Every history teacher has their favorite time period to study personally, topic to teach professionally, and topics they need or want to learn more about. World War 2 and the Holocaust have always been my favorites. I love Ancient Rome too, but WW2 and the Holocaust squeak by into the position of being my absolute favorites. I love teaching the Revolutionary War, but strangely enough don’t do much personal reading on it. Latin American history is something I always have to teach myself more about before we get to it in the classroom.
Since WW2 and the Holocaust are my favorite topics to read about and teach, it’s extra frustrating to know just how incredibly much is left out of textbooks (and yes, time and space reasons prohibit everything being included for every topic for every course, I know). For many topics I take an extra few days or a week and I move beyond the textbook. One of many ways I do this is by having students read excerpts from outside books in small groups and we have whole class discussions when they are done.
One of my favorite books to introduce to students is Children of the Flames. It is about the experiments Dr. Mengele performed on twins and gypsies in Auschwitz.
This book is amazing on so many levels. It mixes historical narrative with the memoirs of some survivors of Mengele’s experiments so it is an extremely quick read at 262 pages. It will move you differently than other Holocaust accounts. You grow attached to the twins and become invested in their survival. Some survived with their twin, some without. Some lived physically and mentally destroyed lives afterwards because of the effects of the experiments and some went on to be very successful personally and professionally. As one survivor said, “On the surface we lead normal lives, but we have never escaped the long, dark, shadow of Mengele” ~Irene Hizme.
The book begins by giving readers a glimpse into the normal lives the twins had pre-war and then goes into how everything changed when Hitler came to power. In the first section, there are also snippets describing Mengele as a boy and then how he came to his position at Auschwitz. It next details how they were experimented on and how a few managed to survive, and it concludes by recalling how difficult it was for most of them to figure out how to start their lives over, let alone figuring out where to begin their lives. For many survivors, they were the only ones left alive of both their families and towns. Others had a few living relatives but it took years to locate them. Many chose not to return to their original homes but instead moved to Israel, Australia, Britain, and America.
The content of the book is not sugarcoated, but if you teach it responsibly, it is appropriate for middle and high schoolers. One of the most interesting questions I get asked when we get to this topic (because of the discussions which follow) is along the lines of, “but how could they actually have survived?” I won’t put details here, but some of the experiments do make you question how a child or teenager ever could have survived, and some spent years in Auschwitz being experimented on. The next logical question from students is always, “what kind of person can do that to anyone, especially kids?” It’s one thing for me to tell the students about things that happened during the Holocaust, it’s another thing for them to hear about certain experiences from the mouths of those who lived it and that’s what always makes this hit home for them.
I am always amazed at the questions students ask and how they answer each other’s questions. It’s one of those times where you really see how profound a teenager’s thoughts can be when given the opportunity. Getting out of the textbook is always going to benefit your students, whether by reading other books, doing hands on activities, having guest speakers, or another method.
Don’t be afraid of the big/scary/deep topics. They will push your students and you will be rewarded when you hear them talking about the subject matter deeper than you expected, even after moving on to other topics. Do you have a favorite book you introduce to students?
If you want to read about other books to incorporate in the classroom, that are education oriented, or that teachers just loved, head over to the Literary Maven!