Why do people all too often talk, or even teach, about the Holocaust in ways that trivialize it or get the facts wrong?
And, more importantly, how do we get it right?
A recent incident where students in upstate New York were asked to “argue for or against the ‘Final Solution’” illustrates just how wrong things can go. Similarly, there have been a series of inaccurate comments in the media recently, everything from Hollywood being compared to 1930s Germany to extermination camps referred to as “Holocaust Centers.”
How can we explain this?
On the one hand, the constant barrage of information, and perhaps more importantly, misinformation, does not help; and when alternative accurate sources of information are not readily available – or sought out – such misinformation may become a substitute for facts.
In schools, we see efforts such as that in New York and other locations where teachers, often with the best of intentions, seek ways to compel students to go outside their “comfort zones” to learn about this history. Almost every year we learn of teachers assigning students to take roles of “the Jews” during the Holocaust to help them develop empathy for the victims, largely resulting in upset, complaint, and distress for students, families, and the school community. While simulation-type activities may seem to be a compelling way to engage students, ultimately they trivialize the experience of the victims and can leave students with the impression that they actually know what it was like during the Holocaust.
What we can take from examples such as those described, is the complexity of both teaching, and really learning, about the Holocaust.
On the positive side, due to media attention, we have also seen a broader awareness in the general population that Holocaust education is critical and relevant. At Echoes and Reflections – a partnership program of the Anti-Defamation League, USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem – we have worked with almost 40,000 committed educators since 2005, providing them with authentic and credible materials and resources for the classroom.
How can this be addressed?
The truth is, the Holocaust is not easy to understand and certainly challenging to teach. Yet, teachers should not shy away from the challenge. We want them to have the confidence, knowledge, and skills to approach this teaching with commitment and courage. While there are a range of excellent educational resources and activities available to educators, which can help to provide accurate information about the Holocaust, without a sound pedagogy for teaching this complex topic, the impact will be limited and the impact will likely not last.
Recognizing this, Echoes and Reflections recently released “Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction” and these principles include:
- Define terms;
- Provide background on the history of antisemitism;
- Teach the human story;
- Make the Holocaust relevant;
- Encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking; and
- Ensure a supportive learning environment.
Beyond supporting effective teaching about the Holocaust, we ALL have the opportunity to use the Holocaust’s current presence in larger community conversations and in the media as a teachable moment, and as a platform to encourage critical thinking and dialogue beyond the school walls.
What can you do?
Stay curious, and ask questions. As we are reminded of just how complex the story of the Holocaust is, we should be willing to question what we are hearing in the media or from other sources, and ask whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, question the assumptions or misinformation, and seek out accurate and reliable sources of facts.
Keep talking. Engage family, friends, neighbors, and when appropriate, policymakers, in a dialogue about how you want the Holocaust to be remembered and discussed. Let’s continue to affirm the societal importance of educating and ensuring that the meaning and relevance of this watershed event in history is not lost.
Make connections. Ultimately, our goal is to reach young people to build the next generation of champions who will remember this history and tell the story. To do this we need to connect with families and caregivers and ensure that they not only understand the stories their children are hearing, but that their children’s schools are teaching about the Holocaust with proper context and sound instructional strategies.
How then do we start to get it right? We do all of the above, we stay engaged with the world, we keep talking and connecting, and in the words of Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, who was recently interviewed by Mic, we never let ourselves forget that “Ignorance is not an excuse.”
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.