Using comics to teach the hardest subject: the Holocaust

Using comics to teach the hardest subject: the Holocaust

Want to figure out how old someone is without asking outright?
Find out how they learned about the Holocaust in high school.
Just “The Diary of Anne Frank?” Maybe 40s or 50s. “Number the Stars?” Let’s say late 20s or early 30s. The movies “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful?” Maybe someone in their teens or early 20s.
And the tweens and teenagers? Ask if they’re reading “The Search.”
It’s a comic book.
Graphic novel, actually, and that distinction is crucial to understanding the effectiveness of “The Search,” according to Beverly Harris-Schenz, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the German department at the University of Pittsburgh.
“This is actually instructional, and intended for a group, for a reason,” she said.
Harris-Schenz made the case for using comic books to teach the Holocaust in a talk at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill Thursday, Nov. 5.
The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam created “The Search” in 2007 as a sequel to its 2003 book “The Family Secret.” It conceived both as classroom material geared toward students who shy away from traditional books.
Graphic novels have become increasingly accepted over the past decade, as artists used the medium of comic books to tell more complex and sophisticated stories.
“How can we use this genre to teach such a serious topic?” Harris-Schenz asked.
The reason, she said, is that “The Search” is really a textbook hidden in a comic. While the story is fictional, it includes relevant dates and historical accuracies, and covers a range of Holocaust topics calculated to inspire discussion. (Unlike a graphic novel like “Maus,” created as a nonfictional account of one man’s family.)
“The Search” tells the story of a Dutch girl named Esther who flees the Nazis as a child, without her parents, and later returns to the Netherlands with her grandson to learn what happened.
Harris-Schenz believes the comic book form opens doors. Like a film, it’s fast and engaging, but like a book, it allows a teacher to pause the text for discussions.
It also allows for creative approaches to making the material palatable to young minds. In a scene where Esther learns of her parents’ fate, the speech bubble is filled with dots, not words, leaving the teacher and the students to fill in the blanks about what happened.
“It’s a comic book. It doesn’t have the depth that ‘Number the Stars’ or ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.’ But it engages kids that may not be engaged otherwise,” said Gary Harger, a Schenley High School German teacher using the book for upperclassmen.
Harger said Holocaust literature has become more personalized in the 18 years he’s taught the topic. Textbooks once focused on dates and names. Now, novels and films tend toward individual tales, opening the door for revisionism or one-sided stories.
Harger seemed conflicted about “The Search.” While he noted that students take to the material, he added, “I respect it, but I don’t take it in an educationally serious way.”
Harris-Schenz and Harger agree that Holocaust survivors remain the best tool for teaching the subject to teenagers, but both also acknowledged that the current generation of high school students may be the last who will get to hear directly from survivors.
As the oldest survivors pass on and those firsthand accounts disappear, Harger believes creativity and technological innovation will fill the void. He said existing resources like the “Shoah” oral history database will become more important.
But he also imagined historical re-enactors, like the stage actors who become experts in Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin or George Washington Carver and answer questions in character. One step further: a computer program capable of performing the same feat.
During the talk, a young man said that comics were already being replaced by video games. An older man in the audience suggested that the immersion of comics could be taken a step further: How did a concentration camp smell?
Harris-Schenz found it difficult to imagine using video games or virtual reality as a teaching tool; a teacher needs to be able to “pause” the narrative to start a discussion.
But Harger believes the imperative of keeping children engaged will necessitate it.
“Just saying those words: ‘We’re going to make a game out of this,’ is horrifying in one sense,” Harger said. “But once there are no survivors … I think it will be a reality.”

(Eric Lidji can be reached at or 412-687-1006.)

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