In a world that continues to witness human cruelty and racism, totalitarian regimes and the dictatorial self-interest of leaders who have lost all moral restraint, it is clear that our society has yet to learn lessons from the atrocities of the past. Jewish annihilation was a unique and singular component of World War II with the primary goal of Jewish extinction. Despite its global and historical impact, in many school districts throughout the United States, including Maryland, Holocaust education is not a required topic in schools. Teaching about the Holocaust continues to be relevant and necessary, and it is the responsibility of our society to include Holocaust education in the curriculum.
It is less clear how we should present the subject in our schools. Should we teach that the Jews were victims or heroes? That the Nazi regime was evil and the rest of the world bore the guilt of collaboration? Should we teach about the “upstanders” or about the silent majority? Should we focus on Holocaust education to expand diversity and cultural understanding? Or should the lessons of the Holocaust be used to fight against bias, racism and hatred in our world today?
With these questions in mind, in 2015 I participated in an East European Holocaust study tour as a Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) Alfred Lerner Fellow under the leadership of Stanlee Stahl and Professor Robert Jan van Pelt. This incredible journey provided me an in-depth understanding of the death camps, the “final solution” and the geography of the war. I was struck by how every detail of the executions was meticulously planned.
In my desire to further expand my depth of understanding, I took part in the JFR 2018 summer study program in Germany and the Netherlands under the incredible leadership of Stanlee Stahl and Professor Peter Hayes. Our study group was made up of 12 Holocaust experts, including scholars, a medical doctor, a museum director, a state-wide Holocaust curriculum writer, public school master teachers and college professors. The purpose of our study was to explore the question of why the Holocaust happened and to think about the Holocaust from a perspective that none of us in the group experienced before. This study tour allowed us to explore new ideas relevant to teaching the Holocaust.
The trip was full of emotionally challenging yet enlightening experiences. One of the most horrific sites we visited was the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp in the Herz Mountains. Dora-Mittelbau was enclosed by an electrified barbed wire fence. Prisoners quarried stones and worked construction. They also worked on projects related to weapons development and production. Jews were forced to work underground in terrible conditions, deprived of daylight and fresh air and enclosed in unstable underground tunnels. Due to the unimaginable conditions, the mortality rate was higher than in other camps. Prisoners who were too weak to work were sent to Auschwitz or were left alone to die. It is there at the tunnels that I realized the limitless evil and cruelty of human beings. In this camp, even a filthy overcrowded barrack was a luxury. Twelve-thousand people were murdered in Dora, but a large proportion were killed at the end of the war. As the British came near, 8,000 people were murdered, including 1,016 individuals who were simply burned alive in order to destroy “evidence.”
Another horrific experience was learning about the existence of the “exchange camps” in Germany, including Bergen-Belsen. Jews who were initially saved from deportation to death camps were deceived by the Nazis to think that their fate would be different from the rest. They were held in order to be exchanged for German prisoners of war or detainees. Adequate food and water were not available and the sanitary conditions worsened, spreading disease. Many Jews were murdered and starved while continuing to be deceived by the Nazis, who promised to release them. By liberation, more than 50,000 individuals had been murdered and most of the camp’s records destroyed. This horrible place became the largest Displaced Persons camp in Germany after the war.
It became clear to me that despite the Jewish people’s history of persecution, Nazi annihilation was unique in its planning, implementation, scope and result. It bore a deep impact on the Jewish people, Europe and the world. Many knew the extent of what was happening and chose to turn a blind eye. It is extremely difficult to cope with the truth that the enlightened Western world allowed such atrocities to occur and to recognize that the world might not be able to prevent it from happening again.
Some thoughts to conclude:
• The story of the Holocaust is one of the lowest points in human history and merits being studied and passed down from generation to generation.
• In order to acquire ethical meaning from studying the Holocaust, it is necessary to seek and learn the human story and learn about what was lost: communities, families, cultural figures and assets.
• As educators, we should encourage moral questions, such as: What dilemmas and choices did individuals need to make? Why did individuals choose to collaborate with the Nazis rather than stand against them? How could people stand on the sidelines and how should history view people like the Righteous Gentiles?
By allowing participants to learn with experts, visit unique and unconventional sites and delve deeply into the study of the Holocaust, the JFR plays an important role in educating the educators who carry the enormous responsibility of teaching our society these lessons from past.
Hana Bor, Ph.D., is the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor at Towson University’s College of Liberal Arts.