Holocaust Education Not as Simple as it Seems – Jewish Exponent

Posted By on April 11, 2024

Judy Rakowsky

Judy Rakowsky

When a bill was introduced last month in the Pennsylvania Senate to make Holocaust education uniform and mandatory, a survivor spoke at the Pennsylvania State Capitol about the need for teaching children about the industrialized genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II.

The Holocaust must be taught forever and ever, Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann said. While more than a dozen states have legislation encouraging Holocaust education, few have come with funding to carry it out. Some well-meaning pushback comes from those who question the effectiveness of the efforts thus far. The millions of dollars spent on monuments, museums and education programs have not stemmed the tide of antisemitism.

The point has been made long before the current surge in antisemitic incidents. As Harvard Professor Emerita Ruth R. Wisse observed in a 2020 National Affairs article, In reality, anti-Semitism in the United States has spread in tandem with increased teaching about the Holocaust. She said that the problem in part stems from focusing on hate without addressing the way governments use grievance and blame to appeal to constituencies that can benefit them politically. Hitler himself came to power in an electoral process based on organizing politics against the Jews, to his political benefit.

The politics of grievance and blame may indeed foment hatred, distrust, envy, rage, fear, and violence, but it is primarily a political instrument for gaining, wielding, and extending power, Wisse wrote.

Centuries of anti-Jewish teaching and opposition are put into action when leaders need to win voters and followers, she observed.

Well-settled pieces of history are upended in this way. Take the way that the history of American slavery has been upended in state legislatures.

Last year, Florida officially changed it and now even requires middle schoolers to be taught that enslaved people reaped vocational benefits, as if there were any justification for brutally kidnapping people from their home country and shipping them around the world to be sold into lifelong slave labor.

This wave of political thinking is not limited to Florida. Lawmakers in 44 states, including Pennsylvania, have proposed restrictions on the teaching of racism and sexism, content that overemphasizes the dark, difficult chapters of American history at the expense of fostering patriotism, according to an analysis by Education Week in 2021.

Theres an extensive track record of governments using bedrock historical events to strum grievances in certain quarters of their population and distorting them for political gain. The history of the Holocaust itself has been subjected to legal contortions by governments across Europe and beyond in memory laws that ostensibly sought to protect it from distortion.

In 1986, Germany was the first to pass a memory law that was seen as a bulwark against a resurgence of Nazi ideology taking root again.

That law kicked off a trend that spread to many former Soviet satellites.

On my first visit to Poland in 1990, I witnessed the giddy exuberance of people feeling free after nearly five decades of communist oppression.

A mighty alliance of the trade union Solidarity and the Catholic Church brought down the Soviet communist government, followed by a seismic shift toward democracy and the swiftest and most effective conversion to a market economy in Europe.

By the time I returned to Warsaw a year later, there was a spring in the step of many Poles who were finally free to think about topics that had been taboo for decades, including the systematic murder of millions of Jews in death camps that Hitler purposefully placed on Polish soil.

Some of that release took the form of swastikas painted on buildings and freer expression of anti-Jewish thoughts. Soviet-era monuments at concentration camps lumped all the victims together as those who suffered under Hitlers fascism without mentioning the systematic extermination of Jews.

In those heady days of the 1990s, Poland set about erecting pillars of a western-style democracy, unlocking access to government archives, and creating an unfettered judiciary and allowing for independent media.

In December 1998 Poland joined the growing list of European nations that outlawed denial of the Holocaust. The laws sent a signal to former Soviet satellite populations that history would now be something that would hew to the facts instead of the political will of those in power.

Eventually, some 30 European nations would enact laws criminalizing statements about the past, according to historian Nikolay Koposov. In Memory Laws, Memory Wars, Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia, he said that the laws cemented the history of the Holocaust and also had a unifying effect on European nations after the fall of Soviet communism.

But politics would once again get in the way of true history.

Russia led the way, using a memory law to prohibit incorrect versions of history. In 2014, after Russia attacked and seized part of the Crimea, starting war with Ukraine, it enacted a law that sanitized the history of the brutal Stalin regime, penalizing the dissemination of false information on the activities of the USSR during the Second World War.

In Poland in 2015, a right-wing populist government allied with the Catholic Church gained control of the government in Poland. It proceeded to amend the very law enacted in 1998 to outlaw Holocaust denial. It criminalized all statements about Polands role in the Holocaust that implied any complicity.

The global outcry that followed prompted Polish leaders to defend their efforts. They were not trying to whitewash history but to counter misinformation.

As Uladzislau Belavusau writes in The Rise of Memory Laws in Poland, the revisionist legislation was designed to stir up nationalism and safeguard support for the government by feeding primitive populism with the neurotic memory of World War II.

It followed revelations about the Poles burning their neighbors alive in Jedwabne in 1941 and the massacre of Jews in Kielce after the war in 1946, and many other incidents that occurred because of discoveries by scholars of historical facts who gained access to archives after the fall of communism.

As the impulse to restrict and cancel true history spreads in the U.S., we should learn from Russia and Poland.

As Sami Steigmann says, we do need to teach people about the Holocaust. But we must avoid politicizing it for self-serving aims. Otherwise, we could see widespread Holocaust education that undermines the teaching of true history.

Judy Rakowsky is the author of several books on Jewish history.

Originally posted here:

Holocaust Education Not as Simple as it Seems - Jewish Exponent

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