A day in the life of ... Danny Cohen

6th September 2013 at 01:00
This lecturer in education feels he has a vocation to teach undergraduates about genocide - but worries that the Holocaust may be casting a shadow over his family life

Our toddler wakes us just before 7am. I was up until four hours ago writing a journal article on Holocaust victimhood. Remembering that I left my research books on the kitchen counter - flung open at pages with black-and-white images of uncovered mass graves - I jump out of bed and put the books away before our three-year-old daughter sees them.

It is my husband's turn to make the preschool drop-off. After some "have-a-good-day" hugs, I log on to the university Blackboard site and browse through undergraduate reflections that were due by 9am on Holocaust survivor video testimonies.

The train journey from Chicago to Evanston gives me time to read a chapter of a young adult novel about Nazi youth; I might teach the book next year. The talkative little boy in front of me makes the history seem all the more unreal.

At 11am, as my undergraduates arrive, they're thrown by the fact that I've turned the classroom into a makeshift art gallery of colourful children's drawings, each matched with a poem and marked by a name if it is known. They quickly discover they were all created by Jewish children living in a Nazi ghetto.

"What was most surprising?" I ask. They are impressed by the young artists' bluntness. Some read the poems they found most compelling. We examine drawings of everyday life and hunger and violence and death. "And hope," one student adds. And yet, I explain, most of the artists were killed in gas chambers.

After we read a short history of the Theresienstadt camp, I ask the students to consider how historical context changes the way we perceive the children's drawings and poems, and alters the idea of "innocence". We begin to explore the idea of creativity, education and art therapy as forms of resistance to Nazi oppression. We discuss the effects of Nazi policy on childhood; how children in the ghettos became smugglers of food, caretakers of their parents and armed resistance fighters.

I have a working lunch with a group of students helping me to develop a new Holocaust high school curriculum. The programme will include a unit on the Nazis' "euthanasia" of adults and children with disabilities. One student is having a difficult time with the material - she has nightmares about Auschwitz, she admits. I reassure her that it's quite common and recommend that she does not study mass murder before bedtime. I remember the books in my own kitchen.

I catch a mid-afternoon bus from Evanston to Skokie. I wake with a jolt at my stop and walk to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. With time to visit the Legacy of Absence Gallery, I browse its paintings and photographs depicting atrocities of the 20th century. I am disturbed to see visitors with young children.

At 6.30pm, I join the bi-monthly public meeting of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission. I've been a member since its inauguration in 2011. We're an advisory group on genocide education and commemoration across the state. Afterwards, a colleague gives me a ride home. We talk about the support that teachers and parents might need to help children to learn about genocide without trauma.

"So, how was your day?" my daughter mimics me, as she splashes me with bath bubbles. I reply, "I missed you." Before bedtime, I cringe as she pulls one of my Holocaust history books from the shelf and smiles: "Read me a story, Daddy."

Dr Danny M Cohen is a learning scientist at Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy, Illinois, US, and a member of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission. Read about his work at www.dannymcohen.com


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