Fostering true understanding of the Holocaust means changing how we teach about it

This column is an opinion by Jody Spiegel and Naomi Azrieli. Spiegel is director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program at the Azrieli Foundation, incoming chair of the Education Working Group to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and a member of the IHRA Canadian delegation. Azrieli is the Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In the first month of 2021, there have been references to the Holocaust from the most unlikely places.

They’ve been on t-shirts worn by right-wing extremists while storming the U.S. Capitol. They’ve been uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used Kristallnacht as an allegory of the insurrection, and by media commentator Glenn Beck, who likened social media de-platforming to the hardships faced by the Jews of Europe being moved into Nazi ghettos.

Jan. 27 marks 76 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and is recognized as UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day. However, more than three-quarters of a century after the war, what was once living memory is moving into inaccurate understandings of history.

Two years ago, the Azrieli Foundation released a study on knowledge of the Holocaust in Canada. The results of the survey exposed critical gaps in Holocaust awareness and knowledge among Canadian adults. We learned that shockingly, 62 per cent of millennials didn’t have basic knowledge surrounding this historic event: that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

If we are to ensure that people know the most fundamental facts, we must start by changing the way we teach the Holocaust in schools across the country.

Jewish deportees are seen arriving at the railway terminus at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, circa 1942. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A recent follow-up survey of Canadian teachers found that the primary learning objectives of 80 per cent of those teaching about the Holocaust are to develop social and moral values, and reinforce principles of human rights and genocide prevention. It also found that more than half of these teachers have less than three hours to focus on the topic. Whether because of time constraints, lack of historical knowledge or wanting to provide the information in a way that students can relate to, teachers are jumping to lessons that can be drawn from the Holocaust before explaining what the Holocaust was.

Key lessons we learn from the Holocaust are the importance of democracy, how choices matter and how not to be a bystander.

Lessons about the Holocaust set the event firmly in its historical context and teach about the precursors that led to the destruction of European Jewry.

When we discuss the Holocaust only through the lessons that it can teach us, we turn it into a metaphor. The Holocaust should be taught as a specific event — understood within political, geographical and sociological contexts.

It can be a challenge for teachers to connect students to the topic, but in trying to make this historical event meaningful, it’s a mistake to draw direct lines from past actions to choices students currently face in their own lives. For example, the Holocaust was not an extreme form of bullying. It was a genocide, and likening it to bullying trivializes a horrific period in world history.

Standing up to bullies is an important lesson for students, but it’s not a lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust. Survivor and author Pinchas Gutter describes his time in the Warsaw Ghetto as an apocalyptic hell. “People were dying in the streets. German officers were hunting Jews like animals. Men with wheelbarrows collected bodies, dumping them into a pit in a cemetery. I saw scenes which no one could describe. If the world existed for a trillion years, there wouldn’t be enough words to describe the horrors I saw.”

Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, are seen standing behind a barbed wire fence. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Belarussian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photograph)

Likewise, American political commentator Glenn Beck was wrong. Being removed from a social media platform is absolutely nothing like the experience the Jews faced being forced from their homes into ghettos in the 1940s. The vast majority of ghetto inhabitants died from disease, starvation, shooting or deportation to killing centres.

This type of thinking catastrophizes something small, and simultaneously reduces an event that, as historian Yehuda Bauer said, “was unprecedented and set the precedent for how all future genocides can be understood.”

By oversimplifying the past without taking the time to learn about the actual and complex events of the Holocaust, this tragedy is stripped of its content and watered down to sound bites and “teachable moments.”

Students must be equipped with the knowledge to recognize inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons.

They also need the time and space to reflect on the history of the Holocaust in order to make it meaningful in their own lives. Effective Holocaust education fosters empathy for those who experienced the events. When young people face difficulties in fully appreciating the circumstances of the Holocaust, focusing on the experiences of individuals can be a powerful means of engagement.

We must begin with the story of Jewish life before we can draw lessons from Jewish death.

A memorial sculpture in London entitled ‘Children of the Kindertransport’ thanks the people of Britain for saving the lives of 10,000 children who fled from Nazi persecution in 1938 and 1939. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

The victims of the Holocaust deserve respect, and that begins with gaining an understanding of the culturally rich community that faced genocide. When the most common image students have of the Jews of Europe is that of a downtrodden person being driven into a cattle car, with the Jews as victims, we give credence to the perpetrators’ narrative.

The Holocaust isn’t a metaphor or cautionary tale that can be used to warn young people of the dangers of bullying or of society failing its citizens. It was the destruction and attempted eradication of thousands of years of European Jewish life. It was the denial of the inalienable human rights of people simply for being born Jewish.

While we would like to draw moral conclusions from this — in the classroom and in the world — we first must learn about it and understand how the Holocaust was even possible.


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