Volume:4, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2012

The Holocaust in the Context of Ethno-Cultural Education
Gorskikh, Olga V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: the Holocaust education, ethno-cultural education, “Babi Yar,” Symphony No.13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, The Tomsk Regional Center for educational development, a class sample, dialogue.
SYNOPSIS: In this paper the author seeks to accomplish a few objectives: to discuss the complexity of the Holocaust and the Holocaust Education; to show the way how current Russian teachers can be trained for providing the Holocaust education in schools, and finally, to present an example of a lesson plan based on the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko “Babi Yar” and Symphony No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich.


The history of Holocaust and the process of teaching it in schools are of great interest not only to the educational community but also to the public in general. Why is it so important to know and study the tragedy of one nation while the entire globalized world is involved in the overall ethnic communication process, and cross-cultural interaction among various countries and ethnic groups has become multidimensional and constant? The matter is, globalization involves both centripetal and centrifugal forces clearly revealing tendencies towards unification of cultures and thus, manifesting the problem of preserving ethnic identity and ethno-cultural uniqueness of various peoples. Unfortunately, open promotion of national languages, cultures, and religious views by different ethnic groups often results in confrontations among ethnic communities and presents a challenge for people’s tolerance. The issue is especially urgent today when the world is shaken by ethnic conflicts with the spread of xenophobic attitudes, intolerance to representatives of different nations or different cultures, different behavior patterns or outlooks – all this might provoke genocide again.

For many years the problem of Holocaust was intentionally hushed up in our country. “We have no Jewish question here, and those who dream one up are singing a foreign tune,” Nikita Khrushchev declared during a meeting with the intellectuals in March 1963 in a speech related to the publication of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar.”2 Holocaust was not part of the national university or school curriculum which in its turn affected at least two generations of people who have grown up without any knowledge of the Holocaust or policy of anti-Semitism. So, it is not surprising that, while answering the question, “What is the Holocaust?” young female participants of one newfangled TV show gave a strikingly frank reply, “It is a type of wallpaper glue.” The Holocaust seems to remain an unknown page in the Russian history though almost half of all the Holocaust victims perished in the territory of the Soviet Union which was occupied by German Nazis (that included 23 regions of Russia). It was our Red Army that liberated dozens of ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps from the Nazis.3 At the same time, part of the Russian society is still not prepared to recognize the reality of the Holocaust – they explain it by the fact that all nationalities of our country suffered during World War II. In a way, this is true, but what is also true is that the Nazis murdered only Jewish people only because of their ethnicity. Once, a wonderful Russian writer Viktor Nekrasov noted that people of various nationalities were killed in Babi Yar, but only Jews were killed because they were Jews.

Today, much is said about teaching tolerance in the civil society. Ethno-cultural education and character formation of students have attracted a lot of attention on the federal level especially due to the new State Educational Standards which put a strong emphasis on a respectful treatment of history and culture of other nationalities as well as on acquisition of spiritual values of the multinational Russia.4 In this respect, the Holocaust education in secondary schools becomes even more meaningful as it carries a powerful educational potential.

The Holocaust should be understood from various perspectives,5 and most certainly – from a historical perspective of preserving historical memory and problems of memorialization. We should turn to personal biographies and history of the region; study the nature of the Holocaust in the context of history and post-history, in close connection with literature, arts, culture, social and philosophic thought.

Let us turn to the practice of teaching the Holocaust in Siberia. In our Tomsk Region it is realized within the frames of ethno-cultural education.6 One might think that the Holocaust education would be more appealing to the people who live in the areas where the military actions took place during the WWII. And it doesn’t seem clear how these events may echo back in Siberia – the region that was never occupied by the Germans. However, many people were evacuated here from the occupied territories; after the war both war veterans and civilian survivors moved from the former occupied territories to the other parts of Russia including Tomsk Region.7

Currently, a number of ethno-cultural education centers (which include educational institutions as well as ethnic and cultural associations) host project teams of creative teachers who provide the Holocaust education both within the formal instructional process and during the extracurricular activities, coordinate students’ research and search activities including those which help to restore the names of Holocaust survivors and rescuers.

Our teachers and students’ project and educational experience expanded due to the 2012 Memory Relay Race initiated by the Russian Jewish Congress, Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center (Moscow) and the Yad Vashem Institute (Israel). The project aroused an enormous amount of interest and attracted local mass media (including radio interviews).8 It also helped to unite people of various nationalities, occupations, and ages. For instance, a retired Jewish major Leonty Brandt was talking about the liberation of Auschwitz; Kurt Zommer spoke about persecutions which started a few days before the war in the territory of Bukovina. The speakers included representatives of the local Jewish community, students, and university professors. The project encouraged students to take part in the actual search for the victims of Holocaust: students interviewed both – war veterans and their own relatives about the war, about their family members who were killed by Nazis and their accomplices. The students also searched for wartime diaries and letters. The resulting project publications were later presented at the 3rd Interregional Scientific Conference with an international participation on the topic of “Multicultural and ethno-cultural education: experience, problems, teaching practice.” A separate section was devoted to the Holocaust and the Holocaust Education.

The Tomsk Regional Center for educational development hold workshops and refresher courses for teachers to acquire new interactive methods of the Holocaust education, and study teaching techniques and a theoretical background related to it. The workshops and refresher courses are also available online.
Below is an example of a class entitled “Understanding Holocaust while studying ‘Babi Yar’ by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and ‘Symphony No.13’ by Dmitri Shostakovich: music and poetic discourse” held as a part of teachers’ refresher courses “The Holocaust in artistic and aesthetic discourse of the second half of 20th century.”

The problems to be discussed could include the following:

  • Poetic and social significance of Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” (1961). Civil pathos, moral and philosophic reflection of the tragedy of the Jewish people in the poem.
  • Critical reviews after the publication of the poem in Literaturnaya Gazeta. Polemics on Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar.” Poetic pamphlet “On ‘Babi Yar’” by Alexey Markov. Yevtushenko and Markov: moral controversy of outlooks and social views. A polemic discourse around Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar:” “On ‘Babi Yar’” by Konstantin Simonov and  “On ‘Babi Yar’” by Samuel Marshak – a response to Alexey Markov.”
  • A lyric character in the poem. Dominant motifs and leading images in the poem. Imagery, stylistics, rhythm, and melody in “Babi Yar.”
  • Symphony No.13 by Dmitri Shostakovich as a form of a civic protest. How the vocal and symphonic poem was created. The cast, solo parts, choir. “Babi Yar” Symphony: performance variations and interpretations.
  • Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Symphony No.13 by Dmitri Shostakovich as transposition of arts. Symbolism of the imaginative language, imagery and composition of the symphony. Declamatory melodic type of verse. Polyphony of vocal-lyrics and orchestral layers.

Note that each problem is associated with the case study which includes teaching materials, a reference list, links to original websites, online resources. There are also self-study assignments and graded activities. Here is a sample recommended list of online resources:

Afterwards, teachers are demonstrated practical methods of organized music and poetic discourse. Below you can find an extract of the class scenario.

At the beginning of the music and poetic discourse, students were introduced to newspaper publications containing rigorous criticism of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar.” It is well-known today that Yevtushenko’s courageous poem put an end to the period of silence about the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Great Patriotic War. This bold manifestation triggered persecution against the author of the poem as well as V.A. Kosolapov, editor-in-chief of Literaturnaya Gazeta. Yevgeny Yevtushenko faced a number of restrictions, and the way the poem was presented to the students inspired their interest and curiosity to learn more, to read the poem themselves, and to be ready for a discussion afterwards.

To obtain deeper insight, the students were asked to answer the following questions (organized in a certain succession: from general comprehension to understanding specific poetic images and grasping the idea as well as “an aesthetic message” of the poem): 1. What is the overall pathos of the poem? How is the lyrical hero’s emotional condition rendered? 2. Which events shocked the poet? 3. What are the key images in the poem? 4. How is the poet’s moral character revealed through the poem? What is his personal credo?

While reading the poem, the students were seriously emotionally impressed. They all agreed that the poem was full of high civil pathos. Here are some responses: “The lyrical hero is astounded. He is emotionally shocked to see what was happening. Babi Yar – the symbol of pain, lost maternity, desecrated life – has been turned into a garbage field. No memorial has been erected to commemorate this symbolic place. The poem sounds as an anguished outcry and pain for each murdered victim. The poet reveals an amazing capacity to express different time periods, different characters, and deep understanding of the the sufferings of the Jewish people. The poem is just like the main character’s monologue about himself: “I am frightened. Today, I am as old as the entire Jewish race itself. It seems to me that I am Dreyfus myself.”
At this stage of the in-depth analysis, the students needed another type of comments connected with the cultural studies in order to expand the space for the dialogue. One student acting as a culture expert shared information on the Ancient World, about personalities in culture: the Jews of Egypt, Dreyfus, Anna Frank. Besides, the narrator may perform various genres, for example, as if he himself were one the characters, a boy from Białystok, who witnessed those events.

That determined the direction in which the analysis would proceed while interpreting the message, imagery and motif of the poem. The dialogue centered on the national aspect and the destiny of the Jewish people.

The students pointed out to a powerful emotional impact of the poem, its suggestibility. Following the poet, the reader takes the road until the end experiencing the nation’s humiliation and suffering imposed on the Jews by all sorts of anti-Semites. A confessional nature of the lyrical monologue in the poem is interrupted by the appeal to the Russian nation, its national dignity which is always revealed in ultimate humanity, openness to the world, and respect to the ethnic diversity. Hence, the dialecticism of the final words of the poem, “To all anti-Semites, I am like a Jew. And that is why I call myself a Russian!”

Sharing their impressions of the poem the students noted that the image of Babi Yar had acquired a truly philosophic meaning, it had become a tragic symbol of crimes against humanity, motherhood, and contiguous life.

Every time, while studying the poem, the students paid attention to the sound organization of the text, its rhythmic pattern and sound symbolism. They also noted that with the poem’s rhythmical pattern and the range prosodic colors – from declamatory recitation and pathos to “silent cry” – gives birth to melody. To escape the limits and broaden the boundaries of a classroom dialogue and a dialogue in culture, the teacher suggested listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.

One student acting as a music critic reported how the symphony was created and worked on. In his story, the student focused on the dramatic character of this music piece. Symphony No.13 is, fist of all, a preaching symphony about disgraceful and dirty atrocities of racism; it is about humiliating fear which deforms people’s consciousness; it is about cowardly and crippled philosophy of petty career climbers which, in order to please the authorities, are ready to sacrifice their dignity and people’s lives. At the same time the symphony celebrates moral freedom, optimism and international unification of the people, becomes a symbol of spiritual staunchness and selfless mission to the truth in art.

During the final part of the lesson one student voiced a rhetorical question which revealed the true understanding and deep insight into the texts of culture: “How come that the time of “hopes and expectations” and Khrushchev's post-Stalin “thaw” gave birth to those bans on Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem and Dmitri Shostakovich’s music?” It does seem obvious that reluctance of the authorities to raise this issue means a silent approval of the Nazi crimes. Why did the people wait for Yevtushenko’s powerful poetry to break the silence? That question triggered a new round of discussion and contributed to a further political discourse through the epoch.

Here are some methods used at the lesson to make a comparative analysis of a literary and music work of art:

  • Listening to the work of verbal and musical art, finding general components for comparison (themes, motifs, imagery, composition, scenes, episodes);
  • Comparison of central images of the music and literary works;
  • Identification of specific features used to interpret literary and music plots (plot development, characters, conflict, approach to the author’s world outlook);
  • Observation of music and verbal expressive devices (tropes, figurative devices, stylistic pattern, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, register, harmony);
  • Comparative analysis of music artworks based on the same lyrics.

When the fragment has been presented, teachers are asked to work on a number of self-evaluating questions such as:

  1. Why did the poet call his poem “Babi Yar?” Define its major images and motifs. Explain the philosophic and aesthetic significance of the poem. Identify signs and cultural codes in the poem. Comment on them.
  2. Characterize the development of the lyrical narration in the poem. How do the feelings of the lyrical hero change? Which sounds fill the poem’s space?
  3. Indicate stylistic devices used by the poet to render its emotional tension. Single out the culminating lines in the poem’s development.
  4. Listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13. Why did Dmitri Shostakovich select the following poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Babi Yar,” “Humor,” “In a store,” “Fears,” “Career” (Part 1: Babi Yar, Part 2: Humor, Part 3: In a store, Part 4: Fears, Part 5: Career)?
  5. How can you explain the probation of Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13? What is the role of music, namely Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, in the overall musical image of the epoch?
  6. Analyze the content and teaching aspects of this lesson. Define its goal and objectives.
  7. What is the role of the images of Anna Frank, Dreyfus, and the boy from Białystok in the poem? Explain why the poet uses these characters.

This part of the workshop is followed by the practical training session when teachers are offered to fulfill one of the following tasks:

  • Get acquainted with the part of the lesson devoted to the music and poetic discourse. Develop the given discourse problem by restoring some in-class situational dialogues and creating new ones.
  • Organize a music and poetic discourse based on the following works related to Babi Yar:  “Babi Yar” by Ilya Ehrenburg, “Coming back to Babi Yar” by Lev Ozerov, “Babi Yar” by Natalia Boltyanskaya, “Babi Yar” by Alexander Rozenbaum (see case web links).
  •  Work out a plan of a literary and musical lesson in the form of a dialogue with integrated elements of arts. Sample themes include “Music and literature of the Holocaust period,” “Literary and music soirees in a ghetto,” “Babi Yar: artistic dialogue between a poet and a musician.” Plan the participants’ activities and give comments.
  • Make a research project. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” was translated into many languages. Restore the translation corpus. Compare numerous translations with the original text regarding the levels of composition structures which build the artistic space of the text, basic dominants, cultural codes of the text, approaches to cultural text patterns, rhythmic and prosodic structure, metric and acoustic aspects. Identify the specifics of the translation reception.

Thus, the aforementioned Holocaust studies in Tomsk Region may be used in other regions of Russia as well. We tend to believe that any comprehensive school is currently serving as an institution which builds students’ tolerance, positive interethnic relations and helps to consolidate various peoples and ethnicities living in Russia. Present-day students, who have learned the lessons of Holocaust, will be always able to resist delirious anti-Semitic ideas.


1 Gorskihk, Olga V.  [In Russian: Ольга Владимировна Горских], PhD, Associate Professor, Philosophy and Sociology Department, Tomsk State University of Administration Systems and Radio Electronics;  senior researcher, Regional Center of Education Development, Tomsk, Russia.

2 The newspaper “Pravda” of March 10, 1963.

3 For more information, see: Альтман И.А. Уроки Холокоста – путь к толерантности // Поликультурное и этнокультурное образование в Томской области: опыт, практики преподавания, перспективы развития // Материалы III межрегиональной научно-практической конференции с международным участием / Отв. Редактор О.В. Горских. – Томск: ОГБУ «Региональный центр развития образования», 2012.  С. 136 – 142. (Altman I.A. Lessons of Holocaust  - the Way to Tolerance // Multicultural and ethno-cultural education in Tomsk Region: experience, teaching practice, development perspectives //Proceedings of 3rd Interregional Research Conference with an international participation / Edited by O.V. Gorskikh. – Tomsk: Regional State Funded Budget Institution “Regional Center of Education Development”, 2012. – pp. 136-142.).

4 Federal State Educational Standards of Primary General Education approved by Order No. 373, Ministry of Education and Science. October 6, 2009.

5 See: Память о Холокосте: проблемы мемориализации // Материалы 6-й Международной конференции «Уроки Холокоста и современная Россия» / под ред. И.А. Альтмана. – М.: Центр и Фонд «Холокост», 2012. 136-142. (Memory of the Holocaust: Problems of Memoralization // Proceedings of the 6th International Conference “Lessons of the Holocaust and Contemporary Russia” / Edited by Altman I.A. – M.: Holocaust Center and Foundation, 2012. - – pp. 136-142).

6 See: Этнокультурное образование в Томской области: стратегия и межведомственная программа / Под ред. О.В. Горских, З.С. Камалетдиновой, Т.В. Хахалкиной. Томск: РЦРО, 2010. (Ethno-cultural Education in the Tomsk Region: Strategies and Interagency Program / Edited by O.V. Gorskikh, Z.S. Kamaletdinova, T.V. Khakhalkina. – Tomsk: RCRO, 2010).

7 An example is the family story of V.S. Tseytlin, director of Belostok State Jewish Drama Theater, and later Head of Tomsk Philharmonic Hall, whose son – Edik Tseytlin – was rescued by the Byelorussian woman Aleksandra Leonovich. and pries Petr Gutkevich. The life and destiny of those people after World War II was closely connected to Tomsk. See:
Терушкин Л.А. Поиски и находки в архивах Томска // Поликультурное и этнокультурное образование в Томской области: опыт, практики преподавания, перспективы развития // Материалы III межрегиональной научно-практической конференции с международным участием. Томск, 2012. С. 162 – 168. (Terushkin, L.A. Search and finds in Tomsk City Archives// Multicultural and ethno-cultural education in Tomsk Region: experience, teaching practice, development perspectives //Proceedings of the 3rd Interregional Scientific Conference with an international participation. – Tomsk, 2012. – pp. 162-168).

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