All too often Jewish organizations, museums and schools are complicit in teaching the Holocaust “for a reason.” We have, at times, been in the forefront — claiming that the Holocaust can be “used” to teach good citizenship; to teach against negative stereotypes, bullying, or other antisocial behavior; or even to encourage voting or to create a better-behaved classroom. Why do we feel that this is necessary or even productive? Why do we abet and facilitate the notion that the Holocaust does not merit being taught because it happened? Do we not see that we are minimizing the Holocaust, shrinking it to an understandable event, easily reduced to simplistic “lessons” and divorced from its broader historical context?
The “War Between the States” is taught in schools throughout the United States, not because students can learn that if siblings would just stop fighting, internecine conflict would cease occurring. It is taught because it happened, is an historical fact, and is a part of our nation’s history. The My Lai Massacre and the Cherokee Trail of Tears are in text books because they happened and not as a starting point of a lesson on how people need to treat each other better and understand rather than fear diversity. The Rape of Nanking is part of world history and is taught as such, not as a lesson in speaking up and the importance of voting. So why should the Holocaust, in which an unfathomable number of Jews were slaughtered mercilessly and brutally by a deliberate governmental policy of genocide by a nation at the pinnacle of society, not be a critical, even essential, part of any study of Western or European, if not world, history?
Why do we maintain that this genocide, singular in its scope and single-minded dedication to the concept of “evil blood” in all Jews wherever located and wherein virtually every other so-called “civilized” country, including our own, either turned its back or deliberately facilitated and participated in the slaughter, has any redeeming and reductive meaning?
By proposing simplistic lessons, we debase the torture and murder of millions of Jews who suffered and died because the world looked away. They didn’t die “for a reason.” Their vicious deaths had no “purpose.” We demean their individuality and debase their lives if we reduce this outrageous genocide to platitudes against cyber-bullying and to shibboleths about good citizenship. They died because no one was willing to stop the murders. And their vicious high-technological slaughter should be taught because they happened while the world stood by and refused or failed to intervene, not only on the individual level but on the governmental level as well.
By assuming or conceding the Holocaust’s lack of merit to be taught in its own right, we forfeit the ability to assert its centrality in human history. As a consequence, the teaching of the Holocaust is all too often relegated to “soft subjects” — as literature or art or even as music, rather than as history. Not surprisingly, it is not tested by the state or the federal government, thereby resulting in a state mandate more observed in the breach than in reality.
Our willingness to soft-pedal the Holocaust is not only a disservice to those who suffered and those who died, the victims of the Holocaust, but it is a disservice to all students today, to the future and to history itself. We become part of the problem by legitimizing the question of why we teach the Holocaust. There are more than six million reasons to teach the Holocaust. And none of them has to do with virulent internet messages or playground bullying.
Carol A. Simon