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Using Photographs to Teach about The Holocaust

Jewish women and children from Subcarpathian Rus, Ukraine, who have been selected for death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, going to gas chambers. Photographer unknown.

When I was in school, we never learned about the Holocaust. Not in grammar school, not in high school, not in college, not in grad school. Despite all the schools’ and teachers’ claims that we students were being prepared for “the real world,” they neglected to tell us some of the most important parts of world history. Granted, I spent most of my life attending Catholic schools where the nuns and priests never mentioned Jews except to say that “Jesus used to be one.” Those nuns and priests certainly never mentioned The Holocaust, the concentration camps, or even the Nazis.

My great-grandparents, Aloysius and Stella (née Lili) Hirsch were trying to protect the family from anti-Semitism by sending us to those Catholic schools. It didn’t help. Despite the fact that all of us inherited my grandparents’ strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes, I got called “Kike” and “Yid” and lots of other racist names from the time I was in first grade. When I asked my Grandpa why we couldn’t talk about being Jewish, it was my Grandma who interrupted us, telling me that I must always say, “I was baptized and I go to Catholic schools.” Since I was only 8 at the time, I did what she told me.

My great-grandmother Stella (née Lili) and great-grandfather Aloysius Hirsch on the day of my First Communion, 1962. Photo © Alexandria Szeman.

It wasn’t till I was an adult and able to research the family genealogy that I learned the source of my great-grandparents’ fear: during the War and the Holocaust, they’d lost all their family members in Germany. All those German members of the Hirsch and Wekesser families have their dates of death listed as “1940-1945?” with no places of burial. I have few photographs of my great-grandparents, and none of their family members who remained in Germany. That saddens me, not only because my great-grandparents feared telling us any stories about them, but because we have nothing to recall them to us.

Photographs are an important aid to history, even if we do not know all the names of the people in the pictures. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has several videos resources to help people learn about the Holocaust, and to teach it, using photographs. I have included them all in this post for your convenience, but these are all Yad Vashem videos.

Part One:
Teaching The Holocaust
Using Photographs

Child survivors at Auschwitz, 1945. (WikiMedia)

In the first video of the Yad Vashem, Teaching the Holocaust Using Photographs, Franziska Reiniger, staff member for the International School for Holocaust Studies (ISHS) at Yad Vashem, discusses some of the important things to bear in mind before using Holocaust photographs with students.

  1. Who is the photographer?
  2. Why was the photograph taken?
  3. Was the photograph staged?
  4. Where was the photograph found?

Photographs, like all historical documents, have limitations and are open to interpretation. These things need to be taken into account before using photographs to teach others about the Holocaust.

Part Two:
Photographs as Propaganda

A group of Jews escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers, 19 April 1943. The photo was part of SS Gen. Stroop’s report to his Commanding Officer: introduced as evidence of War Crimes trials in Nuremberg in 1945.

In Photographs as Propaganda, the second video in the Yad Vashem series, Teaching the Holocaust Using Photographs, ISHS staff member Franziska discusses the Nazi photographs and films that were made to promote their anti-Semitic ideology. In fact, she states, the Nazis used the camera as a weapon against their Jewish victims, starting in Poland in 1939 where the soldiers first encountered Jews who were not fully assimilated into their non-Jewish society.

Part Three:
Documentation of Atrocities

Three U.S. soldiers look at bodies in an oven in a crematorium in April of 1945. Photo by unidentified concentration camp in Germany, at time of liberation by U.S. Army.

Official Lodz Ghetto inmate and photographer Henryk Ross and his photos make up the third part of the Yad Vashem Series Teaching the Holocaust Using Photographs. In  Documentation of Atrocities, Ross demonstrates how he surreptitiously photographed the Ghetto Jews and then secretly developed them. Later, Ross served as a witness against Adolf Eichmann in his trial for Crimes Against Humanity.

All three of these films are part of Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Education Video Toolbox. Please visit their site for additional video resources.

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Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust

Rare Historical Holocaust Photos

Holocaust Timeline and Overview

Holocaust Days of Remembrance

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the Holocaust database
or to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

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The Snow White Watch

Despite the fact that my family was Jewish, my great-grandparents sent all their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to Catholic schools, so the biggest event of my life when I turned seven was to be my First Communion. Or so I thought.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t care very much about the First Communion itself, though the Bishop himself was coming to the Church Of Holy Angels to administer it. I didn’t have any problem memorizing our lines in Latin since, back then, the entire Mass was in Latin, so learning our lines was easy. I didn’t even think very much about the new prayerbook — in Latin — of my very own that I was to receive, or the new rosary, which one of my aunts had hinted looked like diamonds. No, there were only two things I cared about concerning the impending First Communion. 1) the fact that, in my white dress, patent leather shoes, and veil, I looked like a bride; and 2) that I had asked for only one gift – to increase the chances of my actually getting something I wanted: A Snow White watch of my very own that I was to receive, or the new rosary, which one of my aunts had hinted looked like diamonds. No, there were only two things I cared about concerning the impending First Communion. 1) the fact that, in my white dress, patent leather shoes, and veil, I looked like a bride; and 2) that I had asked for only one gift – to increase the chances of my actually getting something I wanted: A Snow White watch.

How I loved Snow White. Not the dwarves, not the Prince who eventually woke her from her sleep with a kiss, and certainly not the evil Queen stepmother, who reminded me too much of my own parents. I loved Snow White herself. She sang like an angel, and when abandoned in the woods for dead, she found a way to survive. I didn’t sing myself, buy I knew how to survive. She was my hero. I wanted my first watch, which each child in our family got after s/he turned 7, to have Snow White’s picture on it so I could look at her every single day.

I fear that I don’t remember very much about my First Communion, though I do recall that I looked like a bride (the fact that every single girl in the second-grade looked like a bride didn’t take away from my pleasure at resembling one). There was a white-layer-cake and punch at the house afterward, but I didn’t like the taste of either one. I received my own Latin prayer book with gilt-edged pages, but its cover was white, not pink as I’d plainly made clear was my preference. Finally, though the new rosary did glitter like diamonds, I knew that they weren’t because my own mother told me they were merely cut-crystals immediately after my grandparents presented it to me. All very well and fine. But nothing exceptional to a little Jewish girl in love with Snow White.

Then my great-grandfather drew me aside. He took me to the corner, reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a package wrapped in pink tissue paper, tied with pink ribbon, and knotted with a single pink bow. I adored my great-grandfather even more than I did Snow White. He was the only one who ever listened to me. He was the one I could depend upon to tell me the truth if I asked a question (he’d told me the truth about our family’s being Jewish after I’d asked, though my great-grandmother cautioned me that I must always tell anyone who questioned me about it that I’d been baptized and attended Catholic schools). My great-grandfather was the only person in my family who loved me. (I believed it then, and I still do.) So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was out of his pocket, on First Communion Day, came a pink-wrapped present.

Breathless, I untied the bow, removed the ribbon, untaped the paper and folded it. A cream-colored box. Like nothing I’d ever seen before. I opened it. I looked up at my great-grandfather, who, smiling, patted me on top of my veiled head. Inside the box, on a pink wrist-band, was a Snow White watch.

It was already set for the correct time, and wound, so that the second hand swept around her lovely face as she sat in the woods singing for all the little animals. Great-grandfather took it out of the box, taught me how to set and wind it, then put it on me. It was absolutely the happiest moment of my seven-year-old life. Great-Grandpa Hirsch was my Prince Charming, and I hugged and kissed him till he laughed.

I wore that watch every moment of the day and night – except, of course, during the weekly bath. I wore it to school, where, to my surprise, none of the other girls had gotten a watch. Most of them had either gotten pearl earrings (complete with the piercing of their ears), a pearl necklace, or both. It was the boys who’d gotten watches, and none of them had received a Snow White watch. I alone had a Snow White watch on a pink band. I checked the time every few seconds, ensuring that it matched the great clock that hung in the classroom, in the school hallway, in the cafeteria, and the small clock in the kitchen at home. When I woke in the middle of the night, I looked at Snow White to check the time. I was so happy and proud.

And then, tragedy struck.

All the neighborhood children and I were playing in our backyard, on the swingset. Specifically, we were dashing up the ladder to the slide, grabbing the top of the swingset, lifting our bodies up into the air, and flinging ourselves down the slide as hard and fast as we could. Once at the bottom, you had to jump up as fast as you could – before the next person barrelling down the slide slammed into you – run around and scramble back up the ladder to do it again.

Suddenly, about the hundredth time I grabbed the top of the swingset, the world went black.
Just like that.
Black and silent in an instant.

Then a fireman was slapping me rather hard in the face, telling me to wake up. I was lying at the side of the house, about 30-50 feet from the swingset. Our house, on a corner lot, was surrounded by firetrucks and police cars, all with flashing lights. The yard was filled with sobbing children, shrieking college girls from the houses around ours, and wailing mothers. (It should be here noted that, for many reasons, my own mother was standing silently against the wall of the house – not crying, shrieking, wailing, nor wringing her hands – calmly and unemotionally observing it all.) The fireman slapped me again, asking me over and over if I knew my name.

I thought how funny he was: of course I knew my name. What I didn’t know was why he kept putting that big head of his, in that even bigger fire-helmet, in front of mine, blocking my view of the bluest sky I’d ever seen. I didn’t know why I was lying in the yard so far away from the swingset, why everyone was weeping and wailing, or why I felt so calm and peaceful. He slapped me again, demanding that I tell him my name – when anyone else there could have easily told him – as a policeman lifted my wrist, pointed to my Snow White watch, glanced over at the swingset, and cursed aloud while he jumped to his feet. Everyone else in the yard looked in the same direction and immediately screamed as if a tornado had just touched down.

It seems that in the night, during a storm, a powerline had fallen and landed atop the swingset. Each time one of us had grabbed the top of the swingset to throw ourselves down the ladder, we’d been within inches of touching it. But I was the only one old enough to be wearing a watch. My Snow White watch. That last fateful time on the slide, Snow White had touched the live powerline and I’d been electrocuted, flung through the air from the top of the slide to where I’d landed, unconscious long enough for all my brothers and sisters to run, screaming, for the neighbors; for the college girls and other mothers to call the fire department and police, then rush over into our yard and huddle around crying; for the fire trucks and police cars to arrive, sirens screaming and lights flashing; for the firemen to rush over to me, begin slapping me, and shouting.

In short, everyone thought I was dead.

I wasn’t. I never did manage to say my name, however, as I quickly slipped back into unconsiousness and was transported to the hospital. I don’t know how long it was before I came home again. I heard, afterward, that our backyard was cordoned off for days while the electrical crews repaired the downed powerline. It was weeks before the burn on the back of my left wrist healed. More weeks before I could get out of bed and return to school. Like Lazarus, I’d risen from the dead, only without Jesus’ miraculous help. But something, besides my voice, was missing: my Snow White watch.

It seems that the current from the powerline had melted the watch into my skin. Snow White had been destroyed. Doctors said that if it hadn’t been for the watch, no one may have noticed the powerline. They told my family that if I hadn’t had my arms up over my head when Snow White hit the powerline, I’d have been killed. The word “miracle” quickly circulated around the mostly Catholic neighborhood. I didn’t care about any of that. All I cared about was Snow White – my destroyed Snow White. I hadn’t even gotten to see her buried since they disposed of her while I was unconscious in the hospital. I asked for another Snow White watch.

“We’re not the ones who broke it,” said my mother and step-father. “Why should we buy you another one?”

And that, as they say, was that.
At least, as far as my parents were concerned.
And no, my grandmother scolded me, I could not ask Great-Grandpa for another watch: he had children and grandchildren and plenty of other great-grandchildren. He’d already given me one watch: he would not be asked to give me another. Which, she added, I’d broken in the first place.

I never got over her. My Snow White watch. My Snow White. She was gone forever. I was forced to grieve in silence.

One Christmas, 34 years after being electrocuted and about three years after my boyfriend and I had started living together, he asked me if I’d like to open our “Christmas Eve gift” early. Two weeks early. Laughing, I said no. All the presents were wrapped under the tree, we always opened one gift a piece on Christmas Eve. Why on earth would I want to change the tradition that we’d started, over twenty-five years after both of us, separately, had stopped celebrating Christmas altogether, then begun again after we’d moved in together because we liked Christmas trees and the season itself.

He didn’t act happy. He was not himself. He’d been on the phone for months beforehand with one of his sisters (she lived in California; we lived in Ohio). He paced the house like a madman every time the mail or a delivery truck arrived, but I never saw anything of importance that would warrant such distress. He seemed so anxious and unhappy. Now he wanted to ruin our Christmas Eve tradition by trying, every day, to get me to open a present beforehand. I simply had no idea what was troubling him. To make matters worse, whenever I asked what was wrong, he’d freeze and mumble, “Nothing” before escaping the room. I began to think our relationship wasn’t working out, and that he wanted me to open a present early because he wasn’t planning on being there on Christmas. My own mood plummeted.

Christmas Eve DAY arrived.
“Open a present,” he said.
“It’s 9:00 in the morning.”
“Open a present.”
“Later,” I said. “It’s not Christmas EVE yet.”
He stayed in his office all day long.

As soon as the sun set, he bounded out.
“Ready to open a present?”
I agreed.
Instead of permitting me to choose which present I wanted to open, as we usually did, he brought out a box from under the pile, from the back of the tree, hidden under the branches. We sat on the couch. He jumped up.
“Wait,” he said, running from the room.
I was beginning to think he’d simply lost his mind when he came rushing back and handed me a handkerchief. He put one for himself in his pocket. I opened the package, as I always did: untying the ribbon, removing the pink paper and folding it. Pink paper. Pink ribbon. Why was he squirming around so? Pink paper. Pink ribbon. Something in me felt… uneasy.

This was what I got.

The Snow White Watch Box

 

I looked up at him, thinking, confusedly, “Why on earth did he get me a DVD of Snow White?”
Then, “How on earth did they make the DVD so small?”
As I slowly untied the box’s purple ribbon, the seven-year-old girl inside me, the little girl I thought long dead, rose once again, shrieking with joy: It’s the watch. It’s the watch.
Heart pounding, I opened the box.
This is what was inside.

The Snow White Watch


I sobbed.
My boyfriend 
wiped his own eyes before taking the watch out of the box and putting it on me.
The little girl inside was dancing, jumping, and laughing with joy.
I was crying so hard I could barely see the watch’s face.
“Is it the right one?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s the 60th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” he said. “There were only two watches left in the entire country (these were the days before the extensive internet availability of products): both watches were in Disney stores in California. One was gold, but I didn’t think you’d have had a gold watch when you were a little girl. The other, they told me, had a painted face. They held it for me, and my sister Beth drove over three hours to the store that had it and got it for me. I’m sorry it doesn’t have a pink band. They said they don’t make pink bands for adult watches. But besides the color of the band, is it the right one?”

Oh, yes. I don’t remember how long it took me to stop crying, or how many times I hugged and kissed him. I don’t recall how many times I woke in the night and turned on the light to look at my Snow White watch (yes, I wore her to bed), but every time I woke, he did, too, asking, “Are you happy?”

Silly boy.
“Ever since you told me that story,” he said as we lay there together looking at the watch, “my heart broke for that poor little girl. Until I finally realized what I had to do.”
“Why didn’t I ever think of getting another Snow White watch myself?”
“Because,” he said, “someone who loved you had to give it to you.”

This will be our 19th holiday season together, and he still claims it’s the happiest Christmas memory of his entire life. It is for me, too. It’s the only watch I wear, and people are always asking why I’m wearing a Snow White watch. Sometimes, I say, “It’s a long story,” and they turn away. Other times, they do want to hear, so I tell them: women break out into tears, men get watery-eyed and begin clearing their throats. I usually get so emotional, I have a hard time relating the story.

But every time the little girl in me looks at the watch, she’s so happy, she wants to tell the whole world how, 34 years later, she got her Snow White watch back.

Now she’s told you.

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