Containment of Holocaust Education: Lessons Unlearned

'The Latuff cartoon is clear enough.'

By Zarah Louis

In England, The Holocaust has been a compulsory theme in the history curriculum since 1991 and it was the first European country to make it so. So seriously is this taken that in 2012, the British Government (courtesy of the British taxpayer) allocated £1.8 million into Holocaust Education funding. The decision as what exactly should be included in these lessons is left  to the individual establishment or teacher, some may choose to condense it into a couple of lessons and for others it may be spread over the course of a few weeks and nothing detrimental can be implied towards those that choose the former option. Assistance can also be forthcoming from the Holocaust Educational Trust which works “in schools, universities and in the community to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust, providing teacher training, an outreach program for schools, teaching aids and resource material. One of our earliest achievements was ensuring that the Holocaust formed part of the National Curriculum for History. We continue to play a leading role in training teachers on how best to teach the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust section of the website of the Holocaust Education Trust includes a slideshow timeline commencing on January 30 1933 when Hitler took power and culminating in the 1945 Nuremberg Trials. Of the 15 frames, only one touches on any other group being affected by The Holocaust, these being the 70,000 mentally and physically disabled people who were deemed to be “unworthy of life”. Indeed a case has been made by some that The Holocaust is different from the holocaust and that the Roma and other groups that suffered the same fate in Nazi Germany in the period up to 1945 as those of Jewish ethnicity belong in the latter category.  The Holocaust Education Trust adds its own stance on the above issue in its supporting material for teachers ‘INTRODUCTION TO THE HOLOCAUST COMMON MYTHS & MISCONCEPTIONS ‘

“The term Holocaust refers to all victims of Nazi persecution. Although certain groups other than Jews (including Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), people with disabilities, Soviet prisoners of war and Polish elites) were victims of Nazi mass murder and many others were persecuted, only Jews were targeted for complete extermination. The Holocaust specifically describes the murder of Europe’s Jews. This is not intended to ignore or belittle the suffering of others but, in fact, to achieve the opposite. Using the term ‘the Holocaust’ as a catch-all for Nazi persecution can obscure the varying experiences of the different victim groups.”

The remainder of that document does indeed obscure the different non Jewish victim groups by not mentioning them again at all!

As one of the purposes of school history is to encourage students “to ask and answer questions of the present by engaging with the past”, then surely the holocaust in its broadest possible sense should be that which students become familiar with?

Whilst it is undeniable that those of the Jewish ethnicity formed the overwhelming majority of people who perished as a result of Nazi Germany thinking and actions, the fact remains that other groups including the Roma and Sinti peoples were categorized and subsequently exterminated by exactly the same warped thinking and legislation that saw millions of Europeans of the Jewish ethnicity perish. Sadly, for the Roma and Sinti peoples however, the same vigor has not been put into recognizing their holocaust which accounted for 25 % of their already small ethnic group being killed.  As a consequence the Roma are still discriminated against today and remain Europe’s pariahs.  This was evidenced in 2010, (and is ongoing today which saw the forced expulsion of Roma peoples from France by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and as a consequence his actions were frequently compared with Pro Nazi War time leaders in the main stream media and earned a rebuke from the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding. Despite the fact that France had been occupied and suffered greatly under Nazi Germany’s rule, no one, except Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared to take umbrage with these parallels or feel that they were insensitive; it was more a case of if the cap fits…

Holocaust education should not be taught merely as a series of horrors that students need to be informed of as empty vessels awaiting to receive a fill of prescribed knowledge. It is a historical event which students and teachers should be able to discuss, debate and challenge. If one of the lessons that the holocaust should imbue in tomorrow’s generation is to learn lessons from the past, then surely ‘never again’ should be examined in the broadest context possible? If ‘never again’ is simply looked at in the context of Judaism and anti Semitism and then only retrospectively, not only does the subject do a great disservice to the Roma and Sinti peoples, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled and political prisoners that perished in the very same camps but it serves to stifle any debate about the present or future. “How can you tell what’s going to happen, unless you know what happened before?”

It is of course important that students are made fully aware of the long history of anti-Semitism and how this hatred culminated in the attempted extermination of mainland Europe’s Jewry in the early 1940s. It is therefore vital that students are clear as to what constituted anti Semitism pre 1940s in order to fully grasp how pre war anti Semitism evolved. It is evident that some people believe anti Semitism has evolved further since 1948 and there is often a debate to be had as to how it should be defined. For example, the controversial London Declaration may not go far enough in its definitions for some and yet goes too far for others. This is a debate that should not be stifled in the classroom if we want future generations to be vigilant in recognizing and challenging true anti Semitism.

Students of multi cultural Britain will already understand that it is wrong to “engage in hate against Jews” just as it is wrong to engage in hate against any person of different race, creed or color. Or that it is as wrong to “Hold Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” as it is to hold Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of the state of a predominantly Islamic country for example. But students may not understand the difference between religious Judaism and political Zionism. They may believe it is the same or they may not have even encountered the word Zionism in their lessons. Given how instrumental Zionism was in planting the seed of an idea for A Jewish homeland and how influential it remains today, this cannot be ignored.

The London Declaration also opines that ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ is anti Semitic. The very fact that this has been included in the Declaration indicates that it is a charge frequently levied against the Israeli government. Of course, no country would be happy to have its policies compared to that of Nazi Germany, but as we have seen already with Sarkozy’s administration, where parallels can be made is it not right that they should be, if we are to learn lessons from the past?

Students should of course be taught that not all Jews live in Israel and that many Jews actively disagree with Israeli Governmental policy. Moreover if they are made aware that on Israel’s inception in 1948 it declared itself a “Jewish State”, would it really be that inappropriate for students to investigate whether any Israeli policies have anything remotely in common with those of Nazi Germany in the context of The Holocaust? This isn’t to single Israel out for any solitary scrutiny, even though the London Declaration states “that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic “. The actions of the 2010 French government and any other country where applicable, could be included also, but if the Holocaust is essentially a Jewish tragedy as per the Holocaust Educational Trust’s definition, then the scope would be legitimately narrowed.

So what do the lessons of the holocaust serve to remind us of and what should the lessons of the holocaust serve to remind us? It is evident that The Holocaust (capital T capital H) is fiercely guarded as an anti Jewish phenomenon and as such its horrors should never be revisited on the Jewish people ever again. However, most right minded people would concur that such an atrocity should never happen again to anyone and that where any parallels are to be found with the actions reminiscent of Nazi Germany (whether through the passing of restrictive or prejudicial laws to whole scale murder) they should be identified and discussed. In fact the English history curriculum expects nothing less “Considering the significance of events, people and developments in their historical context and in the present day.” Thus the reaction recently to teaching material found on a Belgian educational website, by offended “Jewish groups” whilst predictable, fails to acknowledge a wider perspective.

The story was initially reported in the Belgian ‘Joods Actueel digitale edition’ and then carried by various other similar newspapers and lobby groups. The Jerusalem Post reported that a lesson plan included a cartoon by Carlos Latuff (which the JP claimed was drawn for the Belgian educational website) and a role playing exercise which appeared in the JP having been translated into English.  However, it would appear that the cartoon and the script were from two different lesson plans not directly associated with the teaching of the holocaust. The exact educational context for the two aforementioned items cannot be ascertained in this article as they have since been removed from the parent website.

The lesson concerning the ‘role playing exercise’ is clearly a lesson in empathy and is also a method long employed in British schools. A task in a 1985 British school book which referred to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 provided an opportunity for ‘creative writing’: “It is 1948 and you are a Jew. Say what you think of the British and Arabs. Now pretend to be an Arab and say what you think of the British and the Jews”. (History through Maps and Diagrams  P.F Speed 1985 Pergamon Press p57).

Being able to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes, no matter how alien or difficult is a vital key to beginning to understand them and building bridges. Perhaps if more of the interwar German people had been able to do this, rather than viewing other peoples as inferior or even sub human, then the holocaust could have been avoided.

The Latuff cartoon is clear enough. It portrays a WW2 era Jew and a modern day citizen of Gaza as victims. For some it is anti Semitic for others an accurate depiction, though perhaps exaggerated for effect as cartoons often are.  But is it really so outrageous that it should have been withdrawn from the Belgian educational website? Within the right teaching environment and with context provided, this cartoon could have made for a stimulating and informative debate. Some students may concur that the cartoon is not an accurate reflection of the current situation but, and perhaps this is the real fear, students may begin to question Israeli governmental policies in Palestine.

Simon Wiesenthal Center referred to the lessons as a ‘classic example of Holocaust inversion in which the descendants of the victims of the Shoah are portrayed as the new Nazis’. I would disagree; the holocaust was a real and terrible tragedy for all of its victims and it should be commemorated, but not by an unquestioning obedience to their own limited narrative. As the Gatestone Institute remarked about the Belgian educational materials “Teachers indoctrinated with teaching material provided by an organization that is sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, in turn indoctrinate the school children in their care.” Well that can work both ways. Just as today’s German generation are far removed from the generation that perpetrated the holocaust, so are its victims. Our present and future generations need to be vigilant and acquire the skills and knowledge to be able to recognize any possible similarities in the actions of Governments today, whomever and wherever they may be.  Ensuring never again does not happen over again would be the best legacy.

– Zarah Louis contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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9 Comments

  1. A wise piece!

    We need to put, not only The Holocaust into context but also WW1 (as “No Glory – the real history of the first world war” By ‘Stop the War Coalition’ does – ISBN 970-0-9927166-0-8). No one can understand anything if the information has been distorted. No one can work on issues of real life without the truth.

    But maybe that’s the point: ignorance shapes nations’ actions – the Israelis, the 1930’s Germans, the US in ME today.

    Shame on careless historians and the censors trying to muddy the truth. Remember, as many Russians perished during the War as Europeans. Surely, an unacceptable price for imperialism?

  2. Whilst I would agree strongly that what israel is doing to the Palestinians is abhorrent and constitutes a major crime I think that equating-as the cartoon does explicitly-what the nazis did to the Jews and minorities during WW2 with what the israelis are doing today in the occupied territories and Gaza is offensive and counterproductive.
    There has never been a more horrific demonstration of just how gratuitously bestial we humans can be to each other-when we are allowed free rein-as we saw under hitler’s regime but despite how criminal and repugnant the israelis are to the Palestinians they are nowhere near as evil as the nazis.
    To be taken seriously you must stick with the facts.

    • Mr. Kropotkin,
      Sir you harm yourself terribly. You are seen to mean to qualify human suffering by quantity, this is in what the nazis did, how they thought. I urge you to aquaint yourself with humanist Judaism, before you lose more than anyone can and be a force for good.

  3. You also left out the fate of the jehovahs witnesses under hitler.They were not a racial minority or politically dangerous but perished in the same way as all the others,they should be remembered because they were killed for steadfastly and courageously adhering to beliefs which many would have shed for the sake of personal survival.

  4. Growing up an active Jew in the mainstream Jewish community, I can sadly say that the ethic of “Never again” is usually propagated in terms of others’ treatment of Jews, not the other way around. In fact, with the ENORMOUS exceptions of concentration camps, gas chambers, slave labor camps and forced religious conversion, the Israellis do to the Palestinians everything done to Jews by thier tormentors through the centuries. On the other hand, unlike Louis, I don’t see why the term “Holocaust” should not refer to the Jewish fate under the Nazis. Once can and should emphasize what happened to others as “Nazi genocidal policies.” The intensity of persecution of Jews warrants a special label.

  5. The ‘Holocaust’ should be part of a child’s education,but only as one of the criminal acts of genocide which have taken place in the World. The Irish Famine saw 1 million people die of criminal neglect in 1847. The architect of this particular genocidal act was an economist called Nassau Senior of Spanish/ Jewish extraction., who was hired by the British to accelerate Irish deaths. His only regret was that ‘only 1,000,000 people would die over the Winter , AND THAT WOULD NOT BE ENOUGH.( The Great Hunger\; Cecil Woodham-Smith). Armenia, Rwanda and the deaths of 25 million Russians are also facts with which students should be acquainted to round off their knowledge of the acts of others.

  6. After 68 years I don’t think its unreasonable to ask why there still is no forensic evidence or not one contemporaneous German document unambiguous alluding to an extermination policy. No Order, No Plan, No Budget, No Construction Plans and above all, No Forensic evidence for the alleged homicidal gas chambers. No reports from the extensive Allied autopsy program which concluded that the camp fatalities were caused by other than typhus and other maladies.

  7. Latuff exposes the hypocrisy of governments which demand that their populations need to learn from the Third Reich and the Holocaust the total unquestioning support for Israeli policies. Merkel has learned from the Holocaust that Israel’s massive bombing of civilians in Lebanon and Gaza is a measured response. Germany also expects that its citizens walk from Auschwitz to Gaza and side (again) with the military that points guns and tanks at a starving population behind the fence.

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