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Never Forget: Why We Need Holocaust Education
Exploring the value – and challenges – of meaningfully teaching about an emotionally-charged history
We were stunned by survey results in a recent New York Times1 article indicating that “many adults lack basic knowledge” of what happened in the Holocaust.
According the Times report:
Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
The survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also indicated that an overwhelming majority of participants - 93% - agree that all students should be taught about the Holocaust in school. That seems like a surprising disconnect, which made us wonder: Why do Americans feel so strongly about teaching Holocaust awareness? What are the challenges of including this topic in the curriculum? How can students be encouraged to engage more thoughtfully and meaningfully with this history?
The importance of teaching Holocaust awareness
To answer the first question, an article by Monique Eckmann, “Exploring the relevance of Holocaust education for human rights education2,” delved deeply into why Holocaust awareness should be taught in school. While concluding that Holocaust education can be valuable within studies on the human rights, Eckmann also points out other subjects where students can benefit from historical awareness of this history.
“Examples of such frameworks are intercultural education, antiracist education, and education for democratic citizenship,” she noted. “For example, antiracist education is impossible to carry out without some attention to the Holocaust; on the other hand, antiracist education is not limited to the topic of the Holocaust, as it includes present forms of racism.”
Likewise, human rights is a broad, expansive topic that includes but is not limited to Holocaust education. However, Holocaust awareness, Eckmann argued, absolutely provides critical insight and understanding of human rights, particularly in the context of four critical elements:
1) Knowing the historical facts and looking at the process that led up to the Holocaust. How did it happen?
2) The aftermath: exploring the history of memory and the diversity of historical narratives.
3) Understanding current human rights violations in the modern world and our own societies.
4) Using this history to challenge myths about the roles of our own countries and reconciling with our own nation’s pasts.
The challenge of getting Holocaust awareness into the curriculum
So, if 93% of us agree that teaching awareness in school is important, yet so few of us are well-informed about this history, it made me wonder if schools are struggling to teach about the Holocaust. An article by David Lindquist called “A Necessary Holocaust Pedagogy: Teaching the Teachers” addressed the challenges experienced by teachers who cover – or want to cover –this topic in their classrooms.
“[T]eaching the Holocaust involves unique demands, pressures, and potential pitfalls,” he pointed out, “…as teachers consider the if, the what, and how of Holocaust education as well as the implications that arise from any meaningful and appropriate study of the event.”
The problem, according to critics cited in Lindquist’s research, is that while many teachers feel compelled to teach about the Holocaust, without the proper focus or depth of knowledge, the impact of this history can be diminished. In other cases, teachers might feel intimidated by the complexity of the topic and avoid including it in their curriculum. Teachers also expressed concern about being able to “present such an emotionally charged subject in a way that does justice to the topic.”
In response to such concerns, Linquist explores the value of professional development to provide training, support and historical information for teachers as they incorporate Holocaust studies into such courses as U.S. history, world history, world cultures, government, contemporary world events, literature, and art and art history.
Tools and resources for students, researchers and educators
“The Holocaust is perhaps the most compelling topic studied in American schools today,” Linquist claimed. “Many students state that their study of the event is the most intensive and meaningful investigation in which they were involved during their academic careers.”
Students want to learn about the Holocaust, and the importance of Holocaust education is clear. So how might teachers confidently incorporate Holocaust studies across the curriculum in meaningful, engaging, informative ways?
Diverse content, including video, primary sources including survivors’ testimonies, newspapers and periodicals, books and more, provide abundant, in-depth, multidimensional support for students, researchers and educators learning about the Holocaust.
For examples of how these resources can incorporate Holocaust education into various subjects, the ProQuest blog offers several examples that might inspire faculty:
Holocaust Survivors’ Messages of Hope for the Future – Explore the psychological concept of “Altruism Born of Suffering” and the impact of kindness in crises to promote empathy and healing among trauma survivors.
Exposing Women’s Experiences During the Holocaust - Ravensbrück was the largest concentration camp for women, where horrific medical experiments were conducted on prisoners. After World War II, it was largely forgotten but here are resources to help us remember.
Excavation of Death Camp Sites Reveal Clues about Holocaust Victims – New information continues to be unearthed about what happened during the Holocaust. In 2017, archeologists discovered personal artifacts revealing clues about the 250,000 lives that ended at the Sobibór concentration camp.
The Complex History of Holocaust Survivors in Latin America - Coming from overlapping disciplines and specialties – including history, philosophy, literature, visual arts and memory studies – seven scholars discussed Jewish populations who arrived in Latin America before, during and after World War II.
Oral Histories from Holocaust Survivors Shed Light on Gay History – A researchers share struggles in sourcing information related to homosexuality in the Holocaust and review resources to illuminate the lesser-known narrative of gay persecution in the Holocaust.
He warned the world about genocide. The world ignored him. – Nearly 50 years after the end of World War II, brutal ethnic extremism in Rwanda unfolded, resulting in the slaughter of approximately 800,000 people. How did this happen?
Students Gain Valuable Insight with Access to Genocide Testimonies and Genocide Testimony Enriches Learning of French are case studies which demonstrate in detail ways actual students and faculty are exploring Holocaust education.
2. Eckmann, M. (2010). Exploring the relevance of holocaust education for human rights education. Prospects, 40(1), 7-16. Available from ProQuest Central.
3. Lindquist, D. H. (2007). A necessary holocaust pedagogy: Teaching the teachers. Issues in Teacher Education, 16(1), 21-36. Available from ProQuest Central.