People make choices. Choices make history."
My 7th graders know about Hitler. They are deeply curious about him. They ask questions about his childhood, how he died, how he got to be dictator of Germany. And while I understand their fascination with trying to understand one of the greatest demagogues of the last century, I try to channel their curiosity in a different direction; my students are not going to understand the Holocaust by uncovering everything there is to know about Hitler, but they will come much closer to understanding how the Holocaust could have happened just by looking at the everyday people who were living in Europe at that time.
Therefore, during a two-week Holocaust unit, we spend most of the time analyzing people’s choices. We explore such essential questions as “Why did some people choose to act as bystanders while others risked so much to help others?” We watch the film “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War” and analyze what motivated Reverend and Mrs. Sharp to leave their two young children in America and sail to Czechoslovakia to try to get refugees out of Europe. Similarly, in the resource book Holocaust and Human Behavior, we read the story “Choosing to Rescue” in which Polish factory worker Stefa explains how she chose to hide a Jew at first just for a few days but then ended up hiding her for the rest of the war. Through watching films and reading personal stories, my hope is that students will see history as a series of events that came about because of individuals’ choices.
At the end of our Holocaust unit, I asked my 7th graders to reflect on what “People make choices. Choices make history” might mean:
- “This quote means that one choice that any person makes, big or small, can affect generations and generations to come. This choice might have been put in history books, be passed down in families, be in public media, or just be forgotten.”
- “This quote connects to the Holocaust because if more people and/or nations would make the choice and say that what the Nazis are doing is wrong, the Holocaust could have ended sooner and fewer people would have died or the Holocaust could have never even happened.”
As my student suggested above, bystanders in the time of the Holocaust may have had the ability to do something or say something but chose to remain silent. But what about the millions of people in the Holocaust who lacked agency, who had no option of converting or fleeing and were therefore murdered? With choice comes power and with power comes responsibility. Likewise, with power comes the possibility for choice. One 7th grader clearly understands the power of choice:
If people make choices, and then those choices make history, it means that people make history.”
So, Hitler’s choices certainly made history in a way that we will never forget, but so, too, did all the people who made choices alongside him, whether or not these choices were ever written down in history books. In the time of the Holocaust and today, it is our responsibility to make the choice to stand up for those in society that are least powerful, those with the fewest choices.
My students -- and all of us in fact -- are making history every moment of every day with every decision we make.
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