Angie Mayer in Little Rock classroom

George-Little Rock Middle School language arts teacher Angie Mayer holds up her copy of “Once My Name Was Sara,” a memoir by Betty Grebenschikoff who fled Nazi Germany with her family in 1939.

LITTLE ROCK—After visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this summer, Angie Mayer has gained new insight into how to teach her students about the Holocaust.

Mayer and fellow middle school language arts teacher, Melia Towne, visited the museum in Washington, D.C., in late July when they attended the three-day 2019 Arthur and Rochelle Belfer National Conference for Educators.

The visit was an eye-opening experience for Mayer, who said she learned several new facts about the Holocaust she had not known. For example, the Nazis passed a law in Germany in 1938 that Jewish people who did not have a Jewish first name had to change their middle names to “Sara” for women or “Israel” for men.

“Just so that they had like a name identifier that they were Jewish,” Mayer said.

Her and Towne also had the opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor, Betty Grebenschikoff, who had written a memoir about her experiences of that time called “Once My Name Was Sara.”

The book was one of several related to the Holocaust that Mayer brought back with her from the museum. Two other books she plans on incorporating into her Holocaust unit for sixth-graders are “The Journey that Saved Curious George” by Louise Borden and “The World Must Know” by Michael Berenbaum.

The first book is about the original authors of the Curious George books, Hans Augusto and Margret Rey, a Jewish couple who fled Paris in 1940. The second book is a collection of first-person narratives by people who lived during the Holocaust.

One of the most important lessons Mayer took from the visit was that educators should talk about victims and survivors of the Holocaust with dignity and recognize their humanity.

“Because that was so much what the Holocaust was, was taking away the humanity and the dignity of these people,” Mayer said. “That really hit home.”

The focus on discussing the victims’ dignity is something Mayer said the school’s previous Holocaust curriculum had not emphasized as much. After going to the museum, however, Mayer said that will change.

“That’s what we want to make sure, that we actually use those words because I don’t know that we ever used the word dignity when we’ve taught it before,” she said.

“Just to make sure the kids understand like, look how they stripped away any ounce of dignity for these people. Humanity, those kind of words.”

An example she gave was the story of Gerda Weissman, a Jewish woman who was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945. When an Allied soldier opened the door for Weissman to release her, she broke down in tears because the gesture made her feel human again.

Another important lesson Mayer learned for educators teaching the Holocaust is to not romanticize that time period by only teaching stories about people who sheltered Jews in their homes or helped them escape.

“In reality, when that many people died, 6 million Jews died, there actually weren’t that many people that were hiding them in closets and that sort of thing,” she said.

While her and Towne still will read hopeful stories about people helping those targeted during the Holocaust, Mayer said they will balance those stories out with other stories that are not as happy. One such book Towne will have her students read is “Night” by Elie Wiesel, which is inspired by Wiesel’s firsthand experiences as a prisoner in a concentration camp.

Teaching about the Holocaust through stories about people who were there is a way that Mayer said connects with students and puts a face to the large number of people who suffered and were killed during that time.

“We can talk about 6 million Jews dying and 10 million people dying and all of that, and the kids, those numbers, they don’t really mean a whole lot until we try to turn those numbers into actual people.”