The Shoah Memorial has no blueprint for teaching the history of the Holocaust and in no way seeks to dictate any arbitrary teaching method. Based on our own experience, which we would like to share, we are simply offering some guidance on how the subject can be taught.
Talking about the Holocaust in a secondary school class has consequences. Many teachers — and we entirely agree — consider this episode of the Second World War a singular event in the history of our times. The number of victims, who they were — men, women, children, the very old and the very young, the sick and the healthy, etc. — how they were killed and the administrative and industrial machine that was set in motion to accomplish what seems to be beyond human understanding give the Holocaust an emotional dimension exceeding anything students would have experienced until then and anything that teachers have taught them during the school year.
Between 1970 and 1980, the topic of the Holocaust was broached very superficially, if at all. Today it cannot be ignored. This class is often one of the most emotionally charged in any school year. That is actually the problem. Should the Holocaust be taught as a subject that must be given particular emphasis, charged with exceptional emotional content compared to other chapters taught during the year, or should it be simply integrated into a logical, chronological continuity without singling it out from the rest of the course? We believe that the Holocaust’s tragic dimensions and the questions it cannot fail to raise mean that the subject cannot be just one among others. However, certain precautions must be taken to avoid possible pitfalls.
Clearly, teaching about the Holocaust can and should call on emotion and play on feelings, but these are not in themselves the subjects of a history class. To stop at emotions is not teaching history. For example, listening to the story told by a death camp survivor cannot be in itself the sole teaching of the Holocaust for secondary school students, but it is a highly useful educational supplement. Reading poignant accounts of what happened to children hidden from their persecutors, tragic tales of Polish ghettos or of survivors whose entire families were annihilated are all useful. We do not feel, however, that they should be the main focus of a class on the extermination of the Jews. Teachers can use such writings as supporting documents that help to put the overall goals pursued by the Holocaust’s perpetrators into perspective.
We feel that teaching the Holocaust should not simply become a course on ethics, a lesson on moral principles, which could be summed up as guilt-inducing injunction to “never again” embark on that course. The Holocaust is a historical event and must be seen as such. The lesson to be passed on to young people is that extermination is the ultimate phase in a process that the American historian Raul Hilberg outlined very clearly: definition, exclusion, spoliation, concentration and liquidation.
Precision is important. The words used must be exactly right and clearly understood. For example, teachers must be careful when using words adopted by the executioners themselves and systematically put them in quotation marks; expressions describing the various kinds of camps (internment, concentration, death or extermination camps) must help to underline the different treatments meted out to detainees. Teachers should also emphasize the vocabulary the Nazis used to describe the Jews to dehumanize them, its consequences and their attempt to cloak the horror and scale of a plan to murder millions of people in mundane euphemisms.
In our view, teachers should emphasize that the decision to go through with the “Final Solution” came relatively late (late summer-early fall 1941) and connect it not just to the creeping nature of the violence and anti-Semitic speeches, but also to the war in the East against “Judeo-Bolshevism”. The connection with the massacres the Einsatzgruppen perpetrated on the eastern front is worth recalling (1.5 million shot dead).
The swiftness of execution should also be highlighted. Using the French example, teachers can explain that half the Jewish victims leaving France were deported between March 27 (when the first transport left France for Auschwitz) and September 30, 1942 (transport 39) and three-fourths by December 7, 1943 (transport 64). Three-fourths of Holocaust victims were killed between March 1942 (the start of the Reinhardt operation) and November 1943. In 1944, 434,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the space of seven weeks (May 16 to July 9, 1944).
Teachers can also emphasize the concomitance of Nazi actions: on July 16-17, 1942, the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup took place. On July 22, the massive Warsaw deportations began, continuing until September (300,000 people were transported to Treblinka and murdered there). Between those two dates, Himmler decided to build four huge crematoria in Birkenau.
Based on historian Christopher Browning’s work, for example, teachers may also wish to discuss the human ability to behave with an extraordinary lack of humanity, the “banality” of murder and evil, blind submission to the law, obedience to authority legitimized by ideology and indoctrination and the strong inclination to conform to a pack mentality. All of these factors can turn ordinary men into killers if circumstances lead them along that path.
To put the Holocaust into its proper historical perspective, and if students seem to need further clarification either directly or indirectly, teachers could briefly refer to some relevant comparisons. This would help to define the Shoah more precisely, highlight its specificity, emphasize its singularity, accentuate its impact and put it into perspective. For example, a brief reminder of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda can show some of the points in common between the claims of Nazi and Hutu leaders and their stated goal in both cases: exterminate an entire population, starting with the children. The Rwandan genocide’s rustic crudeness can be contrasted with the industrial professionalism of the European Jews’ extermination.
In any event, and from whatever angle, a lesson on the Holocaust requires a degree of expertise on both the subject and the issues it raises.