“Why do we study the Holocaust?”

When an 8th grade student recently asked this question, I couldn’t help but sigh.  We’re teachers, yes, but humans as well, and while I was frustrated with the question, I didn’t want to give this student the impression that I was frustrated with him – and his inquisitive nature.  On the contrary, the source of my frustration was complicated and would take some time to explain to the twelve students gathered around the table.

Earlier in the day, when preparing for class, I read through a press packet from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As “a living memorial to the Holocaust” this national treasure has inspired over 37 million visitors since it opened 21 years ago.  In unflinching terms, the museum’s exhibits describe man’s devastating inhumanity toward his fellow man.  Equally important, this museum seeks to not only “promote human dignity” but prevent future genocide.  However, this last goal, albeit admirable, can sadly appear out of reach.  On this particular day in an 8th grade English class, students would have a lesson in reality — I would be asking my students to educate themselves about one of the following countries: Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, or Syria, which are all nations where genocide occurred (or as is the case with Syria, continues to occur), long after the Holocaust ended.

The students’ writing assignment involved completing some research about one of the six countries, and comparing this nation’s experience with genocide to the Holocaust.  We had not only been discussing the Holocaust, as we read Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” and Art Spiegleman’s “Maus I,” we had also just returned from Washington D.C., where the Academy’s 8th grade students toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Nov. 6, guided by three teachers and the Academy’s director of college counseling, Keo Oura Sabath.

This museum “provides a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom” as it teaches millions of students each year about “the dangers of unchecked hatred.”  As teachers, we encourage our students to ask us the tough questions, but when the subject is such an emotional one, it’s natural for the conversation to become intense.  Following our visit, the students were eager to discuss many of the exhibits they had seen; given that this museum features more than 18,000 artifacts, it was natural that some students spotted details and information others did not.  Instead of shying away from a painful subject, they were eager to share – not only the information they learned, but their moral outrage.

As the discussion turned to the list of countries they would potentially research, they began to understand my frustration: we study the Holocaust to not only honor the memories of those who died, but to help prevent a similar tragedy – yet each example of genocide they could study occurred after the Holocaust.  The students’ moral outrage grew as our discussion continued.  “How could this happen again?”…seemed to be the common question.  As I write this, I haven’t yet collected the students’ written responses, where they share what they have learned from their research.  When I do collect the assignment, we will discuss the facts they have learned about each case of genocide.  But equally as important, if not more, we will discuss how to channel their frustration, what to do with their moral outrage as citizens of the world.  By giving our students learning opportunities outside the classroom walls, through events such as touring the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Academy continues its tradition of challenging and empowering students to take on some of life’s most difficult questions.