Teaching the universal lessons of the Shoah to the world

"Students today are better informed about Holocaust than ever," says Yad Vashem educator.

Yad Vashem Museum_311 (photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Yad Vashem Museum_311
(photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Shulamit Imber of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem faces a gargantuan challenge when she goes to work.
As the pedagogical head of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, she plays an important part in determining how future generations in Israel and around the world learn about the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their allies during World War II.
“Historians tell us about the past,” Imber told a group of reporters on a tour of the museum on Monday. “The educator tries to give it meaning.”
Throughout her career, the 56-year-old educator – who comes from a family of survivors – has taught countless teachers and students about the persecution of Jews before and during the war. Last year 1,400 educators came to Jerusalem to take part in seminars she helped put together with other museum officials, and she thinks their hard work is paying off.
Students around the world are more knowledgeable about the Holocaust than when she joined the museum in 1986, she said.
“We asked students in America, together with the Anti-Defamation League, to say what they knew about the Holocaust and the lessons they learned from it and we saw there was a rise their knowledge,” she said.
She attributes this rise in part to formal education but also to the place of prominence the Holocaust has in popular culture.
Although the Holocaust ended 67 years ago when the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, Imber said it the way it is taught is constantly changing. Nowadays educators try to balance individual stories with a general overview of events. At the renewed main exhibit at Yad Vashem, the faces, names and personal items of the victims are highlighted so that visitors can connect with their individual plight.
The new exhibit also illustrates how Jewish communities lived before the Holocaust, rather than focusing solely on their demise. For instance, the old display at Yad Vashem began in 1933 with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Visitors to the new exhibit, however, are greeted by a video montage showing everyday life in Jewish communities across Europe before the war.
Some say the next big frontier in Holocaust education is the Arab world, an issue Imber said was extremely sensitive.
“The conflict raises many things, it touches directly on many emotions, and some are quick to draw comparisons [between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust],” she said. “Some people think Israel became a state because of the Holocaust.”
For these reasons and others most Arabs in Israel do not study the Holocaust at school. But Imber said Yad Vashem was currently working with seven Arab communities in Israel to teach local students about the Holocaust, and she hopes to increase such cooperation in the future.
“Some groups of Israeli Arab students have even traveled to Poland to visit the camps,” she said.