I first traveled to Poland in the summer of 2005. I had never left the United States and had no idea I’d return years later as a researcher and Fulbright scholar. The country had just joined the European Union. Cranes hung from the sky like praying mantises, new tarmac was laid in the airport, highways were expanding, and people seemed cautiously optimistic, if not hopeful. Just over a decade prior, Poland had still been under martial law implemented by the communist ruling government. Now it was the World Cup, Poland was in the semi-finals, and all over the city restaurants spilled into the streets as people gathered around giant outdoor screens. In the midst of this, our student tour walked through the winding cobblestone alleys of Krakòw, learning the history of the Kazimierz neighborhood, the former Jewish quarter of the city. Krakòw was a central city for the Nazi Party, and as such had not been razed to the ground with as much malice as its sister city, Warsaw, where over 80% of the city’s buildings sustained structural damage. Warsaw has a feeling of artifice, of new plaster and paint over old wounds. Krakòw has ghosts.
As I walked, our guide, a scholar from the Jaegallonian University read us “The End and the Beginning”, by Wislawa Symborska, Nobel prize-winning Polish poet,
“Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.
Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.”
This poem hung above my desk for years, a grounding force for me in understanding and contextualizing Holocaust education and the role of conflict and memory. In it, Symborska speaks of violence and the paradox of post-conflict societies, “all the cameras have left for another war” she states. This idea of remembering and forgetting recently came up in a New York Times article, Holocaust is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds, which posits that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
As educators, what role do we play in acting as stewards of Holocaust memory? With the many constraints of time, materials, mandated testing, even language and cultural barriers, how can we bridge gaps of understanding when we teach the Holocaust? What role does memory play in understanding the events of the Holocaust?
In “Meeting a Moral Imperative, a Rationale for Teaching the Holocaust”, scholar David Lindquist writes that the primary rationale for studying the Holocaust involves the opportunity to consider the moral implications that can be drawn from examining the event. Studying the Holocaust, he argues, forces students to consider what it means to be human and humane by examining the full continuum of individual behavior, from ultimate evil to ultimate good. He argues that a moral imperative exists for the presence of Holocaust education in contemporary classrooms. Should that moral imperative extend to understanding the ability of time and distance to obscure the past?
The moral imperative for studying the Holocaust in the US and understanding the events of history is more important now than ever. America is facing its own role in triangulating the difficult geometry of past atrocities, making the vital calculus of truth and reconciliation, demarcated with the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice , in Montgomery, Alabama. Bryan Stevenson, the head of Equal Justice Initiative which is spearheading the project, told The Jerusalem Post in 2016 that his design was inspired by what the ‘memory work’ monuments throughout Europe do in commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. “Auschwitz is a place you visit. It sobers you with the horrors of the Holocaust. When you leave these places, you want to say, ‘Never again should we commit this kind of suffering and abuse.’” Stevenson aims to evoke the same feelings in Americans in the design of the first physical space dedicated to the victims of slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration. The physical manifestation of suffering is educative in itself.
Echoes & Reflections structure of primary source documents becomes increasingly important in the work of bridging gaps in memory and understanding. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts and connects them directly with people in the past whose existence was impacted or extinguished by the Holocaust. Through primary resources, victims and rescuers ‘speak’ across time, using their diaries, letters, maps, and articles, to construct a view of the past not distorted, but intensified by the passage of time.
As teachers, questions of how time, distance, and desensitization impact our understanding of history are as important as the events of the past themselves. Only in exploring how we see the Holocaust, refracted through the lens of memory, can we come to understand and establish how the arc of human history changes us, calibrates our vision of the world, and weights even our most trivial and minute decisions each day.
About the Author: Melissa Mott is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at ADL.