Survivors of the Churban of Europe, have fought successfully to make Holocaust education an integral part elementary and high school curricula. Major human right activists indeed keep on referring to the Holocaust to argue for the need to prevent another genocide and thus (rightly or wrongly) to take particular sides in certain contemporary conflicts.
Education professor Brenda M. Trofanenko questions the wisdom of teaching about the Holocaust in elementary school (which, since she is an American, includes in her parlance grades 1-8): “I’ve heard of children as young as grade three are being taught about the Holocaust,” she said. “That’s far too young, to my mind.”
Why does she think so, and is her attitude, in fact, well founded?
I believe that her attitude bases itself on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Holocaust education, and that she is, in fact, wrong.
According to an article on Phys.org:
“Younger students don’t have the ability to capture all the information and knowledge necessary to understand both the historical and emotional context of difficult knowledge like genocide. They don’t understand the big picture yet. Once they have an understanding of concepts such as significance, continuity and change, cause and consequence, and moral judgment, students can logically think through and ask questions about why events have happened.”
To critics who would argue that educators can’t shield younger students from the difficult topics of history, Trofanenko says that high school students are better equipped, both emotionally and intellectually, to deal with traumatic events in world history.
So her main argument is that young pupils don’t understand “historical and emotional context of difficult knowledge like genocide. They don’t understand the big picture yet.” In other words, they experience the horror in isolation of historical motives and movements. According to her, one cannot deal with the incredible evil of unchecked modern warfare, which got a head start with World War I, unless one can connect the dots to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which is considered one of its triggers.
If the purpose of Holocaust education is to produce well versed junior historians, who will publish regularly revisions of history and tell us how we cannot truly understand this or that party unless we also know what the historical background is, which in turn will allow our little historians to grow up into adult historians who will feed us with a steady stream of nuanced, sometimes even highly informative historical monographs, then Prof. Trofanenko is surely right. Younger pupils are not yet capable of that.
However, the purpose of Holocaust education is not restricted to developing in depth historiographic scholarship (however important such scholarship be). The “larger picture,” to use Prof. Trofanenko’s words, of Holocaust education is precisely to prompt students, in the face of great evil, to withstand the drive to see a nuanced picture. The purpose of Holocaust education is to enable students to identify with the primary victims of evil and to then feel moral outrage, which, in time, should also develop their moral courage. We want citizens of the world who, when trained by their governments or ethnic groups to close their eyes to evil, will stand up and cry foul; people who will not only refuse to take part in evil, but will also not be content remaining a silent majority.
Some two years ago my family and I visited Rome, and as part of this visit, we also went to the local Jewish museum. My children, young though they are (and younger though they were then), have not been shielded from the existence of the evil of Nazism and their supporters throughout Europe. They know that millions of Jews were murdered, including most of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ families. They know that the Nazis did not act alone, but were joined by willing collaborators throughout Europe. They know it was horrendous. They know that there were concentration and extermination camps, and that their great-grandmother, who is thankfully alive and well, was a prisoner in Auschwitz. But, they are and were kind of too young for the graphic documentation out there. At the museum, however, as we watched a history of Jewish Rome, there were images of Jews being rounded up and even shot. The scene was unfolding on the screen before us, and it would have been the wrong time, sending the wrong message, to suddenly just shuttle the kids out of that room, so instead, we provided commentary and spoke again of their grand- and great-grandparents’ experiences. They are still too young to understand the bigger picture, but they are surely revolted against Nazis and all their sympathizers, admirers and quiet supporters.
Our moral compass develops very early on, and disgust with how low a civilized nation can stoop, how evil man can become, is crucial in properly developing this moral compass.
This coming Sunday, when Ashkenazi Jews begin reciting the daily pre-dawn penitential selichot prayers, it is customary in many communities to visit the graves of ancestors and martyrs. In Basel, this is when we religiously commemorate the Jewish martyrs of Nazism, along with those of Bogdan Chmielnicki’s Kozack uprising, the Crusades, the Almohades and many other tragedies.
When perusing the elegies (kinot) that were incorporated in the High Holiday selichot and in the Tisha’ be-Av mourning liturgy, it is remarkeable how we do not forget. For centuries and millenia, we recall our martyrs and know that we can never forget, and never forgive, for the lives that were taken, that were prematurely cut short, are not ours to forgive. Nazis and Crusaders and Kozacks and Almohades who killed or persecuted Jews will never be rehabilitated.
However, there is not a word in these texts about nuanced understanding of history, about the context, the “bigger picture.”
Because evil is evil even when one can explain it. We do not deny the utility of nuanced understandings of history; it is most important in trying to understand and learn from the past in order to better govern in the future. However, when calibrating our moral compass, we want to remember and indeed must remember that evil is evil, and that no amount of nuance will excuse either the great monsters of history or those who put them in power.
To deprive children of this exposure to our horrible past is first of all unrealistic, as knowledge of these events will filter through, and lacking the guidance of a teacher, kids may have a much harder time dealing with the discovery of that evil. Furthermore, shielding them too long will deprive them of a crucial tool for calibrating their developing moral compass. We need early Holocaust education precisely because the kids cannot yet understand the context, and so, such instructions will focus of man’s capacity of evil and the need to feel the deepest outrage against it.