Friday, April 29, 2011

What is the Future of Holocaust Education?

This Sunday, the 27th of Nissan, is the official established date of Yom HaShoah VeHagevurah, Holocaust Memorial Day (the actual observance is being pushed off one day by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate so as to avoid people violating Shabbat to take part in events on Saturday night). As such, this is a good time to raise for discussion an issue which weighs on my mind frequently.

On the one hand, Holocaust education is at a high point - entire libraries could be filled with the scholarly works and personal accounts that have been written about the Shoah, many States (including New Jersey) and European countries mandate Holocaust education, and Holocaust denial, while still very much alive, seems to be clearly defined as intellectually dishonest (Deborah Lipstadt's courtroom victory over David Irving being just one high-profile example). I have seen a Holocaust memorial in the US Air Force Base Museum in Dayton, Ohio and a memorial to Anne Frank at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis. Museums dedicated to the Holocaust are plentiful and approach the topic from a vast range of angles.

On the other hand, it appears to me that we are approaching a new era in educating about the Holocaust. The Holocaust ended 66 years ago, and thus the survivors who are still alive are in their 70's, while those survivors who have vivid memories to share are in their 80's. As such, the list of those available to provide first-hand accounts of their experiences is shrinking. Even those who are children of survivors and who wear that badge with a certain sense of pride - they are living examples and memorials to the fierce determination of their parents to survive in the face of the worst that mankind had to offer - are in their 50's and 60's. In other words, the landscape of those who are being asked to preserve the memory of what took place is increasingly populated by those who are two generations removed from the actual events.

Why is this important? I am not concerned about us forgetting the Holocaust - it has clearly become fixed as a major moment in Jewish history. Think about it - when listing major tragedies that have befallen us, the list is usually pretty short - Destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash, Spanish Expulsion, Holocaust. While there are of course many more that can be added, this is clearly the shortlist. My concern can perhaps be summed up as "when does the Holocaust transform from a current event into part of history"?

What do I mean as a part of history? In short, it means an event that we can learn about while remaining emotionally detached. Take the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash as an example. We mention it in our davening on a daily basis, we end many a speech and dvar Torah with a prayer for its rebuilding, we spend three weeks every summer vicariously mourning for it, and we spend Tisha B'Av engaged in talking about the destruction in all of its gory detail - and how many people can say that they are truly touched and really feel the pain of the loss? Of course we can't - it happened two thousand years ago, and while we can perhaps understand intellectually what occurred and what the loss of the Beit HaMikdash means to us as a nation, it would take a herculean effort of emotions to truly cry over its destruction.

Pesach provides us with another example. All of us sat at our seder tables two weeks ago and probably mentioned that the Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. Did anyone bother to consider how long that was? Two hundred and ten years ago, John Adams was wrapping up his term as president of the US, France was in the throes of post-revolutionary chaos, the Vilna Gaon had just died and Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch was not yet born. In other words - it was a LONG time ago. And yet, since our sojourn in Egypt is so far in the past, we are able to mention two centuries of enslavement and suffering as if it took place in the blink of an eye. Time does indeed heal all wounds.

And so to my question. At some point in the next fifty years, the Holocaust will begin to enter the annals of history. We can argue that this tragedy is different because of its size or its scope or the vast amount of material and evidence that is left behind from it, but the fact is that no human event has ever defeated time. And thus, my question for educators is what lessons do we feel should be the enduring ones from the Shoah? When everyone is three and four and five generations removed from the actual events, when no one exists who has even met a survivor, what do we want people to know when they learn about the Shoah? Discuss.

[Reminder - comments are welcome, but please do not post anonymously.]

1 comment:

M Laster said...

I think that this, at least, has one advantage over other historical tragedies. The advent of technology has enabled us to preserve much more from the Holocaust in a real way than other periods. Imagine how tisha B'Av would be different if we had real video recordings of Titus's legions marching through Jerusalem?

Though I definitely have been exposed firsthand to many survivors sharing their experiences, I believe that the use of video has played a large part in my recognition of the events that occurred. Also, I think the preservation of the concentration camps that has enabled many to visit them has also been very impactful.