Learning about complicated histories
“I became obsessed with reading books about the Holocaust when I was very young,” says Magdalena Gross, PhD ’14, a senior research associate at the GSE’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET). One of her Polish grandparents survived the Holocaust by pretending not to be Jewish, obtaining the birth certificate of a Catholic child and taking on that identity. Gross’s parents escaped Poland in 1968 during another period of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. “My parents believed in their home country, and for some time I was raised more Polish than Jewish,” she says. “But the Holocaust loomed large in our family story.”
Gross went on to write her doctoral thesis on teaching the Holocaust in contemporary Poland, emphasizing the role that collective memory and public debate play in learning about a difficult and controversial past. In January, she will lead a three-day course called Contested Histories Around the World, one of a series of workshops for teachers presented by CSET and Stanford Global Studies. The course will draw on case studies of historical events in Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, exploring ways to engage students in different perspectives for a deeper historical analysis.
“When it comes to marginalized groups and their experiences, it’s often said that survivor testimony is biased: ‘They were too emotional, they don’t really remember, we have to use government documents to corroborate what happened,’ ” she says. “Or on the other side, people say, ‘The government is biased—you can’t trust it.’ Bias has become a proxy for lies, but that’s not what it means. It’s perspective. There’s truth to be found, and you get a fuller picture the more perspectives you have.”