Don’t ignore history: Holocaust education is essential

With this year marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps in Europe, it is vital that all U.S. states mandate Holocaust education.

"Arbeit macht frei" is a German phrase meaning "work sets you free." It appears in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. | PAVLINA CERNA / FILE PHOTO

David Tuck sat in front of a computer screen at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Northeast Philadelphia, ready to share the story of his early life once again, as he has been doing several times a week for more than 40 years.

“What I am gonna tell you today, I don’t believe it myself,” he said to a classroom of more than a dozen children on the other side of the screen in Hollywood, California. 

Tuck was born in 1929 in Poland, where the Jewish population before World War II accounted for more than three million people, Time reported.

“Three million two hundred thousand didn’t make it back,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Tuck, 91, is a survivor of the Holocaust, which refers to the systematic murdering of the European Jews during World War II, where approximately six million Jewish people were killed by German Nazis in the time period of 1933-45, BBC reported

This year commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps, the fall of the Nazi regime and the end of the war. But amid the remembrance and celebrations, some survivors fear the world is forgetting the Holocaust ever happened, NPR reported.

The problem runs much deeper than that — many people in the United States don’t even know what the Holocaust was. There is a very simple explanation for this: a lack of Holocaust education in the U.S.

According to a 2018 study by Schoen Consulting, 22 percent of millennials hadn’t heard about the Holocaust or were unsure whether they did, and 66 percent of them could not explain what Auschwitz was.

Only 45 percent of Americans knew how many Jews had been killed during the Holocaust, according to a 2020 report by the Pew Research Center. 

These numbers themselves are worrisome, yet the issue is greater than just blanking on a part of recent history: without education, we face the danger of rise of anti-Semitism. We risk people not having enough historical context to understand their wrongdoings when they use the Nazi salute, treat Holocaust memorials as playgrounds or take inappropriate selfies in places meant to commemorate deaths of millions of people. With the increasing numbers of young people showing lack of knowledge, Holocaust education needs to be mandated in all states.

“The problem is that Americans like to leave things behind them, we tend to be an optimistic nation which also means we tend to forget about history,” said Richard Libowitz, an intellectual heritage professor whose research focuses on the Holocaust. “If we studied the Holocaust and read about the shameful behaviors of the American government, which worked so hard to keep refugees out of the U.S. when they could have saved many tens of thousands, but they don’t like to talk about such things.”

David Tuck shows the number tattooed on his left forearm in Auschwitz to a classroom in Hollywood, California, on Jan. 29. | PAVLINA CERNA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

There is an appropriate way to teach students of various ages, but teachers don’t always know how to teach about the Holocaust and some schools don’t do much about it, Libowitz said.

“This is part of our history, this is part of the world history,” he added. “It’s not our favorite part, not something to be proud of, but it has to be faced.”

Education about the Holocaust is essential in tackling global anti-Semitism, PBS reported, yet only a handful of states in the U.S. require the Holocaust to be part of their secondary school curricula, while a few additional ones recommend or encourage the teaching of the Holocaust. The exact number of states requiring Holocaust education differs between 12-15 depending on the extent of the mandates taken into consideration.

While Pennsylvania doesn’t require Holocaust education, the state passed Act 70 in 2014, a law encouraging it and imposing two requirements — a curriculum has to be built and teachers have to be trained — regardless if the topic is taught. One of the key people leading the effort was Rhonda Fink-Whitman, a Holocaust and genocide education advocate and daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

“There were five states that were mandated before I got involved, I made Pennsylvania number six,” Fink-Whitman said. “Was it 100 percent what I wanted? No. But it was the best we could get in Pennsylvania at the time.”

Fink-Whitman helped pass similar acts in six other states, with additional ones coming down the pipeline, she said. 

To prove her point about the need for education, Fink-Whitman interviewed college students in Philadelphia about their knowledge of the Holocaust in 2014, most of them unable to recall basic information about it.

In the U.S., state governments are responsible for education policy, not the federal government, so a national curriculum cannot be created. But the federal government can recommend, encourage and support its teaching.

“Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has a bill in the congress called the Never Again Resolution Act and this one is vital because it would provide grants to states once they mandate and now they need help, financial help to get the resources they need,” Fink-Whitman said.

Besides funding, another issue for states mandating similar acts is anti-Semitism, Fink-Whitman added, which was the case in Oregon, where Holocaust deniers testified against the requirement to teach about the Holocaust, The Hill reported.

“They argued that kids should not learn about the Holocaust because it never happened which only helped to prove our point,” she said.

There were 1,879 recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in the U.S. in 2018, including more than 1,000 instances of harassment, according to the Anti-Defamation League, while anti-Semitic hate incidents keep rising, The Atlantic reported.

Geoffrey Quinn, education director at HAMEC, said that anti-Semitic rhetoric has always been around, it is just more visible and emboldened now. The current political climate is stirring up the fire, he added.

“There is a political divide that’s been created from this climate of being so left versus right. It has really just made the situation worse,” Quinn said.

In 2017, after a “Unite the Right” rally over the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Donald Trump did not condemn the behavior of neo-Nazis chanting anti-Semitic and Nazi-associated phrases, ABC News reported. Instead, Trump claimed there were “fine people” on both sides of the protest, drawing an equivalence between the neo-Nazis and counter-protesters.

Trump further enforced stereotypes linking Jewish people to money and greed during his speech at the Israeli American Council National Summit in December 2019, CNN reported.

“A lot of people don’t know how to recognize anti-Semitic rhetoric, a lot of the anti-Semitic tropes are normalized,” said Ruth Almy, program director at HAMEC. “You have to explain that something is anti-Semitic to people sometimes.”

Almy believes that Americans often confuse anti-Semitic statements with simple stereotypes.

“The idea of all Jews are super wealthy,” Almy said. “It’s not a negative thing to say about people in a society that values wealth, but it’s insidious because it is supposed to make you suspicious and question where all that came from and did they cheat and all that sort of thing.”

Quinn added that some of it comes from stereotypes about jobs Jews do.

“Jews are successful lawyers and doctors is another one,” he said. “There are successful doctors and lawyers who happen to be Jewish.”

Prisoners called the entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau the “Gate of Death.” | PAVLINA CERNA / FILE PHOTO

Anti-Semitic remarks, while seemingly innocent, target Jewish people and lead to hate crimes based on stereotypical claims which are often false. Such ignorance stems from lack of knowledge and can be fought with education. Places like HAMEC serve as an educational resource which connects survivors with people around the world on request.

But we need more than that. 

Education mandated into middle- and high-school curricula is a key in ensuring future generations are taught about the Holocaust and the immense suffering that millions of people endured, especially because they won’t have the privilege of hearing testaments directly from Holocaust survivors, and will be completely detached from the horrors of World War II.

During his video call lecture, Tuck emphasized education while rolling up the sleeve of his grey suit jacket.

“The most important for you is education … what I want from you is stay in school and educated,” Tuck said to the students, before showing them the serial number tattooed on his left forearm — 141631 — given by Nazis to all inmates of the camp, a permanent reminder of his time in Auschwitz concentration camp.

We owe it to people like Tuck and other survivors — those who keep publicly recounting the horrors they had been through for us — to learn about the Jewish persecution and to never forget the horrors happening in Europe under the Nazi regime while other countries turned a blind eye.

More importantly, we owe it to the 11 million people murdered during the Holocaust, out of them six million Jews who were killed for a wrong ideological belief that one race is superior over another.

As uncomfortable as it can be, the Holocaust is an integral part of the world’s history and there is no rational reason for people across the country to not know this part of our past, which draws on important topics of racial discrimination, prejudice, stereotypes and anti-Semitism — issues still prevalent today.

Legislators in many states like Maryland use the excuse that the Holocaust is being taught to some degree in schools already, so there isn’t a need to pass an act recommending or requiring it.

But that’s not enough — we need a full curriculum, not just some out-of-context mentions, numbers and places.

Teachers need guidelines and adequate training in the topic. Students need chronological context — understanding the rise of Nazi political party, abuse of power, the fragility of democracy and the danger of blindly following ill ideologies without questioning them. Because the Holocaust did not start with gas chambers and murdering millions of innocent people — it started with words.

In his memoir “Night,” Elie Wiesel, a Romanian Holocaust survivor who passed away in 2016, wrote, “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them the second time.”

Historical events are intertwined and explain important complex issues which we still or again face today. They expose human failures and help us avoid making them again — but only if we learn about them in the first place.

“Learning what happened in the past can only help us in the future,” Fink-Whitman said. “Education is key. They gotta learn so we don’t repeat.”

2 Comments

  1. When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which is grows, not the flower. I am so proud of Rhonda Fink-Whitman!
    Buckets of pride,
    Bonnie Glogover
    Edgewater, NJ

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