Virtual symposium explores how Holocaust should be taught

From left: Jeffrey Parker and Tamar Ketko
From left: Jeffrey Parker (Courtesy of Jeffrey Parker) and Tamar Ketko (Shana Medel)

If you only have an hour to teach a class of students about the Holocaust, what do you leave in, and what do you leave out?

This was one of the questions asked on Feb. 23, when attendees gathered virtually from as far away as Brazil and Romania for Evidence Against Intolerance: A Virtual Symposium on Teaching the Holocaust in the Digital Disinformation Era, sponsored by the Towson University Foundation.

“We do believe that it is important to learn about the Holocaust, no matter who you are, where you live, what [is] your ethnicity or race, religion, age and so on,” said Hana Bor, a graduate program director at Towson University, after welcoming virtual attendees.

Divided into several sessions that ran through the day, the initial session, “State of Holocaust Education,” focused on topics that included what students need to know about the Holocaust, what schools currently teach about the Holocaust and if it is necessary to go to a space other then the classroom to teach about the Holocaust.

Jeffrey Parker, the program coordinator in education initiatives at the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, noted that a teacher may have anywhere from a full semester course, to only a single hour of time, in which to teach the Holocaust to their classroom, requiring teachers to make hard choices about what information is most crucial.

“Students need a firm understanding of how why the Holocaust happened,” Parker said. He noted issues such as the power of propaganda, the acquiescence of millions who allowed the Holocaust to happen and the centuries of antisemitism that led to it.

“We want students to ask questions, so that they can be active and engaged members of society,” Parker added. “What led so many ordinary people to play a role in the Holocaust? … How did Nazi ideology and propaganda help pave the way for genocide?”

Tamar Ketko, the head of teaching humanities and social sciences at Kibbutzim College of Education in Israel, spoke on what aspects of the Holocaust are often left out in Israeli classrooms.

“We grew up defining Jews as transported victims of [the Nazi world],” Ketko said. “We leave out the Jewish soldiers in World War II, and how they empower the study about the Holocaust.

“One and a half million Jews joined all Allied armies, men and women, at the age of 16 to 45,” Ketko continued. “We seldom see pictures like these: brave and armed Jewish soldiers in battlefields. We never mention the fact that 280,000 were killed — 200,000 of them were Soviet Jews in the Red Army. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we usually don’t talk about this.”

Daniel Heß, an educator in history and social studies at the Friedrich Rückert Gymnasium in Germany, spoke on how the Holocaust is taught in Germany, specifically in the Bavarian school system.

“What do I think students need to know about the Holocaust?” asked Heß. “There is what everybody needs to know: the facts. And there is what everyone should know in addition: feelings, responsibilities, culture of remembrance and so on.”

The facts, Heß said, included the motivations of Adolf Hitler and his followers, Hitler’s plans as expressed in “Mein Kampf” and the orderly and bureaucratic methods and crimes used for the extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Lori Weintrob, a professor of history and founding director of the Wagner College Holocaust Center, emphasized the importance of not only teaching the facts of the Holocaust and the stories of those who perpetrated it, but also the stories of those who resisted it.

“While we admire those who challenged Nazi ideology with rifle, hand grenade or pen, many find it difficult to name individuals who stood up,” Weintrob said. “Why can we name the perpetrators, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, Göring, and not the resistors?

“We move closer to understanding hurdles to resistance by examining those Jews and righteous gentiles who stood up, from the Jewish educators Janusz Korczak and Stefa Wilczyńska in the Warsaw Ghetto, to the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, to the Muslim community in Albania that hid 2,000 Jews,” he added.

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