Towards the end of my senior year of high school, my Hebrew School teacher asked our class a broad question about World War II. For the next hour or so, we discussed the Holocaust in great detail—its causes, implications, and meanings in a historical context. It was not until halfway through class that my teacher finally stopped us to ask why we focused solely on the Holocaust instead of including other aspects of WWII in our conversation as well. We did not have an answer for him. He told us that most people first associate other events with World War II, such as Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombs, but our Jewish backgrounds influence the way we view the war. Not only do we have a religious and cultural connection to the Holocaust but we also have more education on the topic than many of our peers, as most public schools in the United States do not have a Holocaust curriculum. This information was eye opening because, even though the Holocaust was a crucial part of WWII and it deeply affected many groups of people, a great majority of the country does not study it. This woeful omission could be due to the fact that the Holocaust is extremely difficult to teach; instructors must find a balance between teaching the history of the event as a whole and the social impact of individual accounts. Regardless, implementing Holocaust Education in US public schools is important, and even more important is teaching it in such a way that students understand the long-term implications an atrocity such as the Holocaust can have.
The evolution of Holocaust education in US public schools has been a slow yet steady movement. For several years immediately following the Holocaust, educators found it unimportant to teach or discuss the event. However, this attitude changed in the Jewish community in the 1960s and in the secular community a decade later when Holocaust survivors began to speak up about the horrors they were subjected to, giving public attention to the genocide. 1972 marked the implementation of the first Holocaust curriculum, and the following year New Jersey “became the first state to recommend the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide at the pre-college level” (Totten and Pedersen 224). A few years later, the New York City Board of Education mandated that “a major curriculum entitled The Holocaust: A Study of Genocide be taught in its schools” (Totten and Pedersen 224). The movement from a recommended Holocaust curriculum to a mandatory one exemplifies the natural progression of the program, which has continued developing since. More recently, in March 2014, Pennsylvania’s state Senate laid a bill on the table, which put together a set of guidelines for an optional Holocaust curriculum (2014 Act 70), meaning that although the bill did not pass the Senate, it was postponed for later consideration. If Pennsylvania does adopt the bill, it will be among several US states which have an optional Holocaust curriculum, while only five states mandate Holocaust and genocide education in their public school systems (Langley and Webner). Still, most states do not include it in their course of study whatsoever. As a result, while the movement toward incorporating Holocaust education began several decades ago, its effects are not yet widely seen.
Part of the reason for this lack of action is that some educators do not believe that the Holocaust should be taught in public schools. This opposition was first apparent in the 1960s, where there was supposedly an “aversion among teachers and parents to teaching about death…a fear of psychological harm to children, and a general belief that the Holocaust was not relevant for today’s teenagers” (Fallace 19). Some adults still believe children do not need to know of the horrors of the past and that teaching it would only cause unnecessary harm. Other opponents claim that “the event was too recent, and the Holocaust[…]did not merit special attention” (Fallace 19). These dissenters believe that the Holocaust should not be taught in schools because it happened so recently that there is not enough secondary information on it for one to be able to teach it in an academic setting. They also argue that it was not a unique enough event to warrant a curriculum dedicated to it. Still others resist teaching the Holocaust on the grounds that it can be too easily oversimplified. Writer Alan Bennett illustrates this obstacle in his play The History Boys. In the play, a class is discussing the Holocaust as an educational tool and class trips to concentration camps. The general studies teacher, Hector, asks, “Do they take pictures over there? Are they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate. Just as questions on an examination paper are inappropriate” (Bennett 71). Hector believes that the Holocaust should be avoided in the classroom because it cannot be sufficiently summarized and explained without insulting the memories of those who experienced it. The difficulty of and fear behind teaching genocide, however, should not deter educators from using the Holocaust as an educational tool because, if done correctly, it can have social implications far beyond students’ intellectual capabilities.
Advocates of including genocide and human rights education programs argue that it can help teach American students about the world around them. The Holocaust happened recently enough for those studying it to be able to connect with it emotionally, yet far enough in the past for there to be secondary, academic scholarship. In a formal learning environment, educators can teach the Holocaust as a case study to “explore concepts such as prejudice[…]loyalty, conflict, conflict resolution, decision making, and justice,” among other factors of the human condition (Totten and Feinberg 5). The Holocaust is not only important in history courses, therefore, and instead has relevance in many areas of study. In addition, Holocaust education can also combat Holocaust denial. Teaching students about the Holocaust’s history and aftermath can reduce the number of people who deny that it happened. As Shermer and Grobman write in their book Denying History, “For evil to triumph it only requires that the good do nothing. We cannot remain silent anymore” (17). They assert that by ignoring Holocaust denial we are inherently perpetuating it and that teaching the Holocaust to students will reduce the number of people who claim it did not happen. Furthermore, research suggests, “Holocaust education can make a significant contribution to citizenship in developing pupils' awareness of human rights issues and genocides, the concepts of stereotyping and scapegoating, and general political literacy” (Cowan and Maitles 119). Students become aware of the dangers of stereotyping and discrimination at a young age, making them more likely to support the fight against genocide.
Advocates also argue that the Holocaust should be incorporated into the public school curriculum because not only was it an important historical aspect of World War II, it was also culturally significant as it affected many groups of people. The Holocaust had such a crucial role in World War II and its aftermath that teaching the war without including it would provide narrow and incomplete coverage of the event. In addition, although Jews constituted over half of the victims of the genocide inflicted by Hitler’s regime (six million Jews out of eleven million people total), other groups such as Roma people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally and physically handicapped, and many others were targeted as well. Its effects were felt widely among various groups of people, making it a relevant topic to many US students. The Holocaust can be used as an example for genocide as a whole because of its wide scope, as well as its unprecedented nature in terms of organized crimes against humanity. The Hitler regime utilized methodical and technological means in an attempt to create a “master race,” giving the Holocaust a “bureaucratic and institutional complexity” which distinguishes it from other instances of genocide (Fallace 18). The discrimination associated with the Holocaust can even allude to the current social condition, as made evident by Sara Feinstein at a conference hosted by the National Council for Jewish Education in 1964 (Fallace 20). At the symposium, Feinstein compared “the Jewish experience of the past to the growing racial prejudice of the present,” demonstrating that we can modernize the lessons we learn from studying a historical event such as the Holocaust (Fallace 21). Anti-Semitism in France, for instance, has reached levels so high that 7,000 Jews emigrated in 2014 alone, with 2015 numbers expected to exceed 10,000 (Slavin 9). If we apply the lessons we learn to our current situation, studying events such as the Holocaust can impact the treatment of Jews and other minorities worldwide, making it an extremely important topic to learn about.
Implementing Holocaust education can also produce better citizens. By learning about genocide, students are able to better understand society’s accomplishments and downfalls. They gain a broader understanding of the human condition by learning about discrimination in its most vicious form. A syllabus put together by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center includes nine overall course objectives, such as “students will recognize that a bystander makes an active choice that may result in escalating harm to others” and “students will carry the message so that acts of genocide cannot happen again” (The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center). By attributing responsibility to the students as bystanders and as citizens of the world, instructors can go beyond teaching them that genocide is wrong and instead teach them to respect others and to do the right thing in a situation where fellow citizens are being hurt. The New Jersey Holocaust curriculum goes so far as to ask students to contact the media and government representatives to express concerns over current instances of genocide and directly support relief organizations (“New Jersey Commission”). Genocide education programs allow instructors to teach their students not only about the negative consequences of crimes against humanity, but also of the positive ways they can help. By teaching students how they can become involved in advocacy and social action, we are teaching them to become better citizens by helping others in need.
Even among those who agree that Holocaust and genocide education should be incorporated into public schools, there is controversy over how it should be taught. This is exemplified by the postponement of the Pennsylvania bill—a clearly dictated plan for implementing a Holocaust and human rights education program, which the House of Representatives has passed but the Senate has not. One section of the bill states that instruction on the Holocaust must “communicate the impact of personal responsibility, civic engagement and societal response,” implying that the program should focus on how individuals can contribute to a better society (House Bill 1424 Sec. 1554). On the other hand, some believe that a Holocaust program should instead focus on the historical facts to balance out the emotional intensity a curriculum such as this can have on youth. Those who support this argument claim that the Holocaust is important to learn about, but not in such a way that it causes the students distress. One way this can be accomplished is by teaching the Holocaust as we would any other historical tragedy, enabling students to analyze its causes and determine that it was not inevitable (Totten and Feinberg 5). By demonstrating that a specific series of events led up to the genocide, students learn possible warning signs and preventative measures without it affecting them emotionally.
Although providing a balance between teaching the Holocaust as a whole and presenting individual accounts is important, instructors must remember that in the end, each victim was a person to whom the students can relate. When teaching the Holocaust, it is important that educators do so in such a way that the students can put it in context and recognize its magnitude. It is hard to conceptualize eleven million people killed, and therefore it is difficult to understand the gravity of the situation. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum developed a list of guidelines in which they suggest that instructors “translate statistics into people” (“Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust”). Photographs can help meet this goal; seeing pictures of the thousands of pairs of shoes systematically taken from those in work camps, for instance, can give students a visual representation of a fraction of the number of victims. Learning the history from personal stories also puts it into perspective by relating it back to the student, as “one person’s death tells you more than a thousand” (Bennett 72). Students are more likely to be able to gain an understanding of the genocide by hearing an individual’s account because in some ways, it forces them to imagine the unimaginable. However, the subject matter is delicate because “no student will ever be able to experience what it was like for the victims,” and instructors do not want to trivialize their experiences by downplaying them (Totten and Feinberg 13). Because the students were not present, they cannot fully comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust, and it is important for them to remember this so as to not downplay the significance and consequences of it. When learning about the Holocaust, students must remain aware of its uniqueness and their own inability to fully understand the experiences of its victims.
Despite the growing movement promoting Holocaust and genocide education, there is still much room for improvement. “The Mandate Video,” composed of a series of interviews on various Pennsylvania college campuses, illustrates the United States’ need for more Holocaust education by revealing that many college students are unable to answer basic history questions concerning the Holocaust and World War II (Fink-Whitman). When asked to identify a concentration camp or describe the Final Solution, most of the students shown in the interview were unable to provide an answer. This is due to the United States’ lack of formal education on the topic, which puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding both historical and current events. Worldwide, a similar disregard for Holocaust education is evident in modern culture. In Ukraine in April of this year, Jews leaving synagogue were handed pamphlets ordering them to register with a pro-Russian militant group who have a strong political presence in Ukraine (Dorell). Jews who do not register their property and pay a registration fee will “have their citizenship revoked, face deportation, and see their assets confiscated,” the leaflet threatened, according to Israel’s Ynet News and Ukraine’s Donbass news agency (qtd. in Dorell). This situation is disturbingly similar to that of Nazi Germany before the Holocaust. The legitimacy of the pamphlets has not yet been confirmed, yet the anti-Semitism and hatred behind them is enough to scare the still-recovering Jewish population in Europe. Although anti-Semitism this extreme is not seen in the United States, Ukraine’s situation serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of Holocaust education.
Not too far in the future, there will not be any more Holocaust survivors to pass on the stories of their experiences. Soon, it will be our responsibility to tell students what happened to the victims of the atrocity. To keep our promise to “never forget,” we must continue to tell the stories of Holocaust victims to the younger generations. Teaching students about the genocide can communicate important issues such as discrimination, stereotyping, and human rights, meaning the topic will have a significant impact on students. By learning about the consequences these issues can have on society, students become better citizens in a world surrounded by diversity of citizens and culture. When teaching the Holocaust, teachers must remember that just as important as educating students on the historical facts is respecting the memories of those who were killed, and using this compassion to teach the students how to contribute to a better world. Implementing Holocaust education in the United States, if done correctly, can have the potential to improve our current society by eliminating discrimination and intolerance towards others. When we say “never again,” we promise to remember the eleven million who died and prevent genocide from happening in the future. With proper education, our vow of “never forget, never again” can, in fact, become a reality.
2014 Act 70 Public School Code of 1949 – Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Violations Instruction. Pennsylvania General Assembly. 26 June 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.
Bennett, Alan. The History Boys. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004. Print.
Cowan, Paula, and Henry Maitles. "Does Addressing Prejudice and Discrimination through Holocaust Education Produce Better Citizens?" Educational Review 59.2 (2007): 115-30. PDF file.
Dorell, Oren. "Leaflet Tells Jews to Register in East Ukraine." USA Today. Gannett, 17 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Fallace, Thomas D. The Emergence of Holocaust Education in American Schools. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Fink-Whitman, Rhonda. “The Mandate Video”. Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center. 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 March 2014.
"Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center. Dott-Communications, 2009. PDF file. 10 Apr. 2014.
House Bill 1424 An Act amending the act of March 10, 1949 (P.L.30, No.14), known as the Public School Code of 1949, in terms and courses of study, providing for Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations instruction. Pennsylvania General Assembly. 23 May 2013. Web. 8 April 2014. PDF file.
Langley, Karen and Webner, Richard. “Legislature urged to require Holocaust education in PA.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 27 Jan 2014. Web.
"New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education - Curriculum." New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education - Curriculum. New Jersey Department of Education, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
Shermer, Michael, and Alex Grobman. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Print.
Slavin, Barbara. "Opinion: Rising Anti-Semitism in Europe Prompts Exodus." Voice of America, 9 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Totten, Samuel, and Stephen Feinberg, eds. Teaching and Studying the Holocaust. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. Print.
Totten, Samuel, and Jon E. Pedersen. Educating about Social Issues in the 20th and 21st Centuries: A Critical Annotated Bibliography. Vol. 1. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Pub., 2012. Print.