Social Studies Opinion

Teaching the Holocaust Is Daunting—But Critical

The number of survivors is dwindling as anti-Semitism, disinformation, and denial are on the rise
By Deborah Lauter — January 26, 2023 3 min read
Illustration of stock photo details of train tracks of The Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands.
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This Friday, Jan. 27, we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps, commemorating the millions of Jews and others murdered by the Nazis. The United Nations and other organizations established this annual commemoration not only to honor the memories of the victims but also to strengthen awareness of the Holocaust so that such atrocities never happen again.

Schools and teachers have critical roles to play in creating awareness, awareness that is threatened by two factors at this juncture in history. The first is that the number of survivors and personal knowledge of the Holocaust are dwindling. At the same time, anti-Semitism, extremism, and Holocaust disinformation and denial are increasing.

So there is good reason for concern. But we have ways to address these challenges. One of the most effective is using the lens of the Holocaust to teach about the consequences of hate.

A survey conducted in 2020 of 1,500 nationally representative college students ages 18 to 24 found that students who received Holocaust education exhibited more pluralistic attitudes and a greater willingness to challenge stereotypes and intolerance than those who did not. Holocaust education provides an opportunity for students to examine the tragic consequences of complacency in the face of demagoguery and motivates them to stand up to hate and intolerance.

But teaching the Holocaust can be daunting because of the difficulty of the subject matter. Archival photos of concentration camps are graphic and disturbing, and the sheer number of those murdered—6 million Jews, 5 million others—make the subject abstract. Teachers can become overwhelmed by the enormous quantity of resources that are available. The content is there, but not enough attention has been paid to how to prepare educators to teach it. Holocaust education that has an impact requires a commitment of time, resources, and administrator support for teachers.

Holocaust education that has an impact requires a commitment of time, resources, and administrator support for teachers.

Teachers across the nation currently face unprecedented challenges. Not only does the pandemic grind on with educational inequities becoming more glaring, teachers also are called upon to help shape young minds at a time when incivility, hate, and extremism have moved from the margins to the mainstream. Some teachers are reporting an increase in name-calling and bullying in their schools. Further, there is a disturbing pressure on educators to refrain from teaching about historical prejudices; and misinformation and disinformation that alter historical truths—including about the Holocaust—are spread widely and quickly online.

Eighteen states have mandated Holocaust and genocide education, and a few other states strongly encourage it. But for the most part, these mandates are unfunded or lack mechanisms to assess what and how the subject is being taught. The result is that Holocaust education is often reduced to facts and figures rather than the roles that were played by perpetrators and bystanders and the resulting consequences. What a missed opportunity! We know from experience that helping educators shift from content-based learning to inquiry-based learning that guides students to question the acts of individuals and communities is the best way to make Holocaust education relevant and meaningful.

As we mark the 78th-year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, let us honor survivors and all the victims of the Holocaust by committing to expand high-quality Holocaust education that provides a lens through which teachers can show their students the ultimate consequences of hate and the importance of students’ role in protecting democracy and civil society.

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