggests that generalized abstract guiding principles are insufficient influences when people confront real and difficult decisions. He maintains that people need authentic models to shape proper, morally integrated expectations. People are, he says, “not story-tellers but story-dwellers” (Fasching, 1992, p.25). We experience ourselves as living narratives, not abstract entities. As such, abstract principles have a limited effect. When making decisions, we reflect on our and others’ stories; we find direction and an appeal to the reality of life practiced as opposed to that theorized about, and it is this life story that influences our decisions much more profoundly than axioms do. Fasching proposes a return to Bible stories rather than to the principles of Kant for moral guidance to restore more predictable and effective ethical behavior today (ibid.).
Max van Manen applies this not only to ethics but to learning in general. “Narrative reason speaks to the emotions as well as to the conceptual and the moral aspects of a broader human rationality” (Selis, 2004). Narrative reasoning works at both a cognitive and non-cognitive level, and its power brings “about ‘understandings’ of evoked meanings, human truths, and significances that something can hold” (ibid).

Stories touch the heart as well as the mind, and personalize the abstract in a way that ideas, facts, and numbers cannot. It is easy and tempting to reduce the Holocaust (and history in general) to facts, which, profoundly disturbing though they are, can be taught merely as knowledge. Literature ensures that the facts are humanized and thus reveal personal meaning. Guzzetti and others (Guzzetti, Kowalinski, & McGowan, 1992; Sanacore, 1990; Wilson, 1988) speculate that, “students can acquire more concepts and a greater understanding of those concepts through literature and literature-based instruction than through a traditional approach.” (Guzzetti, Kowalinski, & McGowan, 1992, p.121)

The use of Torah texts to reflect upon the narrative can bring out meanings in the story that may not have been clear, or lacked conceptual depth. Van Manen explains the effectiveness of using narrative and text together. He understands learning for knowledge as arising from a field previously sown with experience. Abstract knowledge can be properly assimilated only when it exists in a context to which the individual can relate. This can arise out of one’s own experience, or the assimilation of someone else’s, through narrative. He feels that “students only achieve a deep understanding when they internalize the pathos that precedes conceptual knowledge.” (Selis, 2004) Narrative thus creates the bedrock upon which abstract conceptual knowledge, explored through Torah texts, can be built. The texts allow students to authentically explore the essential philosophical, spiritual, and religious questions the literature raises. Thus, they are given both cognitive and non-cognitive tools to explore what they are learning about the Holocaust and about its impact on their Jewish identity. It also encourages a new generation of students, the last eyewitnesses to the eyewitnesses, to accept the responsibility of learning and retelling the Holocaust narratives they learn now within a Jewish framework, and not simply as one of many genocides. They can only authentically teach and share individual stories that they fully and personally comprehend (and not simply tell), not a litany of depersonalized and distant facts, dates, numbers, and terms.

This model is also effective because Jewish texts can be engaged at various levels and can accompany each story. As such, the curriculum is appropriate for even ultra-religious communities, which often lack a historically sound Holocaust curriculum. For such schools, the Torah text is primary, the Holocaust story secondary. Teachers can seamlessly add or subtract this layer of learning as necessary, making this curriculum malleable and useful in different settings.

Theory Into Practice

A selection from the unit on concentration and death camps will help to elucidate how narrative and Torah texts can make sense of one another and create meaning for students. Even though this portion of the unit is more extensive and includes a more robust use of historical texts, we have chosen to portray the part that best represents the ideas discussed in this article in a succinct manner.

The students come to the first class on this unit having read the story The Wache by Sala Pawlowicz and Kevin Klose. It is a first hand account of a woman’s experience of sickness, violence, dehumanization and kindness in a concentration camp munitions factory. Two themes from the story that are considered here are the reasons for dehumanization in contrast with the intrinsic value of human life, and the significance of language in understanding ourselves as human beings.

One of the themes of this story is the repetitive use of animal references as a way of underscoring the Jews’ dehumanization. This appears in a number of contexts, such as the protagonist referring to a furry insect as the ‘only friend I had,’ to cries of pain as an ‘animal’s groan,’ to the Nazi supervisor’s comment, ‘Do you think you are human?’ The students are encouraged to find these references on their own, to try and suggest why they are used, and why the author chose this motif. Once this theme has been explored, it should be placed in the context of Nazi propaganda, such as a poster of a swastika armed with a knife killing a rat dressed up like a Jew, or a Nazi propaganda film that equates the Jews with a rodent infestation, in order that the students better understand the social-historical context. This propaganda should be explained with reference to Nazi racial anti-Semitism having arisen from the post-Darwinian reduction of human beings to biological entities, and the subsequent use of race to distinguish amongst different groups of human beings, and the Nazi evaluation of Jews as sub-human.

At this point the class should be presented with a Torah perspective on the value of each human being. There is an argument in the Talmud Yerushalmi between Rabbi Akiva and ben Azai as to the main principle of Torah; ben Azai says that “Man was created in the image of G-d” and Rabbi Akiva says “Love your friend as yourself.” As a way of delving more deeply into the text, the teacher could allow the students to explore the meaning of the text themselves. They should be guided to note major differences between the verses, such as references to friend vs. the more abstract man, or the reference to love in contrast to the less intimate Elokim (the reference God as judge). The idea that should be moved toward in class is that the basic principle of ben Azai of tzelem (image of G-d) denotes a basic level of respect founded upon a Godly quality that each person has fundamentally. The Nazis tried to make the Jews less than human, but the Torah in is conflict with such a position. Despite any perceived biological differences, which the Nazis felt made them people worthy of a different fate than others, the Torah looks at the fundamental spiritual makeup of a human being, and that quality is inviolable. This notion should then be reflected back to the students at the end of the story, which contrast the Nazis’ acts of violence with an anonymous act of kindness by a Polish inmate, such an act of kindness lifting the protagonist from animal entity to genuine human being. This reflecting of the text back into the story deepens the students understanding of both. Using the Torah sources conceptualizes (through contrast) the experience observed in the text. But it is more than a moral point that is gained here. The student, by seeing how this biological form of racism plays out in real life, is able to personalize it in a way that a more abstract view of the moral questions involved would not allow for. On the other hand, by turning to the Torah after having read the story creates a strong emotional-moral foundation that gives it greater relevance and meaning in the student’s life.

Another example is the importance of language in human self-conception. One of the Nazis says, “Don’t ever speak to me, foul one,” and at another instance the narrator has to sign a problem to her guard because she is forbidden to use words. Words would indicate this woman’s humanity, which the guards believe she does not have. In the Torah there is a deep connection between language and humanity that can be explored here to help make sense of the guards demand for silence. A simple start would be to look at the verse in Bereshit where Adam is created. There it says that God “breathed into him the breath of life,” but the Aramaic translation of Onkelos refers to this breath instead as the “power of speech.” This is a powerful understanding of language as the defining life-force of the human being. To understand this gives greater depth to our understanding of the Nazi’s demand for a Jew not being allowed to communicate, not only as a way to dehumanize, but as a reflection of their looking at the Jews like animals (as Adam was, in some sense, before this breath of life). One could take this notion further by looking at the idea of language as the basis upon which the world was created, as noted in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot and elaborated upon in the Tanya of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. As an extension, though not directed related, one could use this as a way of helping students explore and understand the seriousness of lashon hara, which comes as a recognition of the power language has to form and effect us. What comes out of this relationship between story and text is, on one hand, a narrative that is deepened through the Torah’s understanding of the power of language, and on the other, an authentic experience of why the Torah has such a strong approach to language.


The use of narrative underscored by complementary Jewish texts in teaching about the Holocaust is powerful and effective in our contemporary context. It allows us not only to teach about what happened but also to create a deeper relationship between those events and the students studying them, and to imbue students with the commitment to carry the message after the age of survivors. This experience is transformative as students accept their Holocaust legacy and examine and build a reflective Jewish identity in its wake.


Fasching, Darrell J. (1992). Narrative Theology After the Holocaust: From Alienation to Ethics. New York: Fortress Press.

uzzetti, B.J., Kowalinski, & T. McGowan. (1992). Using a Literature-based Approach to Teaching Social Studies. Journal of Reading, 36(2), 114-122.

Sanacore, J. (1990). Creating the Lifetime Reading Habit in Social Studies. Journal of Reading, 33(6), 414-418.

Selis, Allan (Fall 2004). Orality, Textuality and the Living Experience of the Oral Torah. Jewish Educational Leadership, (3:1)

Shawn, K. & Goldfrad, K. (Eds.). (2007). The Call of Memory: Learning about the Holocaust through Narrative. An Anthology. New York: Ben Yehuda Press.

van Manen, Max. (Summer 1994). The Practice of Practice. Curriculum Inquiry, 4(2), (135-170).

Wilson, M. (1988). “How Can We Teach Reading in the Content Areas?” In C. Weaver (Ed.), Reading Process and Practice: From Socio-Psycholinguistics to Whole Language (pp.280-320). Portsmouth, NH: Henemann.