One of the things that came up in my talk last night was the question of what does one do in the classroom to use the Holocaust as a jumping point to address current world or national issues. In other words, what is the purpose of teaching the Holocaust?
Another question that always comes up, and came up last night as well, is how can people deny that the Holocaust ever took place?
These are very good questions and ones that I have wrestled with for some time, myself. I guess in formulating my response, I would have to consider my experiences, and relate one to the other.
1. When you really, really study and think about the Holocaust, as I have, the more it becomes clear that the subject is so expansive, there is so much that you do not know. I consider myself fairly well informed and educated on the subject, but as I stated in a previous post, KNOWLEDGE is not the same as UNDERSTANDING. So I guess I will defer to the survivor I know, asked the same question by a student, after giving his testimony to young people: “There will be always be those who deny or minimize the extent of the Holocaust. How can one even begin to understand the magnitude of the crime?”
It IS quite unbelievable, in a sense.
Which begs the question: How could the enormity of this watershed event, the greatest crime committed in the history of the world, happen?
The answer, simple but again in a general sense, too true. Mass ignorance is not an excuse. People knew.
In reality, few people gave a damn. Political leaders had more important priorities. Ordinary people went about their business.
2. Now the extrapolation*. Today in many schools the Holocaust is simplistically packaged up and sold to promote the cause du jour, whatever it may be, from bullying in the schoolyard to consequences of gun control. We boil down the causes to bullying gone wild, or handing over our guns, saying “See? This is what happens”.
Here is the eye opener for many educators out there.
The cause of the Holocaust was not a simple issue of “intolerance”.
Jewish and gentile communities lived side by side and interacted for hundreds of years. Men, women, and little children were not “bullied” to death. They were murdered on an industrial scale.
3. The only lesson I will promote in the classroom is to outline the enormity of the complexity, to go beyond just advocating “tolerance” and “diversity training” to make an attempt of a systematic examination of the abrogation of personal moral responsibility in the face of an agenda that was made quite clear from the outset.
So what does this look like? Let’s take a quick look.
a. Mein Kampf was published in 1925. And Hitler never killed a single person in anger by his own hand. There is a reason why, in touring our national Holocaust museum, you will find few references in the exhibits to Hitler alone.
b. Mass murder didn’t just “happen”. There were a lot of logistical problems that had to be overcome. Statisticians, bankers, businessmen, engineers and architects, mechanics and clerks sold the tabulating machines, arranged the train schedules, drew up the gas chambers, tested the crematoria, installed the hardware, and pushed the paper that meant life or death. Teachers taught lessons handed down by the state, doctors and nurses learned how to kill. Lawyers and judges perverted the notion of justice. Town cops and public servants with families back home were drafted into extermination brigades and became murderers of women and children. The few who refused to pull the trigger were not punished severely.
As I was packing up to leave, a doctor friend who attended my talk stopped me and told me that what I was doing was important, if only as a reminder, I suppose. She stated that in a recent public information event on the Affordable Care Act, someone rose and exclaimed with passion that the those without health insurance should be allowed to die. All around her, the statement was greeted with an outpouring of applause.
I’ll refrain from analogies-but, what, then, was it that she took away from the lecture?
Maybe it was the point that there are no simple explanations or lessons, that that there were no monsters, that to label a perpetrator as a monster is to strip him/her of our common link- humanity- which perversely, somehow absolves him, the nonhuman, of responsibility.
Maybe we are not so far removed, after all.
As I was leaving, in a quiet tone, she said:
“The veneer is very thin.”
*If you are an educator looking for more guidance, here is a a short video I made for the teaching of the Holocaust, according to USHMM guidelines.