Please note: this post will center predominantly on Holocaust education in the United States, as that’s where I live. I can’t comment on the state of Holocaust education in other countries. (I can, however, say that “Holocaust education” in Eastern European countries is often rife with Holocaust distortion and even denial. Looking at you, Poland).
As of 2023, 23 states have mandatory Holocaust education. These states include California, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Rhoda Island, Connecticut, Kentucky, Texas, Oregon, Colorado, Delaware, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Arizona, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Missouri. Of these 23 states, 17 of them passed laws regarding mandatory Holocaust education after 2016, in response to skyrocketing antisemitism.
But there’s a problem: antisemitism continues to skyrocket to the highest levels since the Anti-Defamation League began recording antisemitic incidents in the 1970s. It’s pretty clear that we are not teaching the Holocaust effectively, considering prejudice against its primary victims — Jews — continues to surge.
Perhaps even more frightening, a 2021 survey conducted by the University of Arkansas found that people with higher education are more likely to hold Jews to double standards. Something in the education system is very broken, and we need to do something about it before more Jews get hurt.
YOU CANNOT EDUCATE ON THE HOLOCAUST WITHOUT EDUCATING ON JEWS AND ANTISEMITISM
The Holocaust was not some horrific tragedy that befell all of mankind. The Holocaust was a genocide that targeted two primary victims: Jews and Roma. Because I’m Jewish, this post will center the Jewish experience.
From my observation, Holocaust education is oftentimes used as a cautionary tale on the terrifying consequences of bad human behavior. And while this is important, it comes with a major, major flaw: Holocaust education centers everything but Jews and antisemitism. But the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened without the 2000 years of European antisemitism that preceded it. The Holocaust was a genocide that was made possible under very specific circumstances. It couldn’t have “happened to anyone.” It happened to Jews.
To understand the Holocaust and Nazi ideology, you have to understand antisemitism. And to understand antisemitism, you have to understand who Jews are as a people. While Jewish identity should never be defined by antisemitism, it’s undeniable that antisemitism has deeply shaped the Jewish experience.
To understand antisemitism, you must understand why, for 2000 years, Europeans regarded Jews as foreign, homeless, untrustworthy interlopers. You have to understand that for centuries, Europeans had accused Jews of “polluting” the European race. You have to understand that 2000 years of scapegoating Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus set the stage for the scapegoating of Jews for just about everything and anything, something that continues to this day. You have to understand antisemitic tropes, conspiracies, euphemisms, and dogwhistles and how they mutate to adapt to any given society.
You can’t adequately understand Nazi ideology — and thus, the Holocaust — without understanding this first.
CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT!
To reiterate, the Holocaust was only possible under very specific circumstances. This doesn’t mean other genocides haven’t happened — of course they have — but the Holocaust has its unique characteristics, just as all genocides have unique characteristics.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum emphasizes that educators must teach the Holocaust in context. Decontextualizing the Holocaust fails to get to the root of the issue — antisemitism.
It’s important for educators to provide context on the living conditions of Jews in Europe pre-World War II, to provide context on gentiles’ predominantly negative attitudes toward Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, to explain the circumstances behind the industrialization of the Holocaust, to contextualize the role that antisemitism has played in society, and more. Teaching only about the tip of the iceberg is not teaching about the iceberg.
When sharing photos, for example, give your students the proper context: who is in the photo, if known? Where is it? What year? What is happening? What were the conditions that allowed for this to happen? What laws were in place? Give your students as much context as possible.
DO NOT UNIVERSALIZE THE HOLOCAUST
I reiterate: the Holocaust couldn’t have happened to “anyone.” The Holocaust happened to Jews and Roma and Sinti, under very specific circumstances that couldn’t be recreated in any place and time. The trauma of the Holocaust doesn’t belong to everyone. It belongs to its victims.
Everything the Nazis did — absolutely everything — was driven by antisemitism. In the Nazi hierarchy of race, Jews were situated at the very bottom. The Nazi persecution of other groups was also rooted in antisemitism. For example, the Nazis persecuted homosexuals because they associated homosexuality with the “perversions” and “vices” of the Jews. They persecuted communists because they believed communism was inherently Jewish. For centuries Germans even theorized that Roma came from “Jewish blood.”
There is no Jewish family that was not touched in some way by the Holocaust. They Holocaust nearly completely decimated our people, to the point that nearly eight decades later, our population is still lower than it was in 1939. The statistics on intergenerational and collective trauma are crystal clear. We still haven’t healed.
The Holocaust shouldn’t be taught, at least exclusively, as a moral lesson for humanity. It should be taught as a cautionary tale on the dangers of unfettered antisemitism.
HUMANIZE AND CENTER THE VICTIMS
The number of Holocaust victims is staggering, but sometimes hearing big numbers over and over again can be desensitizing. After all, how many young students can actually conceptualize what six million actually means? It’s important to explain not just how small the Jewish community is — the Holocaust killed nearly 70 percent of the Jewish population of Europe and nearly 40 percent of the worldwide Jewish population — but to also emphasize that every single victim of the Holocaust wasn’t just a victim, but a human being as well.
The Holocaust didn’t “only” destroy six million Jewish lives. It destroyed six million worlds. It wiped out entire families. It nearly eviscerated Yiddish and Ladino culture. It forever altered the Jewish psyche. Every single Holocaust victim had a name, a family, friends, interests, talents, quirks, and more. But Holocaust victims shouldn’t be put on a pedestal either — that’s infantilizing — because, again, they were human, with positive and negative attributes, just like you and me.
It’s important to hear from survivors, now more than ever, as we are the last generation with the privilege of living with Holocaust survivors still among us. It’s important to hear their stories and to supplement these stories with research and facts. Prioritize autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs over Holocaust fiction, especially fiction written by Jewish authors, most of which is very inaccurate and problematic (looking at you, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas!). Center the stories of Jews and Roma, not those of their “saviors,” which lends itself to saviorism, universalization, and a distorted perception of how many gentiles actually helped Jews (the truth: statistically very few).
DO NOT OVEREMPHASIZE SAVIORS
Holocaust education and media places a disproportionate emphasis on gentile saviorism. Think of books and films such as Number the Stars, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and even Schindler’s List, which I personally actually believe is one of the greatest films of all time. But in all of these examples, the story is about the righteous gentile — not about the Jewish victims.
In the United States in particular, great emphasis is placed on the American military as liberators. But the reality is a lot more sobering. The United States closed its doors to Jewish refugees both before and after World War II. And contrary to the popular narrative, Americans were well aware of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, as evidenced by the plethora of newspaper headlines from the time. American Jews repeatedly asked the American government to intervene on the behalf of their Jewish siblings in Europe, such as by bombing the concentration camps or the train tracks leading to the camps. But the United States refused.
The overwhelming majority of people in Nazi-occupied territories were bystanders, complicit in the genocide. The Holocaust wouldn’t have been possible without the complicity and express collaboration of the gentiles in occupied territories. The Nazis didn’t bring antisemitism to Europe. It had existed in its most violent manifestations for 2000 years. Europe was overwhelmingly antisemitic, and even those who despised the Nazis were openly glad that the Germans were taking care of their little “Jewish problem.”
Consider, for example, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), the Polish resistance against the Nazis during World War II. In December 1943, a Home Army report stated, “There is certain sympathy for the Jews. It is better, however, that they are no longer here and no one desires to see them return after the war.” Several of my own great uncles, who fought in the Jewish resistance, were murdered not by the Nazis, but by the Armia Krajowa.
The overemphasis on saviorism is a way for non-Jews to absolve themselves from their guilt. Instead of examining their own antisemitic bias, it’s a way for them to tell themselves that they would have been “one of the good ones.” But the thing is that, statistically, they wouldn’t have been. The overemphasis on saviorism in Holocaust education creates a distorted and revisionist understanding of the genocide.
PRIORITIZE PRIMARY SOURCES
Primary sources are original documents and objects created at the time under study. For example, Anne Frank’s diary would be a primary source, as she wrote it during the Holocaust. Photographs, videos, and news reports from the time are also primary sources. Another primary source would be the remains of the concentration camps (e.g. the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex).
Primary sources are super important when teaching history in general, but they’re especially important when teaching the Holocaust. Thankfully there are mountains upon mountains of primary sources from the time period.
At a time when Holocaust denial and revisionism are on the rise, primary sources are evidence of the heinous crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators.
Primary sources also provide students with the tools to understand the context of the time period, which deepens their understanding of the Holocaust.
It’s important to prioritize real first hand accounts over fiction, which will never be entirely accurate.
BE SPECIFIC. DEFINE WORDS.
Definitions are important. Be specific in defining Holocaust-related terms, beginning with the word “Holocaust.”
Scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to studying how propaganda works have noticed one thing: propagandists keep terms loose or undefined; in other words, vagueness is a telltale sign of propaganda. When concepts are vague or loosely defined, they are essentially rendered meaningless.
Loosely-defined Holocaust terminology is dangerous because it lends itself to Holocaust distortion, revisionism, universalization, and outright denial. For example, the term “Holocaust” is reserved specifically for the genocide of Jews and Roma and Sinti, as they were the groups specifically targeted for annihilation, yet now people have started using it for anyone who was victimized by the Nazis. This then results in statements for International Holocaust Remembrance Day which omit Jews altogether, as happened in 2017, when the White House statement quite literally failed to mention Jews, the Nazis’ primary victims.
When terms like “Holocaust” are loosely defined, everything people dislike becomes “just like the Holocaust,” including vaccines, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, abortion, and more. This is a super dangerous form of Holocaust denial.
When terms like “Nazi” are loosely defined, anyone people dislike becomes a Nazi — even Jews.
When the Holocaust is loosely defined, Holocaust education shockingly fails to educate students on antisemitism.
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