Just a Thought: On Holocaust education

While we are a generation that is Shoah-aware, we are also Shoah-ignorant.

American film director and producer Steven Spielberg at the Righteous Among the Nations Award Ceremony in Washington, DC, in January (photo credit: REUTERS)
American film director and producer Steven Spielberg at the Righteous Among the Nations Award Ceremony in Washington, DC, in January
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 We are a very peculiar generation in terms of our relationship with the Shoah.
On the one hand, the Shoah weighs heavily upon us and affects our minds, thoughts and actions in ways that psychoanalysts will be studying for generations to come. There is hardly a Jewish newspaper printed in the world, or even an Israeli daily, that does not mention the word Holocaust in some form or fashion in every single issue. We think of the Shoah every time we renew the family passports. When we throw away perfectly good food or sweep crumbs from under the table, the thought of starvation in the Shoah comes to mind. We think of the Shoah whenever we see a particular mustache or hand gesture and fear one when a politician uses certain forms of rhetoric or speech. For some of us, even the sound of the German language brings the Shoah to mind. The Holocaust is so pervasive in our community that many fear it has become a part of the religion of Jews, adding to the Law of Moses a 614th command: Remember! These examples though, are actually signs of success. It means that Shoah consciousness has permeated even a Jewish experience such as ours, which could not be more different from the realities of Nazism. Our schools have done their part. Hollywood has done theirs. Those movie moguls really hit it out of the ballpark in the amount of good quality movies depicting the destruction of European Jewry. It has been said before that there is no business like Shoah business, and Hollywood has definitely supplied the merchandise.
YET, THERE is the other hand.
While we are a generation that is Shoah-aware, we are also Shoah-ignorant. How many of us even know what the word Holocaust means? What’s the difference between that term and the word Shoah? We may speak of the SS, but how many of us know what the letters stand for or the difference between them and the brown-uniformed Nazis? Even the word Nazi, where does that term come from? What does it mean? What’s the difference between Himmler, Goering, and Hess? We may have mourned the six million, but how many of us have any real notion of how we came up with the number? We often talk about Hitler gassing six million Jews, but the reality is that there were millions of Jews shot with bullets or dead from starvation and disease who never saw the inside of a gas chamber. Not only that, Hitler himself never visited a death camp, nor actually physically harmed a Jew in his life! Ironically, the nameless camp guard was personally responsible for the death of tens of thousands under his watch, while Hitler himself kept a safe distance and never got his hands dirty.
Everyone has heard of Auschwitz and Treblinka, but did you know that there was a death camp called Belzec in which close to a million of our people were killed? I had not even heard of the camp until I pursued Holocaust Studies as a graduate student. (Part of the reason I had not heard of it was that barely anyone actually survived to speak of it.) The answers to these questions, while important, are dwarfed by another question: What does the refrain “Never Again!” mean? Never again what? What exactly is it that should never happen again? Is it the systematic wholesale murder of the Jewish people that is being referred to? So does that mean that other atrocities and injustices are okay? If Never Again means that no people, no matter who they are, should suffer, how many of us are hypocrites for chanting those words while doing nothing for those people? You must certainly be aware that there are millions of people suffering right now whose pain can be alleviated if we were to just decide that it is important enough to us. How dare we sit in comfort while others suffer! WHICH BRINGS us to another question: What is the purpose of Holocaust education? Is it our goal just to memorialize the dead; to make some macabre monument for those who have none? Is it to educate the young about the failures of an existence in exile? Is it to instill fear and loathing in our children about the “big bad goyim” out to get us? If so, how do we properly frame our discussions of the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives and property to save Jews? I’d like to believe (though I can never know for sure) that if I were a single man, that I would risk my life to save a family who needed hiding. Yet I am sure as a husband and father responsible for my children, that when the time came I would not risk my family’s life to save another family. What does that say about me? One might say that this admission only means that I’m human, but I am a human who has been teaching Holocaust studies for over a decade. If even I, who confront the questions of the Holocaust on a daily basis, would not be willing to risk the life of my family to save another’s, then what again is the purpose of Holocaust education? Nevertheless, in a world of complete and utter darkness and moral bankruptcy, more than 26,000 gentiles made the choice to risk their own lives to save the life of a Jew. Scholars have studied these people to try to understand their motivations.
They came from all walks of life: illiterate peasants, diplomats, captains of industry, farmers, nuns, priests, atheists, aristocracy, scoundrels, and at least one Muslim.
Most started out as bystanders with no intention of getting involved, but when the opportunity to save Jews presented itself, they had to make a split-second decision to extend aid or to ignore the plea.
These men and women chose to risk everything and help Jews. After extensive studies and interviews, the only common denominator between these disparate populations of Righteous Gentiles was their sense of humanity. It was not socioeconomic standing, religion or level of education that influenced their decision.
Which leads us to an answer to our question: The point of Holocaust education is to teach us to find the humanity in ourselves and in others.
It is correct that the Jews have no place in the world other than Israel. It is true that we live in a world of Esav soneh et Ya’acov (Esau hates Jacob). It is right that we have only ourselves to rely on. But those lessons belong to theology, Zionism, and Jewish history.
We Jews have always been the vehicle through which God teaches the world. It is our fate and destiny as being part of the Chosen People. Perhaps we were singled out in the Shoah for that very reason? If Holocaust studies do not teach us to see the face of God in every single human being, then we have failed to give over the lesson of the Shoah.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.