Yakov Saacks

Teaching the Holocaust Differently



The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.


This got me to ponder the DEEP conflict I have about teaching Holocaust education the way they do in the schools. I am obviously a strong proponent of educating the tragic WWII history and exposing the cruelty of the Nazis and their cohorts as well as the sickening apathy of the world. And yes, the fact that millions of civilians were killed, particularly the six million Jews who died, 1.5 million of whom were innocent children, needs to be taught. My conflict is rather more of a practical one, which is why I worry about our Jewish youth.

When these kids are schooled about the Holocaust, which is retaught in Hebrew school, they learn that there was a mass murderer who managed to galvanize thousands upon thousands of people to hunt down Jews and others and kill them in the most innovative and cruel ways possible. Have you ever thought to yourself that it is no wonder we are losing our youth’s interest in Judaism. If our Judaism is relegated to the Holocaust, then why would a kid want to be associated with death, destruction, martyrdom and victimhood?

On the other hand, the Holocaust did tragically happen and therefore must be taught. We cannot be naïve about these things. We need to be aware and fully cognizant that “Never Again” is more than just a slogan. It is a vow to never allow ourselves to be marginalized by any government or group of people.

So, what to do about these conflicting thoughts? I agree that it is unacceptable not to teach about the Holocaust. I believe that we are neglecting to teach a large part of the Holocaust history. Believe me, if we teach our Jewish youth the rest of the story, we will be able to recapture their young spirit.

What is the solution to this conundrum?


We cannot ignore the fact that the Holocaust is indeed central to Jewish education, Jewish history and Jewish discussion. It should be, especially when there are those who seek to heap indignity upon the memory of the six million by trying to deny what happened and erase the lessons that must be learned from that very dark stain on human history. However, while this horror did happen to our people, we must teach more than just the bloody slaughter.


We need to take the following next logical step when we teach about the Holocaust. We must not stop short of the real lesson.

It is not the horrors, the torture, the sadism, the suffering and the genocide of the Holocaust that defines who we are. We do not share those stories to make the point that we are the world’s victims. On the contrary! All the stories are intended to reinforce the fact that we are victors. The real thrust of the stories is not that we suffered, but that we survived; not that we died, but that we are alive!

Hitler was a failure. Nazism failed. If you wish to learn about the Third Reich, there is much written in Wikipedia or on Google. However, if one wishes to meet a Jewish family who survived the Holocaust, all you have to do is knock on the door of a home that houses a Jewish family, and you will be nearly guaranteed that they will have a story of survival for you. Hitler wanted the Jews to be remembered solely in a museum and not as an actual people. Turns out that he and his ilk ended up in museums instead.

This, to me, is the message of the Holocaust.

I believe that the best way of honoring the memory of the six million is by keeping alive the ideals and values that they lived for. What a tragedy it would be if we were simply reduced to being known as victims of society.

Yes, the memories are sacred. It is what we do with those memories, however, that needs to be more clearly understood. A philosopher once famously said that Judaism has 613 commandments… “The 614th commandment,” he said, “is to deny Hitler any posthumous victories.” Reducing Jewish identity to victimhood would be such a victory – and we must not allow that to happen!


We are the architects, builders and educators of human civilization. This country was based on Judaeo values. We are the teachers, and we are the inspiration for our founding fathers. No victims here!

This is in line with the philosophy that victimhood has never been, and is not now, the foundation of anyone’s identity.

Whatever our individual circumstances in life may be, let us not see our struggles and challenges as obstacles to our achieving a true sense of happiness and fulfillment in life. On the contrary, let us see them as opportunities to propel us to newer and greater heights in all aspects.

Please feel free to share

Rabbi Yakov Saacks

The Chai Center,  Dix Hills, NY

Author of The Kabbalah of Life

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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