Shedding Light on Hidden Histories

Shedding Light on Hidden Histories

Danny Cohen teaching in a classroomCohen is a learning scientist, fiction writer, and Holocaust scholar with a passion for innovative design.

Danny M. Cohen (PhD11) received a Provost Grant for Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts to expand his work helping teachers and students explore hidden histories of the Holocaust.

Cohen, associate professor of instruction in Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy, is the founder of Unsilence, an initiative that encourages middle and high school students to investigate marginalized histories of atrocity.  

The funding will help Cohen, a learning scientist, build on existing Unsilence programs to train more teachers and reach more students. "My central goals are to help educators place the Holocaust in the context of white supremacy and eugenics history, to help young learners explore why and how certain histories become and remain hidden,” Cohen said. “The 'unsilencing' of those histories can help uncover new lessons for addressing injustices and atrocities in today’s world.”

Cohen’s learning techniques combine choose-your-own-pathway storytelling, interactive testimony, and historical fiction. Students are never asked to place themselves in the shoes of victims, perpetrators, rescuers, or even bystanders of atrocity, “because we can never know what living through history was actually like,” he said. “Rather, the experiences I design place students in the roles of investigators of history, including journalists, historians, and even time-travelers.”

Over the last 12 years, Cohen has trained more than 4,000 educators and delivered workshops to 7,500 young people, across 18 states. A Holocaust scholar, he is co-chair of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission and the author of Overlapping Triangles, Masks of Holocaust Memory, Teaching About T4, and other academic articles.

His learning experiences include:

  • Cohen’s choose-your-own-pathway mystery 'The 19th Window' uses original historical fiction that puts students in the role of an accidental historian to help them explore themes of intergenerational trauma while learning about the often overlooked history of the Nazis' victims of Roma heritage.
  • Cohen designed 'The Son' as an interactive testimony to help students explore the true story of the gay son of two Jewish Holocaust survivors who, in the United States in the 1980s, turned his parents’ experiences under Nazism into his own activism for LGBTQ rights.
  • 'Hidden Pages' – designed by Cohen and Dara McGreal (BS16) – is a webquest that asks students to conduct guided historical research to solve a series of puzzles that unlock hidden histories of the Nazi era.

After expanding his suite of learning experiences offered through Unsilence, Cohen will make these tools available for free online, run youth workshops across the country to test the tools, and train educators how to use them.

“The goal is to train teachers to expand Holocaust education to include the history of eugenics in the United States and around the world,” Cohen said. “This includes state governments across the United States forcibly sterilizing Indigenous, Black, and Latino people and people with disabilities, throughout the 20th Century.”

Cohen’s new program content will also address the Nazis’ forcible sterilizations of Black, Roma, and Jewish people; the Nazis' persecution of people working in the sex trade and people facing homelessness; the Nazis' banning of abortion amongst so-called “Aryan” women; secret abortions amongst Jewish and Roma prisoners in the Nazi camps; and sexual violence perpetrated by British, Canadian, Soviet, and American liberators.


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/20/23