Specificity Matters

Specificity matters. It shapes our memory, frames our perceptions, informs identity, and influences responses to the world around us.

I was reminded of this in January during the commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the failure by the new White House administration to specifically mention the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I was alarmed, offended, concerned, but, as a former teacher, I also wondered about the classroom teachers, navigating those choppy waters with students.

Now, as we prepare to commemorate Yom HaShoah in our classrooms on April 24th, it seems an important time to reflect on why is it important – I argue critical – to specify the targets of the Nazis and their collaborators.  What is lost to our collective memory and to our understanding of this history when Jews are left out of the conversation? And, why is it also important to expand the framework of our own identities by finding hospitality for the specific “other” in our own lives?

Our identities and group membership (imagined or real) are complex and multifaceted. Often we assume insular identities (individual and/or group) to better define ourselves and shun anything that might challenge those boundaries. We might see difference as a problem to be “solved” or “fixed.” Whether our own understanding leads us to view the world in a positive way or not, our perceptions are always influenced by the narratives we are exposed to and the interpretations of our own experiences. Thus, it is no small thing to decide to speak in general terms to “all the victims of the Holocaust.”

An important example of the long-term implications of this can be found in postwar France under Charles de Gaulle. There was no single wartime experience or narrative to unify the nation, so the Gaullists made one up. They claimed that all of France, with a few exceptions, had been resisters to the Holocaust and had liberated the country almost by themselves. Focusing on how French returnees were treated illustrates the problem. The government decided not to distinguish the experiences of returnees. Whether prisoners of war, forced or volunteer labor, Jews from camps, resistance fighters, or political deportees. This had two chilling effects: A generation later, school children “remembered” that Jews had been deported because, like everyone else, they had fought the Germans. Secondly, Jews, unable to find the words to express what they had been through were deeply traumatized, afraid of enflaming antisemitism, and remained silent about their experiences for fear that they would be seen as “privileging” their experience as unique in comparison.

This sense of “privileging” also points to the problem with January’s proclamation, and the importance of getting it right with your students on Yom HaShoah. The proclamation was said to be focused on inclusivity, but the underlying message can be interpreted that the Jews have somehow, wrongly claimed the Holocaust as their own, at the expense of the other victims.

This is not about comparative suffering. Anyone who suffers, suffers the most. This is about specificity of objective of the perpetrators. The Holocaust is never not a Jewish event. This reality cannot be lost in our teachings of the Holocaust, and as we prepare to commemorate the Holocaust this Yom Hashoah, must be understood as part our teaching of this history.  Address the names and faces of the victims with your students. Connect with the specificity of the Holocaust by inviting your students to hear the stories of individuals.

Seeing specificity – especially in an American historical context – can challenge our insular identities and help us to recognize individual and structural targeting of others. As educators, it is our task to help students see the specificity amidst the complexity. This will honor the memory of victims of the Holocaust and will honor the integrity of your students and their unique experiences in the world.

Ideas from Teachers for Commemorating Yom Hashoah

Looking for ideas and inspiration? Read about the creative ways teachers around the country commemorate Yom HaShoah with their students.

From the Teacher’s Resource Guide

Making Connections from Lesson 10: The Children offers a guide for students to plan a meaningful and impactful remembrance of Yom Hashoah.

Thomas M. White is the Coordinator of Educational Outreach for the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

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