How to teach the Holocaust going forward

Is the Holocaust, it is often asked, any more important than other demonstrations of inhumanity in the world? And what of the co-opting of its messages for political purposes?

The “Hall of Names” commemorating victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Photo: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.
The “Hall of Names” commemorating victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Photo: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Imagine that you are a Jewish doctor in a Nazi concentration camp. About 100 of your fellow inmates suffer from diabetes, and you only have a limited supply of insulin, with no guarantee of more on the way. Do you give each patient the same amount regardless of individual need, knowing that all of them will likely die within a month? Or do you reserve your supply for those with a greater chance of survival, meaning that those with severe diabetes will die much sooner as a result?

The “Hall of Names” commemorating victims of the Holocaust at Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.

Or imagine that you are the Greek Jewish teenager from Salonika who’s picked up enough German from polishing the boots of the Nazi officers occupying your city that when you are eventually deported to Auschwitz, your linguistic abilities land you a low-level clerical job, instead of a spot in the gas chamber. In the camp administrative office, you have access to the index-card system that assigns each prisoner to a different slave-labor brigade—most of which involves punishing physical work in the freezing outdoors, with the risk of frostbite, pneumonia, beatings or even execution for those deemed by the guards to be slacking off.

One of your fellow prisoners, who is near death, begs you to sneak his card into the box of a different brigade, one with lighter duties. As long as your Nazi overlords don’t catch you, it’s in your power to do that. But if you decide to help your friend, then you have to switch his card out with that of another person from the same brigade, and then that person spends his or her days facing snow, ice and death from starvation. What do you do? And, come to think of it, how on earth did you end up in this position?

The above documented examples are what many Holocaust scholars and educators like to describe as “choiceless choices”—appalling moral dilemmas faced by a people that were systematically dehumanized by the Nazi regime, and who knew that they faced death at any second. They formed part of an intense, enriching four days that I spent with a small group of other writers and journalists at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust commemoration museum, memorial and institute that was established in 1953 through a law passed by the Knesset.

We were there to study and discuss many aspects of the Holocaust—from “choiceless choices” to archive management to Holocaust art—but we did so from a starting point that the way we teach younger generations about the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe and North Africa is changing radically.

Holocaust survivors have all reached advanced ages, meaning that there won’t be any in-person testimonies to listen to within a few years (even if we are left with their accounts captured on video, holograms or other forms of visual reproduction.) Since 1945, countless other genocides have wreaked havoc in the Balkans, much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, while a few of those that occurred before—the Herero nation slaughtered by German colonists in southern Africa, the Armenians annihilated by Turkey—to this day remain under-recognized. Is the Holocaust, it is often asked, any more important than these other demonstrations of inhumanity in the world?

And there’s more, much more. In countries like Lithuania and Ukraine, wartime collaborators with the Nazis are now being lionized as anti-Communist heroes. The Israeli government walks along an undignified diplomatic tightrope with these states, having to balance present-day bilateral relations with guardianship of the Holocaust’s truths. Elsewhere, some Holocaust-commemoration activities are so fixated with a universalist approach that basic facts about the Jewish character of the genocide—like the young diarist Anne Frank having been Jewish, and being deported because she was Jewish—are buried in a bid to be “meaningful” to “everyone.”

Meanwhile, in Western Europe and the United States, social protest movements like the “yellow vests” movement in France and the Women’s March in America have been penetrated by Holocaust-deniers, anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongers and advocates of Israel’s elimination. And that’s not to mention those who don’t deny the Holocaust, but who do delight in invoking the Nazis as a metaphor for Israeli policies towards the Palestinians or go the whole hog by—check out the French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala—making fun of it in front of receptive crowds in theaters.

In the recent past, perhaps the key Holocaust debate was why the Allied powers did so little to stop it. During our group’s exchange with Avner Shalev, the chair of Yad Vashem who pioneered its renewal over the last two decades, he related the story of guiding President George W. Bush around the institute’s impressive museum. When they reached the exhibit about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust, Bush turned to his then national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and asked: “Why didn’t FDR bomb the camps? He should have.”

But that burning question has been superseded by an even more vexing one: Why should we seek to educate about the Holocaust in a world where the phrase “Never Again” sounds farcical to many people? There are many answers, and to my mind, there are three key ones.

First, there are still some survivors of the Holocaust. I think specifically of a man named Albert de Leeuw and 150 other former child laborers in the Amsterdam ghetto, who have still not received proper compensation from the German government, and who continue fighting for that recognition in the twilight of their lives. To abandon them now would be shameful.

Second, however much people believe politics has changed with the rise of populism on left and right in the last several years, the Holocaust remains a truly foundational moment of our era and the source of many of the international institutions that, for good or ill, manage international relations today. Look back and you will see that the Holocaust changed a good deal more than we realize—for example, how we look at art and music, or our relationship with technology and our agonizing about inclusiveness in our society. As we prepare in 2019 to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, expect much more reflection on all that.

Thirdly, if we are to teach our children the basic facts of the Holocaust, they can be boiled down like this: Six million Jews died because they were dehumanized for being Jews. Many of them resisted, in a variety of ways. And far too many were faced with the “choiceless choices” that symbolize the reality of the Holocaust.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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