The Holocaust – Should We Teach It, and If So, When?

I remember it like it was yesterday. The feelings and emotions I received as I stared at the Holocaust memorial service at my university. But despite all the melancholy and sadness, I couldn’t shake a thought that repeatedly passed through my mind. The purpose of the program was to read names of Holocaust victims for the entire 24-hours of Yom HaShoah. Anyone who signed up would come at their assigned time and read names for five minutes. A very nice idea, but all I kept on saying to myself was this: Each month Hillel struggles for days or weeks to try and get people to come to a Shabbat dinner. Advertisements galore, tons of programming, and a lot of great people to spend time with, and we never managed to get even one hundred people together for a meal, and sometimes far less than that. Whereas a sign-up sheet goes up for this memorial event, and within a few hours hundreds of Jews come out of the woodworks to fill up the entire sheet.

I thought: What is wrong with my people? We’re obsessed with our own death and destruction, doomed to spend eternity dwelling on past tragedies, not focusing for a moment on living the truly meaningful Jewish life available to all of us. And I vowed to myself that I was going to avoid Holocaust studies. I wasn’t going to be this misfortune-obsessed Jew that I had in an instant grown to dislike and fear.

And despite this feeling which I still harbor, over ten years later I am a teacher of Holocaust studies, and I try to insert Holocaust studies into my other curricula whenever possible. And my topic here is certainly not why we should not teach Holocaust studies, but rather why we should be introducing Holocaust into our curricula at an earlier age.

How did I come full circle?

Recently I was walking through the hallways of my school and I overheard a couple of 5th graders insulting one other. It’s a mildly commonplace occurrence, but this time I was taken aback by their particular choice of insult words. One of them called the other a “Nazi”. The other was upset, but only because he was insulted, not because of the specific insult thrown at him. After speaking with the kids briefly I realized they had absolutely no idea what a Nazi was, or any other details of the Holocaust for that matter. Words like “Nazi” and “Hitler” had entered these kids’ ears dozens of times, each time in a negative context, but as far as they could tell there was nothing worse about calling someone else a “Nazi” than calling them a “jerk”.

I was thoroughly unnerved by the fact that many words, terms, and concepts had entered the vernacular of both these children, without them having even the slightest clue what any of it meant. And I realized that sheltering our children from the existence of such horrors is both improbable, and irresponsible. Our precious children should know and understand why it is so horribly wrong to imply that a friend is capable of doing the actions of the Nazis.

Furthermore, I’m now teaching a class on Holocaust history to seventh graders. I recognize the looks on their faces when they feel someone has done them a disservice by not sharing with them relevant pieces of information. They don’t understand why no one ever told them the Nazis wantonly massacred six-million innocent men, women, and children. And if they were aware of these murders, they don’t understand why no one ever mentioned to them the phenomenal stories of resistance or survival during the Holocaust, or the stories of the many gentiles who risked everything trying to save the lives of a few Jews. Or they resent the fact that America was presented to them as heroes who swooped into Europe to save the poor and wretched Jew. I feel it is tragic when a Jewish child learns minutiae about the Nazi Holocaust in 7th or 8th grade, and some of the most essential and fundamental details of the events that took place are a complete shock.

And I fear the worst: If we don’t present them with the facts at an early age, they’re going to flip on the news one day and their first impressions of the Holocaust are going to be from a despotic leader of an country telling our impressionable young children that the Holocaust was either exaggerated or never happened at all. It is our duty to ensure that we set the tone for how they perceive the Holocaust.

I imagine if and when I present my thoughts to the average parent I will immediately be inundated with those who say that it is too difficult for our young children to handle such horrors. Their young and innocent children will neither appreciate nor be able to handle such knowledge. At the risk of sounding overly tongue-in-cheek, those same parents might very well then bring the child home to watch a couple of episodes of a TV show where terrorists maim and kill thousands of people, and then play a video game where they themselves will shoot a few thousand more. Our kids are hardly sheltered in our generation, and I find it terribly difficult to justify not teaching our kids about essential and relevant points of recent Jewish history, while constantly exposing them to horrors on a day-to-day basis that will give them no benefit whatsoever. The children of our generation, for better or worse, can handle a lot more than we give them credit for, and it’s our responsibility to channel that ability strategically. (That being said, I think Holocaust studies should be introduced in stages, and the really graphic content should be saved for later ages.)

So, how did I come full circle in my beliefs in if and when to place Holocaust studies in our curricula?

First and foremost, I do believe a Jew is fully obligated to know about his past. There are more than enough essential life lessons scattered throughout the entirety of our long and detailed past to justify an in depth study into any and all elements of our history. And knowledge of the Holocaust is essential for having a thorough and complete knowledge of our history.

Secondly, the Holocaust provides a starting point to connect with Judaism that many Jews would otherwise not receive. I said earlier that Jews came from all over my university campus to memorialize the Holocaust. Whether I like it or not, Jews throughout America are becoming less and less connected with their people and their faith. Any subject, be it joyous or tragic, that could be utilized as a starting point for Jews to connect to their people is inherently positive. I have taught many a class on numerous Jewish subjects where, regardless of the passion in my voice, students’ eyes glazed over. And I’ve watched those very same students listen with rapt attention when the subject matter changes to the Holocaust. I can’t explain why my people connects so powerfully to past suffering, but they do. I would be irresponsible if I didn’t use that knowledge to draw students in to a wider array of Jewish wisdom.

Despite everything I have just written, I still do not in any way, shape, or form feel that my initial observations were flawed in the slightest. I still hope deep down that the average Jew could focus the majority of his attention on living a positive Jewish life, rather than brooding over atrocities of the past. However, I’ve come to realize that this idea should not preclude Holocaust studies, but should serve as its guide.

A well-balanced Holocaust curriculum should be overloaded with stories of how Jews resisted, both physically and spiritually, the everyday miseries of the Holocaust. The student needs to have a powerful faith in his ancestors. A comprehensive Holocaust curriculum should be replete with story after story of those who fought long and hard with everything on the line to do whatever they could to save innocent lives. The student needs to restore his faith in the innate goodness of mankind.

But the Holocaust provides us, perhaps, with the ultimate opportunity to fulfill all of what I’ve spoken of in this article. I tell my students each and every class that the Holocaust never really ended. We live in a post-Holocaust era, where our choices are directly connected to the events of those dreadful six years. We have the choice to try and flee anti-Semitism. We have the choice to say to ourselves that the only true way to avoid future suffering is to abandon our roots and try our hardest to blend in with those around us. These choices are errors, and symbolize a victory for anti-Semitism over the Jewish nation.

But we also have the choice that we should make. That we must make! Every single day that we as a people succeed in life and simultaneously choose to identify as Jews, we are retroactively performing the greatest resistance to the Holocaust known to man. We are standing up in the face of humanity’s worst tyranny and shouting at the top of our lungs, “You hurt us. God knows you hurt us bad. But look at you and look at us. Your thousand year regime is no longer and is remembered only in the negative. And we the Jews continue to thrive and prosper. We won, we won, we won!!”

The only true way to memorialize the Holocaust is to live as a Jew.

In conclusion, I believe that our children are capable of handling knowledge of the Holocaust at ages which are traditionally considered “too young” (perhaps around 5th grade), but I think the best methods of teaching the Holocaust are abounding with the message that living as a Jew is the best if not only way to live one’s life after learning about the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust.