I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on my eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. My teachers failed to prepare me for the experience of hearing distressing stories and viewing graphic images. The curriculum lacked historical context and critical texts, such as The Diary of Anne Frank. So I turned to the internet, the usual go-to for 21st-century kids when schools leave a gap in history. As a result, I learned more about the Holocaust from Google than from the classroom.
Six months after I graduated high school in 2021, former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker finally signed a genocide education bill, requiring schools to teach students about the Holocaust and other genocides. However, the bill holds no power over private, Catholic schools like the ones I attended. This gap perpetuates a division between Catholic and Jewish people and leaves students in the dark. Hundreds of schools continue to ignore the atrocity.
In southern Ohio, Samantha McLaughlin’s education bore the same lack. Five words encompassed her learning on the Holocaust in high school: “Hitler killed millions of Jews.” Five words summed up unfathomable atrocities that forever altered the global Jewish community. Some Ohio lawmakers continue to undervalue Holocaust education by insisting schools teach “both sides” of the issue or by erasing the history altogether. McLaughlin refused to uphold her school’s silence, telling the Bearing Witness podcast that the meager lesson fueled her curiosity about the genocide. Now she teaches high schoolers, and Holocaust education is part of the curriculum. McLaughlin has worked in various settings, such as schools, the Remember the Women Institute in New York, and the Galicia Jewish Museum in Poland, the site the podcast episode highlights.
The Bearing Witness podcast focuses on workers at memorial museums and their efforts at dedicating their lives to preserving memory. Theologian and trauma expert Dr. Stephanie Arel and filmmaker Jessica Daugherty developed the podcast from a forthcoming book by Arel. Both the podcast and book cover the role memorial workers play. Each day, they immerse themselves in traumatic content. Yet, they decenter their emotions in order to support everyone from school groups to survivors, enduring mental, spiritual, (and sometimes physical) challenges. As a former memorial museum worker, McLaughlin recognizes the tolls while offering wisdom to her colleagues about teaching Holocaust education in the US. She encourages leaders and educators to reflect on doing better for the next generation.
Reflecting upon two phrases presents a first step. The podcast explores “never forget” and “never again.” Originating from the Holocaust, they continue to be common rhetoric expressed after mass atrocities. As I learned from the podcast, they also form the bases of a framework that memorial workers use to bear witness to trauma and transform it into hope for the future. For McLaughlin, this transformation is a spiritual process “grounded in memory.” Therefore, “never forget” is an integral part of her work at museums and schools. McLaughlin identifies education as a principal goal of remembrance.
Her work in the field flourished in Poland. In Krakow, the Galicia Jewish Museum exhibits mainly photographs. Scenes of destruction fill the walls. The photos evoke memory in a very explicit way. McLaughlin led tours through the museum, highlighting the images to honor the legacy of the once lively Jewish community in the area. The visual remnants also help visitors grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust.
At the Remember the Women Institute, McLaughlin honors memory in a different way. The organization focuses its efforts on recognizing women in history, especially those who survived or died in the Holocaust. When teachers reduce the Holocaust to five words, they erase the experiences of millions. In the process, they also bury underrepresented voices, such as women, further into the ground. Remember the Women Institute uplifts these voices through events, social media outreach, and the dissemination of educational resources.
Finally, as an educator, McLaughlin approaches her curriculum with her own sparse high school lesson in mind. She provides much more than a five-word history; McLaughlin teaches an entire unit on Holocaust literature. Each year, she asks her students to read and reflect on poems, survivor testimony, and other works. McLaughlin approaches “never forget” from nearly every angle in her work, but each project accomplishes her goal: of ensuring the memory of the Holocaust imprints on as many minds as possible.
“Never forget” feeds directly into “never again”. The power of education comes into play and opens the door for a brighter future. For McLaughlin, this bright future emerges in her students. In the podcast, she recalls asking her high schoolers about the significance of the Holocaust-era poem “The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedmann and receiving a moving answer from a quiet student. The poem reminded him that a similar atrocity could occur again, but he, and his fellow students, had the power to prevent it. This anecdote struck me. Students can handle material about the Holocaust. When given the opportunity, they possess the ability to absorb the information and enact positive change. The future of “never forget” and “never again” lies within young people, and they require educational tools in order to develop the capacity for this responsibility.
We live in an era of forgetting. The number of living Holocaust survivors is dwindling. At the same time, antisemitism and desensitization to violence are on the rise. In 2022, antisemitic incidents in the US rose 36% to 3,697 cases, the highest recorded number since 1979. Diminishing the Holocaust haunts the contemporary landscape. A popular pandemic comparison likened masks and vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, demonstrating the detachment of Americans from the atrocity.
In the podcast episode, both Arel and McLaughlin discuss another sign of a desensitized world – selfies and photo ops at Holocaust memorial museums. McLaughlin describes such actions as “turning a blind eye” to the horrors of the Holocaust, which becomes easier as the events move further into the past and fewer people live to tell survival stories.
Now more than ever, US schools need to dedicate themselves to uncovering the history of the Holocaust. Memorial museums offer a model. One school trip to a museum accomplishes only so much; students require consistent, in-depth lessons. The federal government took a step forward to help with the Never Again Education Act in 2020, expanding the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s educational resources and requiring the institution to distribute tools to schools across the country. Still, though, only 25 states mandate Holocaust education. In some areas of the country, the growing prevalence of book bans outright restricts educators’ ability to provide adequate Holocaust education. For example, in 2022 a Tennessee school board banned the graphic novel Maus, which recounts the author’s parents’ Holocaust experience. In response to the ban, author Art Spiegelman commented, “This is disturbing imagery. But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”
Despite the discomfort of learning about this disturbing history, students deserve the truth. They already see examples of antisemitism in their everyday lives. They watch news coverage of synagogue shootings. They notice swastikas carved into desks. They hear insults hurled at their Jewish friends. Why not teach students the history behind this discrimination, so they avoid following an antisemites’ footsteps? Why not transform all schools into places for molding the next generation of informed and empathetic leaders? Why not take a page out of a memorial worker’s book? With the proper education, students will carry “never forget” and “never again” with them throughout their lives. The last of the survivors will perish, but the memory of their persecution will never truly disappear.