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Out of focus

Are universal lessons in tolerance undermining the uniqueness of the Holocaust?

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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A year ago, my son brought home an assignment in connection with his sixth-grade social studies unit on the Holocaust, mandated by the State of New Jersey. The teacher’s assignment went something like this: Your name is Frederick Cohen. You are a Reform Jew. You used to be a successful businessman in Berlin. But that is all in the past. Now you are in a concentration camp, where you are trying to build a new kind of synagogue with homosexuals and Gypsies who are there as well. Write an essay telling us more about yourself and your efforts.

Hold your thoughts on that assignment for a moment.

Around the same time, I listened to survivor Maud Dahme tell an audience of hundreds of high school students from all over New Jersey her story of being a hidden child in the Netherlands. It was a riveting talk. As a teacher herself, one who has served on the New Jersey State Board of Education and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, Dahme knows how to reach students and what to teach. Her talk obviously resonated with the young listeners.

Dahme was a toddler when she was hidden by a Christian family. Although before the war her father was a cantor, she never returned to the family’s religion. Today, her children and grandchildren are Christian. She spoke about the terror of being a hidden child, about losing one’s identity. But ultimately her message to the students was about the importance of standing up for others.

More recently I watched the premiere of a play that told the story of a local woman who survived the Holocaust as a child after her parents shoved her out of the cattle car taking them to Majdanek. Written by Melissa Schaffer of Montclair, the play was an engaging and well-written work that included pointed sections about the people who chose to help the survivor and without whose aid she probably would have perished.

In all three cases, the message conveyed was one of enormous loss and of hope that good people can stand up and save humanity.

It’s a moving message that no doubt will help students focus on becoming the kinds of people we want to have in our society — “upstanders,” not bystanders or collaborators, as Holocaust education commission executive director Dr. Paul Winkler explained.

But where is the focus on the Holocaust as a war against the Jews, as the deliberate step-by-step plan to dehumanize, delegitimize, torture, and exterminate all the members of one “race,” one religion, against a backdrop of people who let it happen in their backyards?

Has the essential victimization of Jews as Jews in the Holocaust been lost in a rush to offer a universal message that will resonate with today’s youth?

About 15 years ago, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, offered what was at the time a controversial idea: that too much Holocaust had saturated the Jewish world, that the persistent emphasis on Jewish vulnerability “threatens to turn martyrology and victimhood into a world view.” At the time, I agreed. I think even today, author Peter Beinart would agree — his new book suggests that Jewish Americans who run the most influential pro-Israel organizations are Holocaust-obsessed, a phenomenon that colors their thinking in counterproductive ways.

But watching the new generation — my son’s generation — learn about the Holocaust, I’m no longer sure.

Classroom mandates

First, some basics. Gov. Thomas Kean created the first NJ Advisory Council on Holocaust Education in 1982, about eight years after the start of efforts to organize Holocaust education in the state. The council was renewed year to year, Holocaust curricula were developed, and a permanent NJ Commission on Holocaust Education was signed into law in 1991 by Gov. Jim Florio. In 1994, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman mandated Holocaust education in all NJ schools, and series of workshops were offered around the state to train teachers.

Today, there are 19 Holocaust centers in New Jersey, mostly at universities, offering training courses that reach over 17,000 educators. New Jersey, considered a leader in Holocaust education, sends two teachers to Yad Vashem for training every year, and countless teachers travel on their own or with students to Holocaust sites each year.

However, beyond mandating that the Holocaust be taught, Winkler and others acknowledged that there is no specific required curriculum and no way to enforce standards regarding methods or texts. These are left up to the discretion of each district and each school.

More than 90 percent of districts have been represented at Holocaust educator training programs, according to Winkler. Still, he said, the result is that while a tremendous number of well-trained teachers offer pedagogically appropriate and challenging lessons on the Holocaust, others receive little or no training and are ill equipped to teach this subject matter.

The results are lessons like the assignment my son brought home, layered with factual errors and fictional impossibilities. (Gypsies, homosexuals, and Jews were never imprisoned together; moreover, Gypsies were usually murdered immediately. Prayer, let alone creating a synagogue, was forbidden in the concentration camps. No one would have had the energy to carry out such plans anyway.)

Some common pedagogical problems, according to Winkler, can include the use of simulations, now considered a potentially dangerous technique to be used with students, and the use of fictional works — like the movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — that misrepresent wartime situations or include misleading information.

Still, the goal of my son’s assignment, however faulty its components — to teach mutual respect and the need for diverse groups to work together to create a secure future for all — is really the same as the goals of the best Holocaust teachers and programs, like Maud Dahme’s talks and the play by Melissa Schaffer.

Winkler acknowledged in a phone interview that the Holocaust is no longer taught as simply a genocide in which six million Jews were killed, but as a slaughter in which 11 million people lost their lives.

“When we talk to teachers, we always talk about 11 million people singled out and murdered by the Nazis,” he said. “We’ve gotten away from the idea of saying the Holocaust is unique. Each genocide has a uniqueness. We don’t say as much about anti-Semitism, only in the way we describe why the Jews were singled out — because anti-Semitism was rampant at the time.”

Holocaust commission training programs also underscore similarities between the Holocaust and other atrocities, including discriminatory English policies that exacerbated the devastating Irish potato famine of the 19th century.

“We are inclusive. We deal with all issues of genocide, not just the Holocaust,” said Winkler. “We focus on the Holocaust as a major atrocity. It’s a very fine line to walk. We know if we just teach the Holocaust in isolation, we will get fewer and fewer people, but if we open it up and talk about genocide more generally, with the Holocaust as an example, we can get many more people interested.

“The dilemma,” he said, “is that we don’t want to dilute the curriculum so much that we lose the Holocaust.”

Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, based in Whippany, worries that it may be too late.

“The state’s Holocaust curriculum, you will find, includes lots of other genocides. These are not irrelevant; they certainly underscore and resonate. But when they are teaching the Irish potato famine, they are not teaching the Holocaust,” she said.

Broadening focus

Wind is also troubled by a recent trend that has Holocaust studies centers’ changing their names to reflect their broadening focus. The first among these was at Drew University, whose Center for Holocaust Study, founded in 1992, became the Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study in 2001.

At Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, the Center for Holocaust Studies has become the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education. The name was changed five years ago to reflect a broader focus, said the center’s director of education Jane Denny. Its mission, she said, is “to be both a resource to the community about issues related to bias and prejudice and hatred, through the prism of the Holocaust and genocide,” and to send a message “that people have full recognition of each other’s right and privileges to live, act, and believe according to their own set of ideas.”

Wind said she does not want to see other genocides removed from the curriculum — as she pointed out, she includes them in the programs she brings to schools. “It’s important and we want this to resonate — but it should be an aside.”

But is teaching the Holocaust as unique or distinct from other genocides feasible — or even advisable? What’s wrong with using the Holocaust as a lens to view the human capacity for evil and the need for good people to stand up for others? By including other tragedies, said Winkler, more people will be exposed to the Nazis’ war on the Jews. Isn’t that a tradeoff worth making?

As a friend put it to me recently, the dark shadow of the Holocaust is passing — in other words, as the Holocaust slips into history, its echoes are those of history, not memory. They are intellectual, and no longer visceral.

What’s wrong with that? From the perspective of the Holocaust commission, nothing; but from another perspective, today’s youngsters are not learning that most of the Jews caught up in the Holocaust died, that all Jews were targeted for extermination, that most people were not “upstanders.” They are not learning about the enormity of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews for being Jews, but rather the goodness offered them by strangers.

David Mallach, a Maplewood resident who is managing director of the Commission on Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York and who previously served as director of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest, put it this way: “The problem is that ironically, by so universalizing Holocaust education and making it so almost pareve — in a sense, everything is included — it loses the very power of what is significant to all distinct groups.

“Saying that a bully on a playground will become a guard at a concentration camp — this is an oversimplification, but it is the way these presentations express it,” Mallach said in a phone conversation. Such a message “trivializes not only the immensity of the Holocaust but the profound significance of the Holocaust having been directed at one group defined as subhuman and worthy of extermination. That is the important message — not that people can be mean or bad, but that society can choose one group to single out that — for historical reasons — has often been Jews. Ironically, that message is lost by universalizing the experience.”

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