College of Education and Human Development

Creating a Hub for Holocaust Education at Mason

April 5, 2019

For the past year, Mark Helmsing has been intensely studying the Holocaust. His research focuses on the affective and emotional dimensions of history — how people feel about the past, and how the past makes them feel in return.

“The Holocaust is a huge historical topic in schools, in museums, in movies, in popular culture,” he says. “We know that it has a lot of affective and emotional resonance with people.”

In 2018, Helmsing was able to truly immerse himself in his area of study by becoming part of the inaugural cohort of the “March of the Living” Faculty Fellows program. With the help of this program, he traveled to Poland and Germany last May with Canadian university students whose reactions to the memorials, museums, and concentration camps has become an important piece of his own research.

The trip was part of the March of Remembrance and Hope, the March of the Living’s sister program in Canada, and it was a way for Helmsing — who had been to Germany once but never Poland — to experience the history firsthand.

The Faculty Fellows program also took him to St. Petersburg, Florida, where fellows worked with graduate students in education at the University of South Florida to try to determine best practices for teaching the Holocaust in the classroom.

In Florida, Helmsing also moved beyond the classroom. He was able to work with staff at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg to see what methods of teaching the museum is employing.

For example, the museum is using a brand-new virtual reality (VR) experience called “The Last Goodbye,” in which viewers don a VR headset and follow Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter on a tour of the concentration camp where his parents and sister were murdered in World War II. During the film, the viewer walks alongside Gutter as he views gas chambers, a crematorium, and other spaces throughout the camp.

“The goal is to put you in that same space with him,” Helmsing says.

A year’s worth of Holocaust education research for Helmsing has led to the creation of a new summer course at Mason in the College of Education and Human Development. Helmsing, who teaches in the Secondary Education master’s program, will lead a class this summer that focuses on historical thinking skills as they relate to the Holocaust. The course will be open to everyone, including non-degree-seeking students.

“There are so many different narratives and different historical experiences about the Holocaust that makes it a multi-layered, complicated concept to unpack with your students,” Helmsing says.

One way to use historical thinking skills as they relate to the Holocaust would be to have students analyze local newspapers as they covered the events back in the 1940s, and see how the coverage then differed from the way we talk about it now with historical perspective.

“They weren’t calling it the Holocaust yet in the 1940s,” Helmsing says.

Another method would be to work with students to try to understand the perspectives of the victims and perpetrators based on their world views in that time period.

Helmsing’s goal is to gather scholars and educators to make Mason a hub for new approaches to teaching and learning about the Holocaust. This summer elective course, he hopes, is one piece of the puzzle.