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Acute Angles: How to Teach the Holocaust

Rabbi. I was shocked, as I am sure you were, to read the other week that according to a recent survey one in four Australians have little or no knowledge of the Sho’a. Since 2012 teaching about the Holocaust has been a part of the National Curriculum and currently students nationwide start to learn about it from the age of 14. Do you think that this will serve to increase Holocaust awareness and diminish antisemitism? Yours, Anna.

Dear Anna,

Before I attempt to answer your question, can I say that I was profoundly shaken by the findings of a different survey taken in 2010 (the statistic would doubtless be even more dismaying now) that 72 percent of young Australians aged 13-24 had never read a page of the Bible. In the case of 49% of the surveyed, it was because they had rejected, or never even considered, the notion of a Supreme Being!

This finding does not send shock waves around our community. Yet how can anyone understand the gassing of six million Jews without comprehending who the Jews are, what their origin is and why they are still around when all the mighty empires that attempted to destroy them are no more?

Ironically the Nazis did understand. In an iconic Newsweek article dating from 28th October 1946, the day when ten of the most notorious Nazi war criminals were hanged in Nuremberg, the world was told that Julius Streicher “stared at the witnesses facing the gallows and shouted Purimfest 1946” (Hebrew year taph-shin-zayin, incredibly the very three letters written, from time immemorial, small and distinctive in every Megila in the passage recording the hangings [Esther 9:7-9], no-one having known why until October 1946). Streicher knew his Bible and, as he was about to die, acknowledged the connection between the ten Nazi mass-murderers and the ten sons of Haman who were hanged as the climax to the events recounted in the Book of Esther which gave rise to our festival of Purim. That in turn was a sequel to the execution of Agag, king of the Amalekites, a sect who had, ten generations earlier, declared eternal hatred to the eternal nation when they gratuitously attacked our unsuspecting ancestors in a cowardly fashion from the rear, a matter of days after we had left Egyptian slavery and had become the nation of Israel. This is one of the six events Jews are enjoined to never ever forget. Sadly, we have never enjoyed the luxury of being able to.

Sir Winston Churchill also understood. It is told that when challenged by a prominent fellow-politician to furnish proof for the existence of G-D, Churchill replied unhesitatingly: “Sir, the Jews!”

In case you haven’t cottoned on yet as to where I am going with this, it is quite simple: One cannot possibly teach or understand the Holocaust without seeing the event in the context of Jewish history in all its glory and tragedy.

Genocide was plotted against us even before we were a constituted nation. Pharaoh wished to drown all the male babies, believing that would put an end to Jewish continuity – even though he would be harming his own people by denuding it of its main slave population. Amalek, we have already mentioned. Sennacherib carried away captive the bulk of ten of our tribes to Assyria and wished to do the same to Judea. Nebuchadnezzar finally achieved it. Antiochus IV imagined that by destroying Judaism he would destroy our uniqueness and therefore our immortality.  Titus believed that by bringing an end to Jewish sovereignty he would be the architect of our demise as a nation. Torquemada saw mass Jewish conversion to Christianity as a means of terminating Jewish existence. Our enemies through the generations devised different means to put an end to us. Some felt threatened primarily by our belief-system, others by our nationhood. But their aim was the same.

The tragedy of the Holocaust was unique in scope. But not in design. Pharaoh and Haman had attempted active, overt genocide against us, thank G-D unsuccessfully.  Other tyrants attempted it covertly. All were threatened by our distinctiveness, by our chosen-ness, in short by our Torah, our exclusive possession but one whose authentic message (as opposed to the distorted adaptations in Christianity and Islam) we were, and are, desperate to share with the world if only it would let us!

This is what needs to be taught in schools! The whole span of our history. How what made us unique was also what made us envied, then hated, then persecuted. But also, how what makes us unique is vital for the continuation of civilized society. And how it is not in anyone’s interest to tolerate antisemitism in any guise.

Of course, I am aware that by now I have my head well and truly in the clouds! But I do believe that it is totally reasonable to lobby for the totality of authentic Jewish history to be taught as a core curriculum unit in the history syllabus in Years 7 and 8. One of my recent Bar Mitzvah students was regaling me about how he was learning ancient Egyptian history in great detail! Well, if a dinosaur civilization can be taught in such depth, how about a civilization which, in the immortal words of Mark Twain, is “exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of parts, no slowing of energies.” And as Twain concludes: all things are mortal but the Jew. All other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

A proper Jewish history curriculum, meaningfully, accurately and inspirationally taught, could go a long way towards answering Mark Twain’s concluding question!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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