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.
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.
Teaching The Holocaust
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.
- Who is the photographer?
- Why was the photograph taken?
- Was the photograph staged?
- 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.
Photographs as Propaganda
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.
Documentation of Atrocities
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.
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