77 years ago, on January 27, 1945, the Soviet army entered the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp and freed more than 7,000 prisoners, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Auschwitz is well known for being the largest concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Coinciding with Auschwitz Liberation Day, International Holocaust Remembrance Day annually commemorates those who were victims of the Holocaust, primarily people of Jewish descent but included other minorities.
The History Department offers several courses that cover the Holocaust and similar content. HIST 317 or “The Holocaust” is a course often taught by Jeff Hayton, Assistant Professor of Modern Europe, specializing in German history.
“There is a huge sense of satisfaction in helping students understand one of the most horrific and traumatic events in human history,” Hayton said.
A few thought processes guide Hayton when teaching and structuring the course. The first is to understand the constant decisions about life and death that people had to make. Hayton mentioned the phrase “no-choice choice,” a term coined by Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer to describe the lose-lose situation facing the Jewish people.
Another Hayton goal is to demystify the stereotypes students typically have with the subject.
“One of the biggest myths about this period is that the Nazis were mindless sadistic robots who did what they did out of spite,” Hayton said. “That’s not to say what they did wasn’t terrible, but if you turn them into this kind of irreparable evil, it means you’re not on the lookout for [people like] them in your own company.
Hayton deconstructs other myths in her course, such as ideas surrounding Holocaust propaganda and victims.
“It’s really important to give a voice to the Jewish people,” Hayton said. “The idea that Jews went quietly to their deaths without making a sound – the Nazis want us to think that, and they constructed their reports with that in mind so that we believe that [Jewish people] were somehow complicit in their own death.
Hayton said the primary documents on either side of the issue give victims a voice and help understand the perpetrator’s motivations.
“We understand what people went through and think about why people did what they did,” Hayton said. “You can’t do that unless you look at the primary texts.”
Hayton said Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences teaches students how to learn, which makes the class valuable for history and non-history majors.
“What we’re doing is giving students the skills to keep learning for the rest of their lives,” Hayton said. “That’s why the Holocaust is a good entry point for this kind of learning, because a lot of people have passing knowledge about it.”
The course aims to understand the Holocaust with empathy instead of being strictly limited to the facts. Moreover, it raises complex questions about one of the worst genocides in human history.
“What does it mean to be an abuser?” said Hayton. “What does it mean to be a victim? Can perpetrators also be victims? What is the boundary between an aggressor and a spectator? »