An assistant principal at a Tennessee school compares COVID-19 vaccine cards to wearing a yellow star. A Dallas school mandates that students learning about the Holocaust be exposed to “opposing perspectives.” Third-graders in a Washington D.C. school are ordered to reenact scenes from the Holocaust, including the digging of mass graves.
These stories, and those not yet on our radar, show that it is not enough for schools merely to expose students to Holocaust history. We must ensure that they also teach it well. To do this, we need to understand how our current efforts are falling short.
Although educational perversions of Holocaust memory abound, I believe that they generally fall into one of three categories: the downplaying of Holocaust history to avoid addressing uncomfortable topics, the tendency to teach the Holocaust as a monolithic experience and the desire of educators to compare the Holocaust to contemporary instances of injustice.
Many educators soften Holocaust curricula by highlighting stories that end in survival or place a disproportionate emphasis on righteous resistance to Nazi authority.
One needs to look no further than the bestseller list to see novels like The Book Thief—often taught in schools—to witness the prevalence of this fallacy. At the end of the book, the “righteous” Germans die, and the only Jew survives.
Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger brilliantly explains the danger of understanding the Holocaust through the paradigm of survival, saying, “Since by definition the survivor is alive, the reader inevitably tends to separate, or deduct, this one life, which she has come to know, from the million [that] remain anonymous. You feel, even if you don't think it: Well, there is a happy ending after all … I was with them when they were alive, but now we are separated. I write in their memory, and yet my account unavoidably turns into some kind of triumph of life … The normal fate had been death; every one of us was an exception.”
Second, many educators exploit figures like Anne Frank to represent an event that transcends individuals. Perhaps most upsetting about the spotlight on Anne Frank is the relentless employment of her quote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
She wrote these words before she was deported to Auschwitz and eventually Bergen-Belsen, where she experienced starvation and freezing conditions, and ultimately succumbed to typhus. Teaching the Holocaust through the paradigm of her famous quote is not only a misrepresentation of Holocaust history, but tone deaf to the horrors she endured following her deportation. Dara Horn, award-winning author of People Love Dead Jews, notes that this line “flatters us.” Horn states, “It makes us feel forgiven for these lapses in our civilization that lead to piles of murdered girls. … We have absolution from our sins.”
Finally, too many educators draw comparisons between the Holocaust and contemporary events. Not only do such comparisons imply that Holocaust history is not relevant enough to be taught in its own right, but they also tread the line of comparative pain. Nobody—educator or student—has the right to retroactively compare or equivocate different horrors. Contemporary injustices can be acknowledged as gross violations of human rights without being analogized to gas chambers. No two atrocities are the same, each one is comprised of unique lived experiences. To draw comparisons ultimately erodes at the legacy of each injustice as a distinct manifestation of evil in the arc of human history.
This Yom HaShoah marks 79 years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We are living through a pivotal moment in the grand scheme of Holocaust memory. Soon we will no longer have access to live survivor testimony and instead will need rely exclusively on documents and film. The pedagogical choices we make at this moment in time may inform the precedent of Holocaust education in the coming decades. This is an enormous responsibility for our educators to shoulder.
To establish an effective framework for Holocaust curricula, we must reconcile the shortcomings in our current educational methods. On this year’s Yom HaShoah, I encourage everyone to engage with Holocaust history, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
Micah Ross is a sophomore at Emory University studying Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. She is also a Ronald S. Lauder Fellow: an international network of top Jewish student leaders seeking to represent and advocate on behalf of the global Jewish community on campus.