Being a Holocaust educator in America today can feel like an uphill struggle, given how much resistance to the truth that we have witnessed. Over the past year, politicians have taken to comparing the Holocaust to COVID-19 mandates. Teachers have been told to balance it with “opposing perspectives.” Children have celebrated Hitler’s “accomplishments” at school. There’s no getting around it: Our relationship with the Holocaust is broken. To fix it, we need to reinvent the way it’s taught.
For starters, Holocaust education is done most effectively in analytical, low-temperature environments, so we must stop describing antisemitism as something to be “combated” or “tackled.” Using the language of war and encouraging students to construe antisemitism as an “adversary” only inflames an already difficult discussion. It also risks giving antisemites the validation they crave by enabling them to imagine themselves as fighters. Instead, we must help students realize that antisemitism and its history are defined by contradiction.
Born in late-19th century Europe, antisemitism transposed centuries of religious hatred of Jews for the newly industrialized, scientific era by painting Judaism as a “race” that had nothing to do with religion. In the antisemitic imagination, Jews are both rich and poor, weak and strong, controlling society and tearing it apart. Contemporary antisemites regurgitate these contradictions when, for example, they accuse Jews of using COVID-19 vaccines to rule the world on the one hand and of masterminding the anti-vaxx movement on the other.
We must also make it easier for educators to get away from teaching the Holocaust through the reductive lens of pop culture. In my 10 years of experience as an educator, I’ve found that “The Boy in The Striped Pajamas,” “Schindler’s List,” Number the Stars, and similar novels and movies are the staples of Holocaust education in the American classroom. Their plots may differ, but they all blend fact and fiction in a way that sets out to tug the heartstrings without dispelling myths. This doesn’t help students understand what happened, let alone how or why; in fact, they often come away more confused about the Holocaust.
We must do more to cast spotlights on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust and on the internal chaos that characterized Nazism. Students are frequently taught to see Jews as “lambs” who went to the gas chambers without question and Nazis as cold but efficient supermen. Learning about the Holocaust through the lens of events like the Jewish uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto or in the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps can help them to see history in a new light.
The internet is awash with free lesson plans about the Holocaust, and many educators turn to those lesson plans. Many of them inadvertently imply that the Holocaust can be taught the same way everywhere. But the landscape of American Holocaust education is very uneven. Some schools have thriving Holocaust education programs with guest talks from survivors (who are rapidly declining in numbers), field trips to museums, and connections with local Jewish organizations. Others have never taught the Holocaust because their state doesn’t require it. Some might not even have Jewish people in their community. Instead of being “one-size-fits-all,” Holocaust education should be flexible enough to reflect the range of local realities.
We must treat antisemitism as more than just a 'Jewish concern.'
And we must treat antisemitism as more than just a “Jewish concern.” Antisemitism is a symptom of bigger failings in society, including political partisanship and broken communities. To ward against these divisions, Holocaust educators must embrace and promote a diverse and nonpartisan range of experiences, ideas, and perspectives. And Holocaust education organizations, including those that produce content for the classroom, must collaborate with each other and educators more often.
In recent decades, there’s been a push to teach subject matter through immersive, interactive activities. Although this has largely been for the good, it isn’t always suitable. The Holocaust is too historically complex and too emotionally challenging to teach as an experientially based activity. The recent story about a 3rd grade class reenacting the digging of mass graves is only one of the more outrageous examples of what can happen when the Holocaust is taught this way.
Doing Holocaust education right means beginning with the basic facts. Students need to learn what antisemitism is and where it came from. They need to learn what Nazism is and how it operated. They need to know what the Holocaust was, how and why it happened, and why it still matters today.
Many organizations are thinking innovatively about Holocaust education and offer accessible content and lessons for the classroom. At The Ninth Candle, which is my organization, we provide expert-led analyses of archival materials that challenge students to grasp how hatred is normalized and how that normalization opens the door to radical consequences. (See: an obscure artifact of Nazi propaganda like the hate-mongering board game Juden Raus!). 3GNY, another educational nonprofit organization, has created a “living link” with the Holocaust by working with the grandchildren of survivors. Facing History and Ourselves provides ethical decisionmaking, social-emotional learning, and responsible citizenship in its Holocaust education lessons. And promising things are happening among fiction writers, too. I always recommend Liza Wiemer’s young adult novel The Assignment, which frames a factual account of the Holocaust in a compelling story that encourages students to think about the meaning of allyship and what it takes to be an upstander.
As the world pauses for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the need for all of us to shake up Holocaust education is more urgent than ever. There is no quick fix, but we must all do better.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as How We Get Holocaust Education Wrong