Are Educators Teaching Holocaust the Wrong Way?

Last week, the school invited Leo Ullman ’57 to share his story as one of the youngest Holocaust survivors during All-School Meeting. Afterward, as I was walking back with my friends, it occurred to me that Mr. Ullman’s speech was rather “untypical” from all the other survivor’s stories I’ve heard over the years. I was especially surprised by his honesty, where he openly admits that he “unknowingly suffered,” without solely focusing the story on his struggles. It was also the first time I’ve heard anything resembling optimism from a Holocaust survivor. Instead of leaving the audience with a heavy heart, Mr. Ullman ended on a lighthearted note by talking about how he was on the honor roll and serving probation at the same time while he was a student at Andover. In many ways, his storytelling is effective. By offering a truthful perspective, Mr. Ullman gives the student a chance to know him not just as a “victim” but also as an individual living a fulfilling life. 

What Mr. Ullman manages to do, where many educators fail, is talk about Jewish identity. Despite years of creating Holocaust curricula in schools and opening museums showcasing its history, anti-semitism is still a prevalent issue across the United States of America. Have schools been teaching about the Holocaust in the wrong way? As Dara Horn, a writer for “The Atlantic” observed, the docent in the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center had asked the student group to describe the lives of Jews before World War II. A girl answered: “Normal.” Then were the Jews thrown into death camps because they were considered not “normal”? One must then ask, by whose standard? How to define “normal,” or how could one even begin to understand the complexity and depth of Jewish identity if it was rendered as “normal”? By teaching students that Jews are “just like anyone else,” educators are not only erasing Jewish identity but also acknowledging the fact that it is okay to discriminate against a certain group if they do not meet their standard of “normal.” Horn wrote in her article, “Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-semitism Worse?”: 

If we teach that the Holocaust happened because people weren’t nice enough — that they failed to appreciate that humans are all the same, for instance, or to build a just society — we create the self-congratulatory space where anti-Semitism grows. One can believe that humans are all the same while being virulently anti-Semitic, because according to anti-Semites, Jews, with their millennia-old insistence on being different from their neighbors, are the obstacle to humans all being the same. 

Their distinct history, culture, and religion should not be ignored because cultivating empathy towards the same people seems easier, but instead should be valued and emphasized upon. As J. E. Wolfson of the Texas Holocaust, Genocide, and Antisemitism Advisory Commission says, “If you’re teaching about anti-Semitism before you teach about the content of Jewish identity, you’re doing it wrong.” 

Another aspect that struck me as I read Horn’s essay was when she wrote about a student asking whether there are any Jews alive today. Museums do not need another wing for more historical artifacts. Similarly, textbooks need not elaborate more on the rise of Nazis and concentration camps, what students need is to make history relevant to their lives. If the teaching of the Holocaust remains in past tense, “Students are going to see Nazis as aliens who bring with them anti-Semitism when they come to power in ’33, and they take it back away at the end of the Holocaust in 1945” cautioned Charlotte Decoster, Dallas museum’s director. Unlike the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which I went to in ninth grade as a school trip, many Holocaust museums end not in the lives of living Jews, but rather segway into oppression of other minority groups. There are no songs written by Jewish pop singers on display, no crafts made by 21st-century Jewish artists, and no evidence that the Jewish community continues to thrive and prosper. No wonder why some people think Jews have ceased to exist after the Holocaust. 

Mr. Ullman has said in his speech that he thinks his family defeated Hitler. But he didn’t win by surviving, he won by carrying the legacy, by remembering and telling the stories. Because what does Hitler want ultimately? To erase the Jewish people, both physically and in all ways possible, including how they’ve lived and how they continue to live today. Hitler triumphs when we continue to think in terms of labels: when we dehumanize an entire race by forcing them to be “normal,” when we refuse to talk about recent shootings in Holocaust museums because it might make some people feel “uncomfortable.” 

So how should schools teach the Holocaust, or anti-semitism for that matter? Horn offered a promising solution, where she encouraged curiosity to learn about Jewish identity. If there is one thing we learn from the Holocaust, it is how much one group could hate another because of bias and bigotry. What better way to reduce that in modern society than by truly getting to know the Jewish community? “There is no empathy without curiosity, no respect without knowledge, no other way to learn what Jews first taught the world: love your neighbor.” Horn was right about not simply labeling the Jews as “normal” and disregarding their unique and diverse identity, but at the same time, it is also important to recognize that while there are many different religions in the world, different skin tones, languages, and cultures, we are all humans. That’s why Mr. Ullman’s narrative has been especially powerful to me, because he has shown that he, just like anyone else, has done silly things, has landed on the probation list, and has good memories as well as bad. He is who he is today because he refuses to be defined and reduced as solely a Holocaust survivor because he has turned the painful memories into a source of power, a weapon against anti-semitism and hatred.