Professor lifts up neglected voices of the Holocaust in his research—and recent novel
DANNY M. COHEN (PHD11): LEARNING FOR ALL AGES FROM LOST HISTORY
The recently published historical novel Train by SESP alumnus and assistant professor of instruction Danny M. Cohen (PhD11) tells the interrelated stories of six German teenagers during the roundups of Jews and Roma in 1943 in Nazi Germany. The book also explores Cohen’s ongoing theme of telling the untold stories of history, specifically the history of atrocities. Intended as a young adult novel, he’s found it enlightens all ages.
Exploring lost stories of history takes Holocaust education well beyond the widely known story of the six million Jews who were systematically killed, to include the disabled, homosexuals, Roma and other groups that the Nazis persecuted and murdered.
“Do we add more power to Holocaust education when we add those groups? That’s the question at the heart of my work,” Cohen says. “My work is all focused on what I call marginalized or taboo narratives of atrocity and human rights—the parts of these histories that people neglect, or forget about, or don’t want to talk about, or don’t know how to talk about. What happens when you include these marginalized voices—does history change into something else? Do the lessons change?”
Those are also the questions at the heart of Train, he says. “In many ways the book com- plicates Holocaust history and leads young people to ask these really difficult questions about prejudice, about identity, about resistance, about collaboration. By studying the complexities of history, and these gray zones, and these overlapping narratives, we’re able to look at our own lives and our own communities and ongoing cases of oppression and prejudice and violence.”
Although Cohen intended the book as a teaching tool, not a commercial title, to date more adults than young people have been reading it, and he’s heard plenty of feedback from parents who have passed it on to their teenagers, and grandparents to their grandchildren—and in doing so promoted learning across the life span.
“We’re definitely seeing families having conversations around the book at home,” he says. “The educational program that goes along with the book isn’t designed only for classrooms; it’s designed for communities—communities of faith, youth centers and community centers, museums and homes.”
During speaking engagements and training sessions across the U.S. as well as in Germany and Poland, Cohen has realized that older generations are being challenged to see the Holocaust differently. “They suddenly see the history in a different way, in a more complex way,” he says. “It’s building on their prior knowledge.”
Cohen arrived at SESP with a background as a youth worker, human rights educator and volunteer in the Jewish community in his native United Kingdom. His work as a human rights educator naturally had included lessons about genocide in general and the Holocaust in particular, so it was fitting for his research to unfold in that direction.
Although he never set out to become an author of fiction, the concept arose from Cohen’s work in training docents at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, serving as a member of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission, and designing educational programs for secondary classrooms to help teachers integrate the additional victim narratives.
When teachers told Cohen they didn’t have time to teach each of those narratives individually and that the initial material he created was “not very compelling to teach,” Cohen agreed to write a series of short stories. “I didn’t intend to write a whole book,” he says. “I knew I needed to tell a very compelling story, and I knew I needed to find real stories from history that highlighted how these narratives connected and overlapped and can’t be separated.”
The success of Train continues to grow, with Cohen now presenting his work to the staff and educators of key Holocaust institutions including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and the Echoes and Reflections program of the Anti-Defamation League, Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem.