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I, Too, Bear Witness: An Analysis of Dehumanization through Testimonies of the Holocaust

This curriculum unit is appropriate for 11th or 12th grade English classes. It is intended to last for approximately four weeks preferably during the final quarter of the school year since it is predicated on students having a firm grasp of literary elements and higher-order thinking skills in order to analyze the theme of dehumanization during the Holocaust. The objective of the unit is two-fold – analysis that addresses the constraints of spoken and written language in order to understand the processes of deprival and dehumanization that characterize the Holocaust. My students will analyze written and oral testimony to try to understand the difficulty inherent in re-living the past, the escalating assaults that dehumanized, and the determination to cling to humanity. In each testimony – written and oral - students will analyze the author or speaker’s tone to guide the evidence based inferences this material demands. The unit focuses on the people who bore witness – who told their personal accounts of dehumanization, deprivation and emotional and physical pain so the world would know. As such, the testimonies demand skillful and responsible teaching.

I will be using a very limited amount of oral and written testimony. But it will be covered in depth. Specifically, the material concerns only the dehumanizing strategies of Auschwitz: the cattle car journey, the selection process, and what several survivors have termed the entry into the gates of hell. We will read excerpts from Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s memoirs that share this focus. We will watch four oral testimonies that present the same material in a different, often more challenging format: the testimonies of Rita Kesselman (transcript and video), Itka Zygmuntowicz, Irna Anolik, and Ellis Lewin. Edith P’s account of a glimpse of normal life through the cattle car window will be compared to Elie Wiesel’s description of the outside world.

These are the short-term goals that will allow my students to analyze additional testimonies through independent research and present their findings to the class in the form of a documentary using either IMovie or IWitness. Their movie will include survivor testimony that illuminates additional tactics during the Holocaust that were designed to dehumanize and humiliate victims. My long-term goal, however, is to enable my students to see beyond the words to uncover a real person. In so doing, they too will bear witness.

Margery Willis

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