Teaching the Holocaust: Centering Narratives and Jewish Erasure

Let’s talk for a minute about how we teach the Holocaust, and how we center that narrative.

When I was in Elementary School, Colorado had an “Anne Frank Writing Contest” every year. In 3rd Grade my essay took first place regional, and either 1st or 3rd in the state (would you believe it’s been almost 30 years and I cannot quite remember which?). In 5th grade my essay took 3rd place regional.

I only remember one of the prompts, because it stuck in my craw. The prompt for that year for essays was essentially “What would you have been doing during the Holocaust?” That annoyed me, because it was such a boring answer for me. The answer was hiding, or dying, or hiding and then dying. And so I wrote an essay on that topic, and I think that’s the one that won 3rd place because I don’t think they were thrilled with a fifth grader getting a little bit uppity with them (but also I was very good).

Later on, I’ve reflected on the assumptions inherent in that question. It assumes that the person responding will not be Jewish (or Roma, disabled, etc.), and so they will be responding from an exterior viewpoint. It centers the essays in the viewpoint of a bystander to the Holocaust, rather than a victim. And, ultimately, it rewards that viewpoint.

I’m willing to give a lot of latitude here. You have to come up with an essay prompt every year, and this was like the fourth year of the competition–the easy ones were probably the first three years, right? So now you’re having to reach, and come up with topics which are engaging for begrudging elementary school students. Having been a teacher of begrudging elementary school students, I am aware of how difficult that is.

But it is also part of a pattern, part of what we talked about with Maus versus the other literary offerings available. The Holocaust is not a uniquely Jewish tragedy, in that we shared it with so many other groups of people; but it is also a fairly specifically Jewish tragedy, as we were the first targets spoken of and the most loudly spoken of. And a plurality and likely even majority of the victims (n.b. we will never know exactly how many of every group were killed; six million of twelve million is an estimate on both ends, but it is an educated estimate and if you tell me not that many Jews died you will be banned from reading this).

The Nazis did not, as David Baddiel points out, target Europeans who happened to be Jewish; they targeted Jews. They called us rats, diseased, communists, “internationalists,” elites, foreigners. They talked about how we, first and foremost, were polluting their countries and their bloodlines with out intermarriages and our presence and our existence. They asked what to do with us as a problem for the nations of Europe to solve, and they had a solution for it waiting as soon as the camps could be built.

Remove that and you’re not teaching the Holocaust. You’re teaching about genocide, possibly. You’re teaching about tragedy, certainly. But you’re not teaching about the Holocaust. Because when you make it generic bigotry, when you don’t want to talk about the hatred the Nazis had not just for anyone who opposed them but for whole ethnicities and bloodlines, you’ve removed the specific tragedy of the Shoah.

There was a recent poll in which 25% of Germans polled believed their family members who were alive at the time had helped Jews in some capacity during the Holocaust. In reality there are 27,921 recognized by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, Israel’s award for those of non-Jewish descent who risked their lives to assist Jews during the Holocaust. Out of a population of roughly 450 million people in Europe before WWII, that means in actuality only .006% of people risked their lives to assist us. Even if we throw in everyone who helped in any way, throw in all the people who helped because they were bribed to, and assume a huge underreporting…do we think that number even gets to 0.1%?

Even if we’re only taking Germany’s roughly 80 million before the war and assuming EVERY SINGLE Righteous lived in Germany, it’s 0.035%. And yet 25% of Germans, a country which teaches the Holocaust very directly and without the USA’s desire to “think of the children” and tone it down, think their family members helped.

How much worse do you think it is when we teach American children about the Holocaust as just generic bigotry, and focus on the 0.006%? How much of an outsized impact do they grow up thinking the helpers had? How much do you think they grow up thinking the atrocities weren’t that widespread, when so many people helped?

This is a country where also last week a school assignment went around asking students to write a letter to President Andrew Jackson from someone who wanted the Cherokee removed, and where last year textbooks circulated implying that the Trail of Tears was voluntary. Where we can still find example after example of lessons treating slavery as at worst a mixed bag if not outright beneficial.

And that’s without considering that the Venn diagram of the people in Tennessee arguing at the School Board meeting that they shouldn’t use Maus because of 8 swear words and the people arguing that we can’t remove statues of Confederate Generals is just a circle.

Teaching history matters. Teaching specific history, warts and all, matters. Because when history is reduced to only the feel good parts, the stories about heroic people who are doing good things, we push the victims out of their own story. We force them to be nothing more than a vehicle for our own feelings about heroism, forgiveness, and righteousness.

Teaching the Holocaust without the ugly, specific, and Jewish details gives us generic stories about bigotry to be overcome that give us nothing to prepare for when it happens again. Because the only weapons we have to fight against it are the lessons we learn from it; and we should be very suspicious of the people who want to limit what lessons we can learn, for any reason.

(If you like this and want to buy me a coffee, I’ve set up a Ko-fi because if I’m going to go viral why not. https://ko-fi.com/mpark6288).

One thought on “Teaching the Holocaust: Centering Narratives and Jewish Erasure”

  1. In before anti-Semitic comments.

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