Why I Teach about the Holocaust

Vicky Knickerbocker promotes cultural diversity acceptance, appreciation and respect through a powerful course

Vicky Knickerbocker is an upstander. Vicky wants everyone she meets to be an upstander. Coined by Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the term “upstander” designates an un-bystander, or a person who faces down instances of inequality or injustice. Upstanders do not put up with bullying or discrimination. Martin Luther King Jr. crystallized the concept when he said, “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As a sociology, humanities and human services instructor at Inver Hills Community College, Vicky conducts one of the more remarkable educational journeys in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, a three-credit humanities course called Holocaust Through Multiple Lenses.

“We examine how the Holocaust has been remembered through different forms of media,” Vicky said. “We explore historical depictions of the Holocaust in literature, drama, personal testimony, music, video and art.” She added that the course also features two field trips, including a tour of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. ‘Holocaust’ is a word of Greek origin meaning ‘sacrifice by fire.’ The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were ‘racially superior’ and that the Jews, deemed ‘inferior,’ were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

“During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived ‘racial inferiority’: Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.”

Holocaust Encyclopedia
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

“I don’t like passive learning environments,” Vicky said. “I want a rich learning experience. I invite Holocaust survivors to speak to the class and strongly encourage my students to attend community events related to the Holocaust.”

Students have heard talks from Holocaust survivors such as Inge Auerbacher, who was imprisoned as a 7-year-old in Theresienstadt concentration camp at Terezín in the former Czechoslovakia. Inge Auerbacher spent three years in Theresienstadt. Roughly 1 percent of the 15,000 children held at the camp survived. She has authored a number of books, including I Am a Star–Child of the Holocaust.

Other guest speakers include Dr. Robert O. Fisch, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who is a passionate advocate for promoting the positive life lessons that can learned from studying the Holocaust. A retired professor of pediatrics at the U of M, Dr. Fisch survived the Nazi concentration camps, Mauthausen and Gunskirchen. A writer and painter, he has published several books about his Holocaust experiences and the important life lessons they teach, including his first and most popular, Light From The Yellow Star.

Holocaust Studies
Heinrich Himmler, Viktor Lutze, Adolf Hitler and Rudolph Hess standing in the Luitpoldhalle

Eva Kor, another guest speaker, survived with her twin sister, Miriam, the horrendous twin experiments carried out by Josef Mengele, a German SS officer and research physician at Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious of all the Nazi concentration camps. Known as the “Angel of Death,” Mengele needlessly amputated limbs, dispensed injections of deadly infectious diseases and periodically killed twins after experiments to perform dissections on the cadavers.

As a Holocaust educator, Vicky was awarded a scholarship from the Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors Museum, or CANDLES, in Terre Haute, Ind., that allowed her to travel with Eva Kor and other educators to view the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, in July 2012.

“I want my students to indulge in learning and dive deep,” said Vicky, who emphasized that Holocaust Through Multiple Lenses is a course for everyone, not just degree-seeking students. “You can never learn too much. My aim is to nurture lifelong learning.”


Why I Teach about the Holocaust

by Vicky Knickerbocker

“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and children shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

(Please note this quote was cited in the preface of a resource book, Holocaust and Human Behavior published by Facing History and Ourselves in 1994, p.xiii.)

Although this quote suggests that genocide is painful to learn about, its historical legacy is one that can teach incredible lessons about what we can do differently to promote greater peace and harmony in the world. Greater knowledge of genocide can inform, inspire, and instruct future generations to act in less destructive and violent ways. Genocide is not inevitable, but has historically occurred because individuals and group of individuals made personal decisions to act or not to act. Furthermore, genocide has been and continues to be perpetuated by ordinary people, not barbarians, who have decided to follow leaders whose ideas are based on hate and prejudice.

Holocaust gallery

The 20th century has been called the “Age of Genocide.” Some historians estimate that over 100 million lives were lost in the 20th century as a result of violence associated with genocide. From the extermination of the Hereros in what is now Namibia, through the genocide of the Armenians during World War I and the Holocaust during World War II, to the genocidal killings of Khmer by Khmer in Cambodia and the horrible massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, thousands of human lives have been shattered and destroyed because racism, bigotry, and hatred have been allowed to flourish. All of these genocides have involved targeting a specific group or groups of people for cultural destruction.

This cultural genocide is made possible when one is taught that there is no room for those who are culturally different and when one does not pay attention to what happens to others. Most recently, we see how these teachings perpetuated genocide in Rwanda where neighbors were encouraged to turn against each other. As a result, in a matter of 100 days, 800,000 deaths occurred, not from massive weapons of destruction but from former neighbors clubbing, knifing, and axing each other.

It has also been noted that when this violence broke out in Rwanda, the international community was slow to respond. Today, U.S. policy decision makers have been sharply criticized by genocide scholars, like Samantha Power, for being bystanders and failing to take corrective actions to denounce, confront, or hold accountable the perpetrators of these deadly and destructive human atrocities. Surely, this historical event teaches us that we need to pay more attention and heed the call of those who are being persecuted.

There is no question that Minnesota is daily becoming a more culturally diverse state. It is imperative that we teach our future generations to respect, appreciate, and celebrate cultural differences rather than fear, hate, or despise them. This need seems particularly relevant for MnSCU educators as they are teaching greater numbers of international students, first-generation students, and recent immigrants than ever before. Currently, the MnSCU system enrolls 25,000 students of color annually, more than any other higher education provider in Minnesota. Not only do MnSCU educators need to learn how to promote multiculturalism, but so do the students they teach.

Indeed, I believe that hatred and violence in the world will not end until we teach our children to accept, appreciate, and respect cultural differences rather than hating, despising, and annihilating them. Even though I am not Jewish, I truly believe it is the responsibility of us all to promote greater peace and justice in the world.

More about Vicky Knickerbocker…

Vicky Knickerbocker
Vicky Knickerbocker

Originally from Cloquet, Minn., Vicky Knickerbocker fondly remembers her teachers from her grade school in the nearby village of Scanlon. “They were older women and I really admired them,” Vicky said. “I thought my teachers were God.”

In 1978, Vicky graduated magma cum laude from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology-Criminology with a minor in psychology. She served as a social worker for 16 years with Aitkin County Family Social Services. She earned her Master of Social Work, or M.S.W., from the U of M, Twin Cities, in 1991, graduating summa cum laude.

“I drove one hundred and eighty miles round trip three times a week for three years to get my master’s,” she remembered.

Holocaust Studies
Tourists visit the Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

In 2002, Vicky accepted an offer to work as an educational outreach coordinator at the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota. “That was a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I worked at the center for five years.”

Before becoming full-time faculty at Inver Hills Community College in 2007, she taught humanities, sociology, women’s studies and human services courses at Central Lakes College for 10 years. She also taught at St. Cloud State University, Southwest State University and The College of St. Scholastica.

“I have traveled four times to Israel to attend and participate in Holocaust-related educational activities,” Vicky said. In June 2001 and 2009, she attended summer teaching seminars at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem with the help of scholarship monies she was awarded from St. Cloud State University and Yad Vashem. Two other times, she returned to be a guest presenter at the International Holocaust Educator’s Conference—also at Yad Vashem, which hosts the largest collection of Holocaust historical archives in the world.

An enthusiastic and accomplished world traveler, Vicky has visited numerous countries, including Ireland, Great Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Ecuador and Peru. “I just returned from a trip to Cuba,” she said. “I loved Havana. We were treated so well. We toured an urban agriculture site in the city.”

In her spare time, Vicky rides bicycles with Roger, her sweetheart of 15 years and an instructor at Central Lakes. “We start the summer doing maybe ten to twelve miles a day,” she said. “By the end of summer, we can ride fifty miles in a day.” She also shops for bargains and spends quality time with her nieces and nephews. She traces her love for teaching to her mother, who quit school in the 10th grade.

“My mother was fearful of giving a book report in front of her class, but her teacher told she had to do the report or be held back,” Vicky said. “My mother pretty much told him where to go and walked out of her classroom never to return. I know she always regretted that decision—and I’ve always wanted to be a teacher to make my mother proud.”

Learn more about the Holocaust Through Multiple Lenses course at Inver Hills by contacting:

Vicky Knickerbocker
Sociology, Humanities and Human Services Instructor

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  • Vicky’s class is truly eye opening. I’ve had the privilege to go to D.C. in this class, and also to France with this teacher. While in France we seen a statue about the French Jews and we also went to their small version of the Holocaust Museum. She really knows how to open up your eyes to this tragedy.

  • Vicky is an amazing Professor, she really has a passion for her job. I just finished a Holocaust course with her and I have never felt more educated on a subject. Vicky you are a awesome teacher!

  • Pingback: Holocaust Survivor at Inver Hills | Inver Hills Magazine

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