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Scholars' Conference on Holocaust Addresses Educational Issues

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman

The 29th Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust held here on March 6-9 attracted more than 500 Holocaust experts from around the world. This gathering was more than just a forum for scholars' insights on sociology, history and psychology of the Holocaust. In addition to sessions covering issues such as the role of the Church in the Holocaust, the Holocaust and gender, the Kindertransport, and survivor testimonies, a major focus of this gathering was Holocaust education.

The challenge of Holocaust education was emphasized by several of the speakers. "There is astonishing ignorance of the Holocaust," stated Marc Schimsky, art teacher at Smithtown High School, in Long Island, NY, who described his use of art to teach youngsters about the Holocaust. Donald Schwartz of California State University in Long Beach, CA, also emphasized the need to educate, by alluding to a questionnaire in which a large proportion of students responded that they thought the Holocaust was a Jewish holiday.

The Holocaust in the media

Judith Doneson of Washington University discussed television's coverage of Holocaust issues. Her presentation included segments of talk shows with Giraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. These programs dealt with various aspects of the Holocaust, including survivor testimonies and Neo-Nazis. Despite the prominent coverage provided by these popular shows, Doneson explained that many people are still uniformed concerning events of that era. In one segment, a young man being queried about the Holocaust replied, "Holo-what?"

The Holocaust has achieved prominence in the public psyche since television began bringing Holocaust images into American living-rooms. Jeffrey Schandler, of New York University, author of While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, has written about TV shows which refer to Holocaust events. In his presentation, he showed a clip of a public service announcement in which graphic footage of persecuted Jews in Europe, and scenes of concentration camp survivors were shown, followed by the message, "There is no excuse not to vote".

"The Holocaust is invoked in conjunction with increasing range of phenomena," Schandler asserted. The juxtaposition of Holocaust images with a message on voting makes a dramatic statement about the importance of a democratic society. "However," Schandler cautioned, "the message ignores the fact that elections sometimes bring evil leaders, including Adolph Hitler."

Holocaust curricula in U.S. schools

Samuel Totten, of the University of Arkansas, reported that in the U.S. in the past 14 years, 14 states (including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, California and Pennsylvania) have developed, mandated or recommended Holocaust curricula for their public schools. Ironically, Totten revealed, legislation regarding adoption of Holocaust curricula has led to a "problem of inaccurate and inadequate information in... curricula and teacher guides." He lamented that many teachers must cover the Holocaust in only one or possibly a few class periods. The result is that "history is likely to be watered down and taught in a fashion not as accurate as it should be."

In some cases, typographical errors in dates appear in the curricula. In other instances, Totten explained, the "host of complex issues at work are simply ignored."

"Historical mistakes are rife throughout almost every single curriculum." cautioned Totten. He recommended that Holocaust historians and scholars, as well as educators, be actively involved in the development and review of the curricula to improve their accuracy.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of state mandated Holocaust curricula. Richard Rubenstein, President of University of Bridgeport, stated his concerns that when such courses are mandated, "incompetent people will get hold of [the curricula] and, with the best will in the world, will make a mess of it." He explained that courses should be offered for students who are interested in the area, but should not be required. In 1977, Rubenstein taught the first Holocaust courses to be offered at Florida State University. "I felt, with some of my students, that I was giving a how-to-do-it' course - that is, how to commit genocide."

Holocaust education abroad

Problems in Holocaust education in the U.S. pale in comparison to the challenges in Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Paul Levine, of the Uppsala University Center for Multiethnic Research in Sweden, spoke about how Swedish schools did not teach about the Holocaust for decades after World War II. Only recently did this change, when, in January, 1998 Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson launched the Living History Campaign - an initiative designed to address Holocaust issues and education in his country.

According to Levine, the Living History Campaign grew out of a climate of "growing anti foreigner, neo-Naziism and antisemitism" in Sweden. The Prime Minister's educational campaign involved the preparation of a booklet on the Holocaust, which was co-authored by Levine and Stephane Bruchfeld. "Letters [about the campaign] were sent to 713,000 Swedish households," reported Levine, "and within the first six months there were 700,000 requests [for the booklet]".

Since then, the booklet, entitled "Tell Ye Your Children...", has been translated into Finnish, Turkish, English, Persian and even Arabic. It will soon be translated into the Slavic languages.

Persson subsequently requested that the U.S. and Britain join his efforts in "an international cooperative project for the dissemination of knowledge and information about the Holocaust during the Second World War". In response to this request, on May 7, 1998 at a Stockholm meeting, the International Task Force on the Holocaust was established.

Jacqueline Giere, of the Fritz Bauer Institute in Germany discussed the special problems of Holocaust education in that country. "When teaching in a land of perpetrators, the emphasis is on perpetrators." she explained. Giere indicated that the German curriculum addresses group identity, scapegoating, empathy, and "motives of perpetrators...and how we can avoid repeating their acts."

In addition to High School curricula on National Socialism, which include the Holocaust as a subtopic, "Holocaust education also occurs at memorial sites [such as] Buchenwald and Dachau..., the former Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin... and Hadamar," reported Giere. Hadamar is the German hospital which earned notoriety as a major center for killing by euthanasia'.

Surprisingly, Great Britain, which suffered major losses inflicted by the Nazis during World War II, had no formal Holocaust curriculum through the 1980s. Stephen Smith recalled his experience as a student in British schools. "Nobody, at any point in our formal education, had ever raised a point regarding the Holocaust." Stephen Smith and his brother James - who are not Jewish - visited Israel in 1991 and learned of the horrors of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem. The brothers subsequently decided to found an organization whose main goal is Holocaust education. The organization, called Beth Shalom, has supported and encouraged the inclusion of Holocaust studies in the national curriculum. Although the 1989 curriculum initially left out the issue of World War II and the Holocaust, now, reports Smith, "the Holocaust is a required component of the history curriculum in ninth grade".

Holocaust education in Israel is also evolving, according to Motti Shalem of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. "We are going away from the image of like sheep to the slaughter' and beginning to break through taboos," he reported. "We no longer point an accusing finger to survivors and victims..." he added. "We discuss the dilemmas that survivors encountered, " Shalem continued. "But we cannot decide what was correct behavior and what was wrong behavior in the terrible conditions of the Holocaust."

However, changing attitudes still do not alter the fact that " the Holocaust is an inescapable part of [our] identity." In addition to recognizing "the need for Jewish sovereignty to insure that it will never happen again..." Shalem explained, "we recognize the limit of our strength and understand that we must be especially cautious in our dealing with foreign nations."

Perhaps the most dramatic development in Holocaust education is happening in the Former Soviet Union. Ilya Altman, of the Russian Holocaust Research and Education Center in Moscow, reports that until the late 1980s the Holocaust was omitted from history books. "Systematic Holocaust education has taken its first steps in Russia," Altman declared. In 1991, his center was the first to begin to introduce the curriculum into Russian schools. Now, 100 schools are teaching Holocaust curricula, with the support of the Russian government. "Our long term program envisages introduction of Holocaust [curricula] into state curricula on history and literature..." he explained. Major obstacles include the need for "training and retraining of teachers, mass production of literature and production of films..." Altman added that a teaching aid, "The History of the Holocaust in the Territory of the USSR" is now being developed.

The picture emerging from this scholarly venue is that, despite sporadic antisemitism and Holocaust denial in the U.S. and overseas, the status and availability of Holocaust education curricula and programs is improving.

As Bennett Freeman of the U.S. Department of State explained, dealing with Nazi looted assets, art, confiscated insurance policies and slave labor represent the first "waves" in assigning fiscal responsibility to involved parties. "However, recent attention on Holocaust assets results in unintentional monetizing of the Holocaust", Freeman warned. "It spurs the latent antisemitism in certain countries", thus increases the urgency for effective Holocaust education. A renewed interest in Holocaust education will therefore, by necessity, be part of the "Final Wave" in the quest for justice.

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D., is Director of General Education and Professor of Biology at William Paterson University. She also serves as Co-Director of the William Paterson University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.


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