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Renewing Holocaust Education

We need new stories that help us relate more personally to the Holocaust

On Monday, I did something I thought I might never do. I sat down at my computer and scheduled an appointment at the German consulate to apply for a passport. Not a visa, not a residency permit, but a passport.

Like many of my cousins on my father’s side of the family, I had decided to reclaim the citizenship that was summarily taken away from my family more than 70 years ago. It wasn’t a matter of pride in German culture or heritage — I am proud of it, but I am American through and through. It was about coming face to face with my family’s history. It was about looking at that history, acknowledging that history, and having it become more fully a part of my own story.

Having obtained dual citizenship a while ago, it was time for me to take the plunge and obtain the passport. It was time for me to see my face, my name, and my identity under a German seal; to acknowledge the identity that was being reinstated and yet would never be my own in more than a technical sense. It would mean coming face to face with a German alter ego who never was.

It has been one of the more emotional learning experiences I’ve had in Holocaust education. Applying for citizenship and now my passport has personalized the unthinkable for me as an adult in a way that only my grandparents and their stories as refugees could for me as a child.

Yet this process of re-encountering my family’s history has also evoked in me the worry that others may not have found ways to renew their learning about the Holocaust. Though unfitting to call it a ‘privilege,’ I have been granted a unique means to reengage with the Holocaust as an adult, learn more deeply about it, and understand its significance, both personal and universal.

It remains a challenge for many others to engage personally with a historical nightmare of such proportions. If learning on some level means finding a way to identify one’s own story with a particular concept, narrative, or methodology, we are faced once more with a question in Holocaust education: how can others come to identify with a reality so monstrous and pain so immense? This question is becoming especially pronounced as those who actually experienced events related to the Holocaust are becoming so few.

A frequent answer in Holocaust education circles has been to use the personal narrative of someone who experienced the Holocaust firsthand. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl has become among the most widely read books in history, and particularly in non-fiction. Elementary and middle school students across the United States read and engage with it. Through the eyes of a young person, we can come to see, feel, and more deeply understand the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Countless other books, from Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning to the more recent Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer have likewise made accessible what otherwise would simply be too big to comprehend.

To my relief, a new set of narratives appears to be emerging. These hold the potential to renew Holocaust education and provide new insight on our most painful past. Some, such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay are historical fiction, and may err more toward the latter. But others, including a particularly powerful documentary, “No Place on Earth,” have found old, historically accurate narratives that will touch people anew.

“No Place on Earth” is important insofar as it provides a new vantage point from which to grapple with the pain of the Holocaust. It tells the story of five Ukrainian Jewish families, nearly forty people in total, who lived underground in caves for a year and a half in order to avoid the worst. A blended documentary and drama, it is about families sticking together even in the most unthinkable of circumstances. The film lands on one family in particular and, interestingly, engages with its sense of joy. It is a sentiment felt not just by those who survived the ordeal, but by the audience as well.

Having spoken with one of the film’s producers, Susan Barnett, it seems to be more than just a documentary. A clear goal of the film’s producers was to renew focus within Holocaust education for youth who very soon will no longer be able to meet a survivor or refugee, or even someone who personally witnessed the atrocities.

By providing new, accessible, tangible, and moving stories, it moves viewers to comprehend the Holocaust in more personal ways. For those who have already read the canon of Holocaust history, sociology, and political science, it provides the chance to renew one’s interest. For those who have not yet found a way to approach such a pivotally tragic moment in history, it may be more approachable.

For me as an “emerging adult,” and one still actively engaged in the process of identity formation, it is the kind of approach that opens possibilities for greater self-understanding. While not everyone needs or wants a German passport in order to more fully understand what was lost, we do need new narratives to ensure that we can continue to relate most personally to the past. Especially when a particular time has so much to teach all of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Spiritual co-Leader of East End Temple in Manhattan. He previously served as an Assistant Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College. He was a Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Interreligious Studies and one of six finalists globally for the $100,000 Coexist Prize. His articles only represent his own personal views.