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Henry Greenspan

The Delusions of Holocaust Education

We see it everywhere in Holocaust museums and programming.  “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The quote, in various permutations, is attributed to American philosopher, George Santayana.  And it rests on two foundational delusions.

First, those who invoke it rarely know that Santayana was himself a fascist sympathizer and remained so even after the Second World War and the Holocaust.  He lived until 1954.

Second, Santayana was an antisemite and remained so, Holocaust notwithstanding.  Having an essentially aesthetic ethics, Santayana conflated truth with beauty.  And because he found Jews, as a people, physically unattractive, he found them generally unworthy of moral attention.

That Santayana’s personal proclivities were what they were does not necessarily mean his aphorism is unworthy.  Perhaps it is true that “remembering the past” makes repeating it less likely.  Unfortunately, there is little historical evidence that it is true.  If anything, Jew-haters draw on Holocaust history to bolster their own genocidal aspirations.  Thus, the tiki-torchers in Charlottesville chant that “Jews will not replace us.” They aspire to Nuremberg, the rallies not the trials. Participants at the January 6th insurrection sport “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies while storming the U.S. capital building.  “Proud boys” are not much into shame.  Some number of protesters of the war in Gaza declare that their Jewish classmates should “go back to Poland” and that Hitler should have “finished the job.”

Often as they are recruited to be moral witnesses, very few of the Holocaust survivors whom I’ve known over 50 years have been surprised by these developments.  Chilled, yes.  But not surprised.  Leon, for example, recalled that when he was “young and naïve” he believed that “learning the reality of the Holocaust will maybe prevent another one from happening, will maybe cure mankind of this madness. But it is not the case.   It is hardly the fact.  It is not likely to come to a realization.”  Indeed, Leon believed that, at core, “the world doesn’t care.”  And that the best one could do, as parent or teacher, was to warn younger people about the next Holocaust so that they “would not be caught off guard, as we were.”

Relative to other survivors I’ve known, Leon was no extremist.  He disagreed with those who have advocated a radical revision of Holocaust education.  Unlike many who argue that Jewish welfare has been too generalized into human rights advocacy, Leon believed that balancing both should remain a continuing challenge. However much we might “love dead Jews,” as Dara Horn has prominently argued, Leon did not believe that anything significant would change by knowing more living ones—at least for the not-Jewish world.   For outsiders, “the Jew” would remain ‘the Jew” either way.

Having taught the Holocaust since the 1980s, what seems most obvious is that my students who were already activists used knowledge of the Holocaust to bolster the commitments they were already living.  I can’t think of a single instance of a student who was converted to combatting antisemitism if they did not already have a track record of confronting hatred, bigotry, and injustice.  Engagement of that kind is rarely learned in school.  Rather, it reflects coming up in families and communities that were themselves habitually activist—whether liberal or conservative. Beyond that, no amount of listening to survivors—whether in person or in video testimonies—made a difference.  My students learned a great deal.  But that kind of change was not part of it.

In discussing these issues, I often recall the example of Hugh Thompson, the American gunship captain who directly intervened in the midst of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.  Thompson was no sentimentalist.  He believed in the rightness of the war.  But he understood the difference between war and war crimes. When he looked down from his “bird” and saw women, the elderly, and children being herded into a ditch and killed, he made the immediate association to Holocaust slaughter.  As far as I know, Thompson never took a course on the Holocaust. The imagery that mattered was, by then, culturally iconic. He and his gunners were prepared—I’d say, compelled—to land their copter and turn their weapons on fellow Americans who were about to complete the massacre.

The US Army did not congratulate Thompson for his actions that day.  Indeed, for at least 20 years he was mostly shunned.  Having already established a reputation as a “whistleblower”—a hard-core moralist who insisted on “playing by the book”—he was, at best, ignored and sometimes threatened with court martial.

If we are to teach about those who are now called “upstanders,” we should teach about people like Hugh Thompson.  We should be honest with our students that such good deeds rarely go unpunished.  We should tell them that doing the right thing is not likely to yield merit badges or accolades.  The opposite is more predictable.  The majority of the “righteous” who rescued Holocaust victims were themselves murdered.  Their stories are not told in feature films.   We should be candid: Genuine resistance to injustice—whether to Jews or anyone else—most often leads to isolation, ridicule, punishment, or worse.  The courage required is as real as courage gets.

That would be Holocaust education worth pursuing.

About the Author
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan who has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust and its survivors since the 1970s.
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