It’s ironic (and unacceptable) that the more we teach about the Holocaust in American schools, the less kids seem to remember it.
As Jeff Jacoby writes this week in the Boston Globe, “Instruction about the Holocaust has proliferated in American classrooms in recent decades. Units on the subject are taught in countless schools, and mandated by law in 17 states.” And yet, Jacoby quotes a recent Claims Conference survey showing that, among other worrying signs, “Sixty-three percent of millennials and Gen Z-ers did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany.”
One reason for this lack of specific recall is the universalizing of a unique Jewish tragedy. As Jacoby writes, “the reason for requiring Holocaust education is to sensitize students to the evils of bigotry, intolerance, and oppression. The goal is not to make clear the distinctively virulent and destructive poison of antisemitism, an enmity older than and different from any other in human history.”
I get the instinct to universalize tragedies. Even within the Jewish community, we have this tendency to show the world that our tragedies can also become theirs (“canaries in the coal mine”: if they come after us, they’ll come after you). We’re an insecure lot. We don’t want to look like we care only about our own. Maybe we figure we’ll get more support and be taken more seriously if we convey that “we’re all in this together.”
In any case, using the Holocaust to “sensitize students to the evils of bigotry, intolerance, and oppression” doesn’t seem like an unreasonable idea. How can anyone be against a universal message that fights hate and intolerance?
The problem is that when you get too general and universal, it’s hard to remember anything. Everything becomes hazy. The teaching and the moralizing can easily get lost in a sea of clichés.
Since Holocaust Remembrance Day falls this week, it’s a good time to remember a timeless truth: Nothing sticks in the memory like human stories.
You can quote endless facts about the Holocaust and preach all you want against hate and bigotry, but if you want people to “never forget,” show them human beings with real, compelling stories.
It turns out that one the great storytellers of our time, Stephen Spielberg, figured that out years ago and put his money and talent where his mouth was. The group he helped start, the USC Shoah Foundation, has filmed and archived more than 55,000 stories and testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Those stories are a treasure trove that have nourished countless memories and can nourish millions more.
In my own family, we never fail to remember our late neighbor Eva Brown, who lost 59 members of her family during the Holocaust and was sent to several concentration camps from the age of 16. What we remember most about Eva are the many stories she would tell over Shabbat and holiday tables. Stories of her childhood, stories about her siblings, stories of darkness and stories of hope.
It’s incredible to think that Spielberg has helped gather more than 55,000 of these stories and testimonies. It’s even more incredible to imagine these stories reaching millions of students of all ages throughout America.
Most of the preaching and teaching we need to convey the singular, unspeakable horror of the Holocaust lies in those stories. That is the magic of stories—they allow people space to enter and draw their own conclusions.
It’s not that complicated: Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Let’s show their stories and make sure it never happens again to anyone.
That is as universal as it gets, and it’s a lot easier to never forget.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate