(November 3, 2020 / JNS) Anyone who still believes that ignorance is bliss hasn’t seen how easily it can be turned into hate.
Nov. 9 will mark 82 years since Kristallnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass.” A night when authorities looked away or even aided the anti-Semitic mobs fanning out across Germany and Austria. Twenty-four hours later, hundreds of Jews were dead, thousands more had been beaten and tens of thousands arrested. And thousands of Jewish schools, hospitals and businesses had been destroyed and 267 synagogues burnt to the ground, their Torah scrolls and other ritual items stolen and prayer books thrown into bonfires or strewn over the streets.
As destructive as it was, few could have predicted where this one terrifying 24 hours in 1938 would lead. It was a night and day that historians say planted the seeds of the Nazi’s Final Solution, which would take 6 million Jewish lives across Europe and North Africa between 1939 and 1945.
As the world prepares to remember the horrors of Kristallnacht, the number of people who know anything about this day of destruction—and its aftermath—is on the decline. Indeed a recent survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany reported that 63 percent of American millennials (born 1981-1996) and Gen Z’ers (born 1997-2012) surveyed did not know that Nazis and their accomplices murdered 6 million Jews during years of World War II and the Holocaust.
The Nazis intended Leon Greenman to be one of them. Born in England, he was living with his wife, Else, and their infant son, Barney, in Holland in January of 1943 when, after all efforts to prove their British citizenship failed, they were taken to Auschwitz, a train journey of 36 hours.
The family was soon separated. “I could see Else clearly for she was wearing a thick red cape over her head and shoulders to keep her warm,” Greenman recalled many years later. “She gestured a kiss to me with her hand partly holding up Barney so that I could see him also.” He never saw his wife or son again.
But the Nazis judged Greenman himself worthy to live for his labor. After more than a year in Auschwitz and Birkenau, he was deported to Monowitz concentration camp, where he worked for 18 months until he was forced with thousands of other men on a series of marches that eventually landed him in Buchenwald. In April of 1945, he was among the 21,000 walking skeletons liberated there by American military forces.
‘We have a real sense of immediacy now’
At the same time that knowledge of such Holocaust experiences is dropping, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial around the world are sharply up. Last year, the United States saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the 40 years since tracking began, totaling more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment, according to the Anti-Defamation League. This includes the Passover shooting at Chabad of Poway in Southern California. An attack and shooting in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J.; and a Chanukah machete attack in Monsey, N.Y., plus a string of violence in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The folks at Yad Vashem don’t think this is a coincidence, and they decided that doing something about this level of ignorance—and the Holocaust-denying and anti-Semitism it feeds—is a whole lot better than wringing their institutional hands over it.
So they teamed up with the University College of London (UCL) with its international reputation for innovative methods of teaching the Holocaust to create “Teaching the Holocaust.”
The free online course took nearly two years to produce, says course manager Yad Vashem’s Sandra Rosenfeld. And though it’s initially geared to help educators with the important but delicate task of teaching the Holocaust, “we designed it to be available to everyone,” she adds, from parents and grandparents looking for a way to explain it to the next generation, to clergy of all faiths to youth group leaders and the general public seeking a way to begin to understand what really happened.
Woven throughout the three-week curriculum (three hours of lessons a week) are the moving human stories of those who, like Glassman, experienced the horrors of the camps.
“We tell the story of the Holocaust intertwined with real people’s stories in their own words, and they give such a personal feeling to this history,” says Rosenfeld, whose father was a survivor from the former Yugoslavia. “That’s why I know how important it is to get this story out, so people can understand what hatred can lead to.”
To help teachers and others present the Holocaust, “we had to look at how to present the reality that doesn’t shield young people from the horrors, but doesn’t lose the human story or traumatize them,” says Ruth-Anne Lenga, program director of the UCL’s Center for Holocaust Education who was also involved in making the course.
And with the upswing in anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial and distortion, as well as fewer young people aware of the Holocaust, the timing of such a course is crucial, adds Yad Vashem spokesperson Simmy Allen. “We see education as a silver bullet. Knowing the immense damage hate can do is the best weapon we have against hate. And we have a real sense of immediacy now.”
“We tell the story of the Holocaust intertwined with real people’s stories in their own words, and they give such a personal feeling to this history.”
Expanding the potential audience for the course is what Allen terms “the COVID-19 effect, with many more people at home and used to learning online now.” It’s resulted in greatly increased online engagement—in the last nine months, Yad Vashem has gotten more hits on its platforms—its courses, online exhibitions, Facebook offerings and interactive Zoom events than any other time in the museum’s 67-year history.
The pandemic is having another, more somber effect as well; since it targets the elderly, it’s cutting away at the number of living survivors. In fact, the very first Israeli fatality back in March was 88-year-old Hungarian-born survivor Aryeh Even.
“With fewer and fewer survivors around, we’re on an end-run race against the clock to catch every last eyewitness testimony, to make sure we have every last name,” says Allen. “This has been Yad Vashem’s mission from day one.”
‘Informed vigilance and steadfast determination’
At least one observer is glad to hear who’s helping tell this story. “Yad Vashem is not afraid of keeping the Shoah central in the teaching of the Holocaust instead of turning it into a general study of genocide and current events,” says Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of American Judaism, among other titles. “So many other organizations are afraid that, unless it’s made ‘relevant’ to today’s student’s reality that it won’t be teachable.”
Without this expert help in crafting an accurate Holocaust-studies curriculum, many teachers who go online looking for materials they can use can easily pick up slick “lesson plans” from Holocaust deniers, he adds. “So I hope many people, especially educators who can influence whole generations to come, take the course because Yad Vashem has the expertise and resources needed to tell it right.”
Ruth Wisse, a retired Harvard University Professor of Yiddish and Literature and Comparative Professor of Literature and author of such historical analyses as Jews and Power, cautions that Holocaust education needs to be done in context to a broader understanding of world history.
“To teach about the Holocaust and get it right is a huge challenge for educators at all grade levels, for everyone.”
“You could not have better people than the ones at Yad Vashem involved in telling the story of the Holocaust sensitively and intelligently,” she says. “But unless these young people have some sort of idea of world history and how the Jews fit into it over the centuries, and most of them do not, including many of my Harvard undergrads who’d had no history course after Grade 9, they have no context to understand what happened in the Holocaust, how it happened and why.”
Still, in the spirit of preventing another such atrocity and to honor those who suffered this unspeakable crime, the story of the Holocaust calls out to be understood in the most honest way possible, says Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev.
“We are seeing an increase in targeted hate crimes against Jews and Jewish sites,” he says. “We must combat the resurgence of these dangerous trends throughout society with informed vigilance and steadfast determination.”
And, he adds, through education.
It’s something Greenman himself was dedicated to. After liberation and recuperating in France, he returned to England and was reunited with his father and two brothers, the only other members of his family to survive. For 52 years, Greenman spoke to anyone who would listen—taking groups to Auschwitz to see the place firsthand and try to come to grips with what took place there. He lived until 2008, never remarrying.
“To teach about the Holocaust and get it right is a huge challenge for educators at all grade levels, for everyone,” adds UCL’s Lenga. “But if there is one thing we have learned, it’s that knowledge is power.”
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