We are clearly living in turbulent times. ADL regularly reports a rise in antisemitic incidents, both here and abroad, and the proliferation of right- wing populist governments continues to be cause for concern. And against the backdrop of increasingly partisan rhetoric in this country as elsewhere, it is incumbent upon teachers to educate our students about the Holocaust and to show them what happens when hateful racist ideology takes hold of governments and even entire societies until only widescale force applied can bring an end to the madness.
At such a moment, it is sobering to teach about Kristallnacht because, in retrospect, we can clearly see the two-day pogrom as a watershed moment, a three-week period when physical attacks upon Jewish lives and property in Nazi Germany were front page news in this country. But, when international outrage and condemnation resulted in no real consequence to the German State, the Nazi leadership interpreted this inaction as a green light to pursue their anti-Jewish agenda.
To those of us aware of this history, the need to push back against antisemitic, racist, homophobic, and or misogynistic rhetoric and policy is fueled both by moral outrage and by the need to protect against an analogous tipping point in our own times.
It wasn’t long after I started teaching Holocaust literature that I found Echoes & Reflections, or rather Echoes & Reflections found me. I attended several of their workshops and seminars at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and I immediately gravitated to their philosophical approach to the subject matter and to their focus on the individual story. Among their many lesson plans is one about the November Pogrom.
The facts of November 9 and 10, 1938, are well known. “From the time the Nazis came to power in 1933 they began isolating Jews in Germany, and passed many laws to that effect. In the first half of 1938, additional laws were passed in Germany restricting German economic activity and educational opportunities…Later that year, 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship were arrested and relocated across the Polish border. The Polish government refused to admit them so they were interned in relocation camps on the Polish frontier.” Among the many deportees were the parents of seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, who was living with an uncle in Paris at the time. Outraged by the Nazis’ treatment of his family, he went to the German Embassy in Paris intending to assassinate the German ambassador there but instead killed Ernst vom Rath, a lesser figure in the diplomatic hierarchy. When vom Rath died two days later from his wounds, the Nazis used his death as a pretext to launch attacks on Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses throughout Germany.
What is interesting and significant about these events from a teaching perspective, is that we have documents related to the attack which make it perfectly clear to our students that the Nazis planned every aspect of the events over that two- day period. For example, Echoes & Reflections materials include a copy of Heydrich’s Instructions to “All Headquarters and Stations of the State Police and “All districts and sub districts of the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst or Secret Police).” Asking students to examine this document and report their findings to their peers allows them to see for themselves the extent of Nazi cynicism and corruption with respect to the rule of law and of human decency. For example, the police were instructed that “only such measures are to be taken as do not endanger German lives or property (i.e. synagogues are to be burned down only where there is no danger of fire in neighboring buildings).”
As a teacher, I find it imperative that students be guided to discover the truths of these documents for themselves by way of careful questions. For example, you can ask them what instructions they would give to their district commanders were they the officers in charge of managing a demonstration in their home city or community. More poignantly, you can ask them what they think Heydrich is saying when he draws a distinction between German and Jewish property. Finally, you can ask them to think about the international situation in 1938 and the reason Heydrich cautions that “Foreign citizens, even if they are Jews, are not to be touched.”
It is both exhilarating and sobering to teach this material to young people. Hearing their outrage and their determination to never let this happen again gives one hope for a better world. And yet, it is sobering to lead these students inevitably towards the later events of the Holocaust and towards the realization that fellow human beings are capable of such atrocities.
This summer I spent three weeks immersed in Holocaust studies in Israel at Yad Vashem. I now know more about the events of the Nazi era than ever before and paradoxically, the more I know about those years and those events, the harder it becomes to teach this history. It breaks my heart to have to tell these wonderful young people how ugly the human heart can be.
And yet, even the student who most hated to hear what happened, wrote of the Holocaust unit last year that he “needed to hear it” and that “only by learning this can we make sure such things can never happen again.”
At the end of this year’s lesson on Kristallnacht, I gave my students a new homework assignment. I asked them three questions about those events:
- Does it make a difference how we label those events, calling them either Kristallnacht or The November Pogrom?
- In what way(s) is your answer complicated by the fact the Nazis called it Kristallnacht and the Jews called it the November Pogrom?
- Who has the right to label the event: the perpetrators; the victims; or a third party such as a historian?
With few exceptions, my students are able to discuss the importance of the name and to connect the events of November 1938 to the long history of antisemitism that continues to this day. Their outrage gives me hope that teaching a rigorous Holocaust program in schools may help build a bulwark against the tide of hateful rhetoric permeating so much of the world today.
About the author: Originally from London, England, Dr. Susan Schinleber taught Cultural and Business and Communication at New York University before moving to Chicago with her young family. After teaching in several area universities, she moved to North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, IL, where she teaches English, Public Speaking, and Holocaust Studies.
 Excerpt from Studying the Holocaust, Kristallnacht. Echoes & Reflections.
 From Heydrich’s Instructions, November 1938 in Studying the Holocaust, Kristallnacht. Echoes & Reflections.
This article originally appeared in Education Week
The Holocaust is ancient history for many students
On May 2, Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah), we remember the millions of Jewish and other victims killed during the murderous Nazi reign in Germany. Sadly, we only need to consider the shooting at a synagogue this past Saturday in Poway, Calif., to understand the importance of using classroom time to educate and reflect on this horrific period in history.
Not even two months ago, a photo showing students making a Nazi salute over a swastika made of Solo cups at a weekend party garnered extensive news coverage. This image came on the heels of another viral photo of a group of laughing young men who appeared to make the Nazi salute prior to a school dance. Swirling around these events have been Jewish cemetery desecrations, hate-filled graffiti, and even swastikas drawn in blood. Amid it all, we still grieve for the Jewish congregants shot dead at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall—and now Poway.
I am sure many have felt as I do: What is happening? What can I do about it? On an intellectual level, I know this is not new—hatred, violence, and targeting of the "other" have always been with us. The acts of violence may ebb, but these feelings are always there.
On a professional level, having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of personal failure. I know these incidents of antisemitism and other forms of hatred do not reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of people, but I can't help but question if the work I have done has mattered.
I recall my former colleague who would say that the work to counter hatred, antisemitism, and racism could sometimes feel like having a tiny pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoon, trying to chip away at a mountain of mistrust, fear, anger, ignorance, resentment, and downright apathy. She didn't use this analogy to discourage, but to inspire: If we all worked together, even with the smallest of tools, we could get there.
I've always framed my work, as many educators do, in three phases of impact: What do we need to know about an issue or topic, why should we care, and how can we act to make a positive difference? Or, in more poetic words, how do we inform the head, move the heart, and motivate the hands?
For those teaching the Holocaust, these three concepts could not be more vital and interdependent. What do we want students to know about this history? If you want to understand the why and how this genocide could have happened, you need a foundation of the what. The Echoes & Reflections Partners toiled for a year to distill the core historical content that now forms our 10 classroom units. Our goal was—and is—to guide teachers to build this essential knowledge with their students and to ask those critical questions of why and how at every step.
But knowing isn't enough; students have to care. The Holocaust is practically ancient history for many young people, and, for the majority of people in the United States, it is not their history. It's remote, it happened somewhere else, and it's over. This is where we must teach about the Holocaust as a human story. We should bring this knowledge to life through the integration of visual history testimonies and primary sources. We want young people to see, listen, and come to know that these were real people who had desires, dreams, hopes, and lives that were just waiting to be lived.
I could never guarantee that students who watched a testimony of a survivor describing his arrival at Auschwitz or read a poem by a girl left alone in the Lodz ghetto would reject the Solo Cup swastika game. But maybe, just maybe, they would make a different decision in that moment.
Which brings us to action. How do we create and inspire a sense of personal agency so that in the face of hatred or antisemitism—or when anyone is excluded or "othered"—we don't just walk away or swipe the screen?
When I began my work in this field, this step used to be primarily about an in-person response: Will you speak up if someone is being taunted? Will you call out an antisemitic comment or joke?
Today, for most adolescents, these moral choice moments are experienced online and at lightning speed. Does this make it easier or harder to speak (or type) out? Does it fuel a level of insensitivity to these issues that carries over to real-life choices and decisions? Does an intervention online have more or less power to impact the person who is being offensive?
These are the questions I have been wrestling with these past few months. On Yom HaShoah, this sacred day of remembrance for all those who perished during the Holocaust, I hope to start to find some answers. I will work to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the adolescents in our country and what is driving some of them to engage in or ignore hurtful behavior—and how can we inspire more to stand up.
And I encourage everyone, not just educators, to do the same. At a time when it feels so hard to have these tough conversations, isn't it that much more important that we try? If we want our children to care, we must first care enough to listen to them.
About the author: Lindsay J. Friedman is the Managing Director of Echoes & Reflections. Previously, she served as the national director of the ADL's A World of Difference Institute.
This past summer I traveled to Poland as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Program with Yad Vashem with a group of educators, where we were surrounded by hate from the ghetto in Warsaw to the ghetto fields in Lodz. We stood at Birkenau together to bear witness to the greatest atrocity in the human world, fueled by hate — and by a particular strain of hate: antisemitism. As I landed back in the United States my heart was overwhelmed with the idea that hate can cause so much harm. While I understood this, to witness it gave me a whole new perspective.
Today, it has become clear that you do not have to travel far to find hate. My heart was riddled with overwhelming sadness and defeat as I entered my classroom the day after the shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. My heart once again sat in disbelief and shock as I thought about how to talk to my students about hatred and how it had reared its ugly head in a beautiful city with a thriving Jewish community. Now antisemitism was not thousands of miles away in Europe and did not occur decades prior. It was here, now, in Pennsylvania, our own backyard. I wondered how my students would respond. Would they want to talk about gun control or the president? How would I steer the conversation back to where it needs to go? How would I answer questions that my students will pose? They will ask “why the Jews?” and while I know the textbook answer, I will have to say to them “I don’t know.”
As I look back on my trip to Poland, it is not hate that I am reminded of, but love. While it would be easy to say antisemitism and hate were the common themes, I challenged myself to see that love is the common thread that is woven throughout. Stories of people doing right in the face of terrible wrong, both active and passive resistance, and the undying will to survive. The question becomes “What do I do with that?” As an educator, how do I take the horrible suffering of a generation born decades before me and give it meaning? Then I remember the faces. The beautiful faces that were snuffed from this world too soon — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, husbands and wives. I tell their stories and as a classroom and community, we learn their stories. I allow my students to feel through them the will to overcome hate.
I believe we can combat hate with truth, education, and unwavering love. Be a voice for the voiceless and let your love shine brighter than the hate in the world. When teaching the Holocaust I make every effort to focus on the rescuers and those engaged in resistance. Who are they? What were they doing to help? I ask my students “How could you help?”
Our small community is banding together and collecting donations to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The message is clear: when hate shows itself, we must make our voices of love and humanity louder. Never again! Hate is sometimes just around the corner, but if we come together as a community, a state, a nation, a world, we can combat antisemitism and all forms of hate - one story at a time.
About the author: Deborah Hamilton is a middle school social studies learning facilitator at Northern Potter School District located in Ulysses, PA. Deborah encourages her students to stand against social injustice and to be a voice for the voiceless.
My grandfather was an illegal immigrant who worked his way from being a dishwasher to becoming a hotel clerk in New Hampshire. He and his family left Eastern Europe a few years after the First World War, escaping the anti-Jewish pogroms in his region. Born in 1901, he was a young dreamer who smuggled himself across the Canadian border seeking to build a better life. He eventually became a proud citizen of the United States of America who raised his two children to be "good Americans" who only spoke English.
I recently came across some of his private papers that he apparently saved, dated July 1948, a mere three years after the Holocaust ended. As the desk clerk in this rather touristic spot in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, he received the following inquiry from Cleveland, Ohio:
"My wife and I may want twin beds with private bath (or shower), or at least hot and cold running water and a private (inside) toilet, for one week approximately from August 8-15. We prefer European plan, no Jews, a free leak less rowboat, comfort without 'swank', with good restaurants nearby. A central meeting place where we could play on occasional game of no-too-expert bridge would be an asset. Please send descriptive literature and quote rates by return mail, dealing with the points mentioned above. Are you on the shore of a lake?"
The same person sent another letter four days later, requesting "a folder" about the amenities available, underscoring their wish for a "gentile atmosphere."
I am sure that my grandfather, who ironically was a competitive bridge player, kept these letters due to their antisemitic content. Unfortunately, he died a year before I was born and therefore I never had an opportunity to ask him about this incident.
Nowadays it is no longer acceptable to contact a hotel and unabashedly request "no Jews" – not only in the United States, but rather in many places across the globe. Overtly racist language of this kind is shunned, and anti-discrimination guidelines require hotel staff to provide goods and services to guests regardless of race, gender, marital status, disability, age and more. Nevertheless, blatant prejudice in general and antisemitism in particular, has clearly not vanished from the US and beyond. Addressing and combatting antisemitism remains relevant.
Substantiating this grim reality, ADL commissioned an audit of antisemitic incidents in 2017. The findings were disturbing: in the US alone, the number of antisemitic incidents surged to 1,986, a 57% increase from the total in 2016. Although we can feel some relief at the finding that a majority of Americans acknowledge the problem — eight out of ten of polled respondents think that the government must play a role in countering antisemitism — the sheer number of incidents provides a chilling reminder of the urgent need for educational programming to counter antisemitism.
The letter-writer from Ohio had no inhibition against signing his name to shamelessly antisemitic requests. Sixty-nine years later in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists showed no inhibition about showing their faces to the cameras as they chanted “Jews will not replace us.” The data is incontrovertible: the purveyors of antisemitism have grown bolder in our time, and education will be key to stemming the rising tide of hatred. It is incumbent upon us to stand up to this hatred, then and now, and it starts in the classroom.
Seventy years after my grandfather received these letters, educators across the country are incorporating Echoes & Reflections units on antisemitism – both contemporary and historical – into their classrooms. Teachers have provided positive feedback about the quality and relevance of the materials and feel they are helping to increase students’ knowledge about antisemitism in the world today; and perhaps most importantly, inspiring students to want to do something about it.
Although I never knew my grandfather, he apparently believed in the pursuit of justice. While I may not agree with all of his advice below, I deeply admire his strength of character to speak out. He decided to answer these letters as follows:
"…I could not help but noticing your letter asking for reservations, with 'reservations' namely NO JEWS. Well, you also want a leak less rowboat, you might get your delicate feet wet. You want comfort, of course, with good restaurants, or else you might get indigestion. You want a place to play bridge, although not an expert. I'll bet you are a lousy player, gossiping and criticizing other people at the bridge table. Well, my reaction and suggestion to you is this: Our city is known for being on lakes, four of them. When you do get here, drive down Gale Avenue to Pleasant Street, and there at the end of the street, is a lake: Jump in and do not come up. Disrespectively yours, a good American."
Ultimately, I would like to hope that my grandfather, wherever he may be, enjoys watching his granddaughter promote professional development programming to combat antisemitism.
About the author: Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.
Americans know it’s not always pleasant to watch free speech in action.
As we witnessed this summer in Charlottesville, free speech can be hateful. It can be corrosive and demeaning. And yet, as Americans, we are dedicated to protecting free speech to a degree that our counterparts in other countries find astonishing—even ill-considered. It’s part of our Constitution, and part of our national character.
A 2015 Pew Research Center study of attitudes in 38 countries found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than citizens of any other nation. Seventy-one percent of US respondents said they believe people should be able to say and write what they like without government interference or censorship.
Our full-throated commitment to free speech doesn’t mean we always have an easy relationship with it—the First Amendment has faced countless legal challenges from those who argue that our freedom of speech has actually become a freedom to intimidate, or a freedom to instill fear. That tension was famously on display in 1978, when the city government of Skokie, Illinois, filed a suit to stop neo-Nazis from marching through their town. At the time, Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, was home to an unusually high number of Holocaust survivors, and the mayor and other officials argued that the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech paled in comparison to the survivors’ right not to be terrorized. The ACLU stepped in to defend the neo-Nazis’ First Amendment rights, and the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the ACLU and the First Amendment. The neo-Nazis never marched in Skokie—they took their awful, legally-protected speech to Chicago, instead.
As a writer and researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, I know that the Skokie case remains painfully relevant, even today. I know how challenging it can be to balance the legal right to free speech with the much more human need for all citizens to feel safe.
My job involves monitoring and writing about some of the most hateful groups and people in America—from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim extremists. Every day, my colleagues and I are confronted with images and words of hate and vitriol. We read about Richard Spencer’s dreams for a white ethnostate. We listen to Milo Yiannopoulos disparage transgender people. We watch videos of speeches by anti-Muslim bigots like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, who capitalize on fear and xenophobia and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few extremists.
We listen to these hateful people speak because it’s part of our jobs. We also listen because we need to know what they are saying. Their speech is real, and it affects people’s lives. And that’s the main reason we need to protect their right to speak publicly and freely.
Hateful speech that is muffled or suppressed will still exist. It will just go underground, where it has the potential to become even more powerful. People who are prone to extremism are often drawn to ideas and movements that society deems inappropriate.
I’m also a firm believer in countering vile speech with good speech. Whenever neo-Nazis march, the rest of us have to show up to peacefully protest the swastikas, racism and anti-Semitism on display. Whenever a Klan group leaves recruitment fliers on suburban doorsteps, the rest of us need to come together and make sure that every member of our community feels supported and safe.
The First Amendment is a right that confers huge responsibility. At this moment in history, the responsibility part of the equation seems to be falling to those of us who believe in civil rights, equality, and kindness.
Students who are keeping up with the news will undoubtedly have questions, and possibly concerns, about the practicability and ethics of protecting free speech, even when that speech feels confrontational, offensive, or just plain wrong. It’s a conundrum that can feel uncomfortable, and it’s important to allow the conversation to be in that place of discomfort. That’s where real critical thinking happens—about individual rights and the responsibilities inherent in living in a democracy. Ask your students how they feel about the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie. Ask them how they might respond to a hateful person coming to speak in their city. Allow them to take up the different sides of the arguments, and help them understand that while the First Amendment is a bedrock principle, applying it fairly and objectively isn’t always easy.
After all, it’s no small feat to respect an individual’s right to express bigoted ideas. But that’s what Americans have always done. Just as one bigot has the right to speak his mind, the rest of us have a responsibility to let him know we’re watching, we oppose his hate—and we’re not going away.
Jessica Reaves is the senior writer and communications specialist at ADL’s Center on Extremism. The views expressed here are hers alone.
In the face of the ugly and violent expressions of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology seen this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, we asked the question: What choices will we make? What will we tolerate?
It’s been inspiring to see the ways in the past 48 hours that people all over the country are making a choice, taking a stand, and letting their voices be heard. As friends, educators, parents, and those interested in advancing Holocaust education and working to combat hate, we hope you’ll consider some of the following action steps:
(1) If you are a teacher or know a teacher, check out/pass along our professional development programs and online resources to support meaningful Holocaust education.
(2) Inquire about how the Holocaust and genocide are taught in your local schools. Advocate for teachers’ access to professional learning opportunities.
(3) Find out if your state mandates the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides, and what you can do to support these policies.
(4) Volunteer and support organizations that promote Holocaust education, combat hate, and work for social justice. You can begin by contacting your local ADL office here.
(5) Educate yourself about hate groups and extremism in the United States. Recruitment of young people is a primary focus of these groups.
(6) Stay connected with us! Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
We are guided by the words of Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Thank you for your commitment!
In my role at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), I manage a suite of programs that provide resources and educational opportunities for students, parents, and teachers that focus on empowering individuals to stand up in the face of anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. In recent years, we have taken a hard look at anti-Semitism in middle schools and high schools and our findings have been alarming.
ADL’s most recent annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, noted that we, “continue to receive a troubling number of complaints about children, adolescents, and teenagers engaging in anti-Semitic behavior, both on and off school grounds. These incidents include physical assaults, threats of violence, and verbal and written taunts promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes or evoking disturbing Holocaust themes.” Sadly, and shockingly, it is common today for students to find swastikas etched into desks or drawn on bathroom doors, stereotypes about Jews having big noses or being cheap and greedy are heard regularly, and using phrases such as “Don’t be such a Jew” or “Stupid Jew” have become almost commonplace.
In fact, recent focus groups with middle and high school students revealed that instances of anti-Jewish remarks and Holocaust “jokes” sometimes actually increase during and immediately after curricular units on the Holocaust. One student shared, “I received comments on ask.fm [an anonymous social media site] calling me a dirty Jew, JAP [Jewish American Princess], and worst of all, saying I should burn in the oven with the rest of the Jews. I was incredibly disturbed and worried that there was someone who was so anti-Semitic that they would post something so threatening to me.”
So, what is going on here? What are we seeing with these findings?
If we are teaching effectively about the Holocaust, how is it that students are not making the connection between their own actions and the importance of stopping bias and bigotry before it escalates? In our Bearing Witness programs with Catholic school educators, we speak with teachers about how teaching about the Holocaust necessitates context. It is helpful if teachers guide their students in seeing the complexity of this event as part of a bigger conversation about historical and contemporary anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bias and bigotry in our world today.
Anti-Semitism, bias, and bigotry existed for millennia before the Holocaust and did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. Rather than seeing anti-Semitism as one small component in the history of the Holocaust, it can instead be helpful to think about the Holocaust as one small piece in the history of anti-Semitism. In this way, we can help students to recognize that they must play a role in combatting this hatred that continues to be present in our lives today, and empower them to take a stance against contemporary manifestations of bias and prejudice.
In this time of increasing divisiveness in our country, when people are targeted because of who they are—their gender, religion, national origin, etc.—it is more important than ever that educators integrate the important lessons about the Holocaust with teaching about concepts of prejudice and hate today. Echoes and Reflections has excellent resources in Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders and a new resource on Contemporary Anti-Semitism, that encourage students to consider the importance of taking action when they see bigotry and prejudice exhibited in their own lives.
As teachers think about how best to teach about the Holocaust, and to raise these difficult and complicated topics with their students, I also recommend these 10 Planning Implementation Guidelines and 10 Approaches to Help you teach from Echoes and Reflections. While we can never be fully sure how our students may react to the content, these guidelines can be useful to help set the stage for a thoughtful and respectful learning experience.
Let’s Have a Discussion! How do you address these complex issues with your students and bring them “safely in and safely out”?
Naomi Mayor is the Director of Campus and Community Education Programs for the Anti-Defamation League where she develops new curriculum resources and training materials to address anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias at universities and in schools.
The recent film Denial, which recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier, provides an opportunity to critically examine Holocaust denial and contemporary antisemitism. For students, analyzing the ways that what they have learned about the Holocaust debunks the assertions of deniers allows them to reach important conclusions based on evidence.
Echoes and Reflections sat down with Dan Leshem, PhD, Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and former Program Manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial website (HDoT.org), to learn more about what teachers should know as they consider this topic from an educational perspective.
What is Holocaust Denial?
“Holocaust denial is a very strange concept and a very difficult thing to teach,” Leshem explains, “because it requires student to hold a lot of things in their mind at the same time… Students have to reflect on the historical truth of the Holocaust while also considering the denier’s claim, think about why someone would deny the Holocaust, question the way denying the Holocaust hurts the people that were there, and how it hurts Jewish people today. Holocaust denial becomes a complicated story.”
Leshem emphatically states that the most important thing to know is that Holocaust denial is antisemitism. “There is no other reason that it exists other than to hurt Jews and rehabilitate the image of Hitler and the Nazi party.” He goes on to add that, many of the most vehement Holocaust deniers are antisemites as well as being anti-immigrant, racist, misogynistic, homophobic haters of all “others”.
Much of denial focuses on inserting doubt or suspicion into the narrative about the Holocaust and presenting assertions as if they are historical fact and historical proof. “Offering a series of logical fallacies is less detectable. Insert enough doubt and people start to think that ‘maybe there is more to the story than I was told.’”
Dr. Lipstadt uses the term “immoral equivalencies” to describe these logical fallacies. In an interview transcript on HDOT, she explains that Holocaust deniers will say, “Yes, the Germans had camps (because they can’t deny that there were concentration camps. Those were reported even in the German press, which was hardly a free press, but everybody knew there was this system of concentration camps), but the Americans had camps too… they did bad, we did bad, in war bad things happen.” The danger in these assertions, Lipstadt explains, is more than that they’re completely false. It is that, “There is no moral equivalency for the Holocaust,” so deniers need to negate its significance to further their own hateful agenda.
Common Contentions of Holocaust Deniers
According to Leshem there are, at the heart of deniers’ rhetoric, two core themes: that the Jewish people were not the victims but the victimizers, and that the material evidence of a genocide were all fabricated.
In Lipstadt’s trial, Richard Evan’s expert witness report listed the following common contentions:
- The number of Jews killed by the Nazis was far less than six million; it amounted to only a few hundred thousand, and was thus similar to, or less than, the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids.
- Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.
- Neither Hitler nor the Nazi leadership in general had a program of exterminating Europe's Jews; all they wished to do was to deport them to Eastern Europe.
- 'The Holocaust' is a myth invented by Allied propaganda during the war and sustained since then by Jews who wish to use it to gain political and financial support for the state of Israel. The supposed evidence for the Nazis' wartime mass murder of millions of Jews by gassing and other means was fabricated after the war.
“It can be very challenging to debunk some of these ideas if you’re not an expert,” Leshem adds. These contentions require one to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust and able to point to all the pieces of evidence that negate each claim.
Is Denial Unique to the Holocaust?
“Denial is the last stage of every genocide,” Leshem explains citing Gregory H. Stanton, noted Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University and President of Genocide Watch. Stanton’s extensive work in genocide studies led to his paper, The 8 Stages of Genocide, which offers a framework that is now used throughout the world. “There isn’t a group in history that has experienced a genocide, that does not have a group that is trying to deny it… The difference with the Holocaust is that the government of Germany has made a conscious effort to acknowledge what they did.”
To most people, given the evidence, to question whether the Holocaust happened or the facts surrounding it is irrational; it is one of the most documented events in human history. And yet, as we move farther away from the event in history, and with the enormous amount of information and misinformation shared through the Internet, students may have seen or heard some of the propaganda that Holocaust deniers spread.
If the topic comes up in class, Leshem recommends approaching it as an opportunity to teach critical thinking and research. Challenge students to consider, “How do you evaluate the credibility of your source? Where did you get your information?” He also recommends that students dig deeper into their research to find multiple credible sources to measure evidence against. “In this day in age it is also a digital literacy question… If your source is comments on YouTube, how good is that source compared to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?”
Echoes and Reflections provides students and teachers with authentic primary sources, survivor testimony, and historical facts, that reveal what took place. If students, or adults are voicing myths and misinformation about the Holocaust, HDOT’s Debunking Holocaust Denial provides historical data to refute the most common assertions and provides fact sheets for debunking Holocaust denier claims.
Additionally, consider these resources from Echoes and Reflections:
- Teacher's Discussion Guide - The film Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier.
- Contemporary Antisemitism Resource - Provides an opportunity for students to understand that antisemitism did not end after the Holocaust, and tools for interpreting data and content students encounter on and offline.
Dan Leshem, Ph.D. is the Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College.
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