There are many approaches to the literature you teach. For Elie Wiesel’s Night, we like to look at the what Facing History and Ourselves calls the “Universe of Obligation.” What exactly are our obligations as human beings — to ourselves and to each other? For young people, the specter of the Holocaust as depicted in this book appears distant and surreal. Therefore, we like to ask them to consider questions like, “How could something like this happen? How is it that so many Germans could go along with the policies of the Nazis? Why wasn’t there more resistance to such hatred?”
Facing History and Ourselves looks to issues at the root of the us vs. them mentality, bystanders vs. upstanders, resisters vs. perpetrators. They consider the human angle in all of these opposing forces and explore the psychology behind it. They also broaden the scope by looking at the Civil Rights movement in the United States, among other things. No one country or people stands alone in their ability to take on the role of “us” in order to persecute and oppress a specific “them.” Sadly, that potential lies in all cultures, races, and nations.
To make Night hit home, then, we ask students to consider their own behaviors. How are some of the darker impulses and meaner behaviors inherent in all of mankind — even ourselves? Why is it that some people overcome their own fears and prejudices while others do not? And how are we affected by matters like social pressure, propaganda, insecurity, ignorance, and selfishness?
Talk about open-ended questions! As Pandora once said: “Do you really want to open that box?” Well, yes. These issues are custom-made for soul-searching and airing out. It is well worth our time to consider “small-h” holocausts as ongoing phenomena the world over and then ask why this is.
So I came up with four “How Would You React? scenarios for students to read and fill out individually before discussing. Before giving out the survey, I will ask students to invoke their imaginations and be completely honest with themselves by considering the “hypothetical” as “real” and something that could very well happen to them next week. That should set the stage. Then I will read all four scenarios and ask if there are any questions. If not, they will have around twelve minutes to reread and respond in writing, knowing in advance that they will have a chance to explain themselves (WHY?) at greater lengths when we share some answers as a class.
I will assure them that not everyone will be required to respond in the academic conversation to follow, but that they can comment on any answers that are volunteered by seeking elaboration and clarifications. I anticipate some rationalizations, which will be a good thing because I think, in the 1930s and 40s, there was a lot of that going on in Germany as well other countries caught up in the winds of war. I will also be a vigilant throughout. All answers must be respected. They can be questioned but only in a respectful manner.
Once we’ve heard diverse voices challenge and build on various explanations, I will share two short pieces before continuing the discussion. They are a short news piece from last year, “Online Bullying” from The Washington Post, and a piece taken from Facing History’s impressive resource book, “The In Group–Belonging.” We’ll see if students want to amend any of their previous thoughts based on these additional angles — one more fact-based (the Post) and one more emotionally-charged (the girl’s confession).
However it plays out, I think it will improve their perceptions of post-World War I Germany and the bitter seeds that came to fruition under the Nazi regime. Could it happen again somewhere in the world? Most certainly, yes. And though such cruelties as bullying or hurtful indifference are but faint echoes to deeds done during the Third Reich, they still have a distant relationship. If our hopes for the future are to be realized, students must be aware of and on guard against such possibilities.