America and the Holocaust: Suggestions for the Classroom
Themes: The Holocaust, anti-Semitism, U.S. immigration policy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, World War II
Complex social and political factors shaped America's response to the Holocaust, from Kristallnacht in 1938 through the liberation of the death camps in 1945. For a short time, the US had an opportunity to open its doors, but instead erected a "paper wall," a bureaucratic maze that prevented all but a few Jewish refugees from entering the country. It was not until 1944, that a small band of Treasury Department employees forced the government to respond.
Write the following terms on the board:
anti-Semitism ethnic cleansing
red tape melting pot
Tell students that these words are related to the program they are about to watch. Ask them what they think these terms mean, and what they think the film will be about. Assign half the class to listen for these terms as they view the program, to broaden the definitions the class came up with before watching the film.
Assign the other half of the class to pay attention to the sources of information made available to government officials and the public, and how these were used to influence public opinion.
What image do you most remember from the film? Why? What makes that image an important visual symbol for the story the film tells?
How was the film different from what you expected? How did it change or expand your understanding of the terms you discussed before the film? How did it change or expand your understanding of the Holocaust, and of the role of the United States in World War II?
U.S. government knew about the persecution of European Jews long before the genocide began. What sources of information did the U.S. government have about this persecution and subsequent mass murders? How was this information treated and why? When do you think the government should have become involved in helping the Jews, and what should it have done? Why do you think the government finally decided to set up the War Refugee Board?
During the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, Roosevelt spoke with the French resident general at Rabat, Morocco, about postwar independence and the Jewish immigrants in North America. Roosevelt argued that
...the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc.) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population.... [T]his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over 50 percent of the lawyers, doctors, schoolteachers, college professors, etc., in Germany were Jews.1
What do you think about Roosevelt's suggestion? How do his comments reflect the anti-Semitism of the times? How do they help explain his inaction?
In the preface to the book The Abandonment of the Jews(Pantheon Books, 1984), David Wyman recounts the inaction of the U.S. government and much of the public to the news of Hitler's Final Solution and asks, "Would the reaction be different today? Would Americans be more sensitive, less self-centered, more willing to make sacrifices, less afraid of differences now than they were then?" What do you think? Consider our current attitudes towards minorities and immigrants in light of the crises in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Think about how the sources used to inform and/or influence public opinion were different during World War II and the Gulf War. How has the role of the media changed? How has this been a change for the better? For the worse?
Compare the coverage of local, national, and world news in your local Sunday newspaper. How is the news of trouble in countries where the United States is involved reported differently than in countries where it isn't? What can students infer from the placement of different articles within the paper? What can they infer from the differences in headlines and the amount of space allotted to different issues? What do they think the newspaper reflects about our society? its values? its interests?
As a class, list examples of recent hate crimes committed within your state or the country. What happened? Who were the victims? Assign students to choose one example of a hate crime and use newspapers and periodicals to research the circumstances of the crime as well as the public and legal response to it.
Ask students to interview a recent immigrant to the United States to learn about the immigrants reasons for coming to the United States and the process of immigration. Have students research the U.S. immigration policy for citizens of their subject's native country prior to their interviews. How has the immigration policy for residents of the native country changed during the past fifty years, and what factors have led to these changes?
As a class, brainstorm definitions of the American Dream. Then list any associations with the term. Ask students to write an essay in which they explain what the term means to them and why.
Educators & Librarians: You may order "America and the Holocaust" at PBS Video.
For more information and teaching ideas on the Holocaust, contact:
Facing History and Ourselves
16 Hurd Road
Brookline, MA 02146