Teaching the Holocaust in Turkey

Today is the first day of the first conference on Holocaust Education in a Muslim country. Gathered here at Galatasaray University under the auspices of Aladdin, a Paris-based organization whose mission is to translate Holocaust material into Arabic, are delegates from Holocaust organizations including Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, UNESCO, and the UN. More importantly there are members of several Turkish Ministries, including the head of curriculum. There are also several members of the Turkish academic community as well as speakers from Iraq, Bosnia and Palestinian Authority.  It’s no small miracle that such a group would come together.

I have the floor for the opening speech.  Only as I stand in front of the audience do I realize what a responsibility and privilege it is to be in a room with people from such diverse backgrounds prepared to discuss the unlikely subject of teaching about the Holocaust. I decide to frame our discussion around three specific fundamentals – humility, courage and trust: Humility in the face of such human suffering, the humility to acknowledge the pain of others, the humility to leave our own assumption and be prepared to listen to one another.  Courage was required to convene the conference, but continuing to grow the dialogue will for sure require very much more courage ahead:  Courage to speak truth, courage to cross barriers, to courage to reach out and do the right thing. I cite the case of Behic Erkin, the Turkish Ambassador to Paris, who, during the war, broke Turkish Diplomatic regulations to issue visas to Jews to Turkey.  Trust does not begin with systems or institutions; it begins with human beings prepared to trust the other.  Such a conference establishes the possibility of trust to grow.  It never happens when only my perspective counts, it can only grow when we are prepared to be vulnerable with the other.

It is a dangerous place to be, not because there is a threat to my life, but because everyone in the room has to be prepared to be challenged and be changed in some way.  If it were that easy or safe, there would be little point in doing it.

The program of the conference is not so much about pedagogy – that is how to teach,  – but more about why teaching about the Holocaust in a Muslim country where the Holocaust did not happen.

There is some tension in the room.  Prof. Mohammed Dajani from Al Kuds University in the Palestine Authority relays a recent situation he encountered while planning a visit to Auschwitz with Palestinian students. ‘One of my students was a prisoner in an Israeli jail. She came to me and said, “How do you think I should feel empathy when my own wounds are still fresh?”  Another student wants to know if the education experts are going to propose a program to highlight the suffering of the Palestinians alongside the Holocaust program.  A herd of elephants are sitting in the room with us. But I notice Prof. Dajani did not leave the accusation of his student hanging in the air, but proposed suggestion to help his students bridge the divide and engage them more directly.  He suggested greater recognition of Muslims who helped Jews.  Dajani is right, of course: when we teach the Holocaust in Ukraine it is different to when we teach it in Hungary, because local historical and cultural context is different in each place.  So too, teaching in Turkey or the Palestinian Authority, will differ because the start point of the students – their prior knowledge, historical and cultural context, and other factors all localize the educational need.  Students always need a way in.  Dajani was in search of their way in.  It does not skew the history, it is just a different start point to a group of students in Brooklyn or Holon.

Cengiz Aktar has a greying beard and yellow glasses that divide in the middle and dangle on the end of brown strings in two halves across his red shirt.  He is a colorful Turkish intellectual in more ways than one. He describes the recent arrest of two Turkish exchange students to
Poland who were spotted by an Israeli group taking photos of themselves mimicking the Heil Hitler salute at Majdanek Concentration camp where over 250,000 Jews were murdered. Unrepentant, explaining it was a joke, they now face possible prosecution which could result in up to three years in jail. Aktar makes the point that such behavior, however insulting, is borne of ignorance and lack of sensitivity.  He underscored that most Turkish students would never go to Poland, but the attitude is there nevertheless. He suggests the need for every Turkish child to know what the Holocaust was, to reduce such attitudes.
Ambassador Ertan Tezgor confirms that the Turkish Government is researching how to include the Holocaust in the national curriculum in Turkey. Ex-head of the curriculum board is in the room to listen to the presentations.

Cengiz Aktar is not yet finished.  Responding to my points on humility and courage, he takes up the issue of the Armenian Genocide: ‘In Turkey we have our own need to know with courage and humility with the Armenian Genocide.  Memory work is in full swing in Turkey.  Without knowledge of such evil – we cannot fully reach the truth.’ I notice nobody flinches and none of the Turkish Government officials leave the room.  Aktar is leading a movement to ask for pardon for the Armenian Genocide.  He appears to have the ear of his peers.

The question is how teaching about the Holocaust is of benefit for the Turkish community, beyond knowing the basic facts.  I suspect virtually no one in the room is there because of a fascination with contemporary European history.  They are there grappling history, memory, identity, and values – their own mainly.  There is palpable concern expressed about Muslims who live in non-Muslim countries.  Viewed from Istanbul, Turkish Muslims living in Germany, France, or Britain are seen as a vulnerable diaspora, highly impacted by Islamophobia. Aktar sees teaching about the Holocaust as part of the answer to Islamophobia.  ‘We need to teach Holocaust and genocide to combat Islamophobia.  Teaching about otherness and suffering of others raises awareness of the consequences of prejudice. It will help understanding the difficulty facing Muslim communities.’

It may seem a leap of faith to suggest that teaching about the Holocaust will contribute to greater understanding between communities. Karel Fracapane of UNESCO hopes that such processes will indeed have the effect of bringing communities together towards greater understanding. Karen Pollack of the Holocaust Educational Trust does not think that teaching the Holocaust is a starting point for deeper community relations, but that it is important to know the history of the Holocaust because it is important to Jews and is important for Muslims to know about.  I prefer Fracapane’s optimistic approach to find common values through learning about the Holocaust, but it is an ambitious goal whose task should not be underestimated.  It is difficult enough to get agreement on how to deliver a basic education. But if our aspiration is not achieving a greater understanding between people, it seems we are squandering the opportunity.  Do we want Muslims to know about the Holocaust and be hostile to Jews, or would we prefer for Muslims to know about the Holocaust and have a more open mind towards relations with the Jewish

A member of the audience whose name I did not catch introduced himself as a writer and an ordained Imam, who recently travelled with thirty fellow Imams to Holocaust sites in Europe. I notice he sounds emotional as he speaks: ‘I had a dry knowledge. I thought the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. Then I tasted the real meaning of the suffering of the Jews in Europe first hand. I thought the Holocaust was a Jewish issue only, but there I realized it is the heritage of all human beings.  The approach of the Muslim world is wrong.  It is not about Muslims and Jews, it is about all of humanity.  We have to correct our approaches accordingly.’



About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.
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