What’s wrong with Holocaust education today?

The last three decades have seen a massive investment in Holocaust education at all levels – federal, state, communal and individual. Since California became the first state to mandate Holocaust education in the mid-1980s, eleven more states have joined this effort. A bill proposing the same is now pending in Wisconsin.

In all likelihood, more states will follow this trend. The Never Again Act, a federal investment in Holocaust education, will certainly bolster these efforts, providing support to train a new generation of teachers on the subject. This concerted effort at all levels is certainly a step in the right direction, leading to more students dedicating more time to learning about the Holocaust.

And it’s much needed. For example, the number of Holocaust survivors living among us is rapidly dwindling, depriving us of firsthand witnesses and testimony. In parallel, anti-Semitic incidents nationally and globally are sharply on the rise. Recent polls show that close to 50% of Millenials cannot name even one of Nazi Germany’s 40,000 concentration camps and over 40% are mistaken about the number of Hitler’s Jewish victims.

Clearly, then, current Holocaust education is flawed, only superficially tackling the topic and surrounding issues. Studies show that the average U.S. student commits only 90 minutes studying the subject. Today’s Yom Hashoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, gives us a fresh opportunity to reflect on how the Holocaust will be remembered and understood for decades to come.

As an Israeli-born immigrant and the grandson of three Holocaust survivors from Poland and Lithuania, I take this crisis personally. My Holocaust education began with a grandfather who told me about the four young siblings he lost – all under the age of 15 — and a grandmother who described to me the shooting of her parents over a pit.

To me, the solution has less to do with how many hours, lessons and workshops are applied to the problem – and with how much financial investment and community support are involved than with how. How is the subject to be introduced to students? In what context will it be placed? Over how many years will it be taught? What should we expect students to remember after leaving the classroom?
For example, current Holocaust education in the U.S. is designed for students in the 8th grade. Already this is a mistake. Students at this age lack the maturity to grapple with the questions the Holocaust raises about totalitarianism, industrialized mass murder and, most importantly, the bitter legacy of two millennia of Jew-hatred.

As a result, Holocaust education is watered down, shrinking the subject’s magnitude. All too often, it’s based on simplistic lessons – about, say, the evils of bullying or too much immigration. The Holocaust becomes generalized.
As director of Milwaukee’s Holocaust Education Resource Center, I was impressed by how attentive, curious and engaged students always were. But our discussions turned out to be shallow. Yes, they knew Hitler was evil, killing millions, including Anne Frank. Yes, he tried to kill Elie Wiesel, but he survived and wrote Night.
What few students ever came to understand during my five years there was the Holocaust’s uniqueness – a campaign to erase an entire nation from the face of the earth. What they seldom appreciate was the often direct connection between the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism problem that to this day plagues society.
Naturally I applaud all of those who join in this grand effort at all levels. But if the Holocaust is taught only anecdotally, never reaching the high school and college students and always presented as a general example of evil without thoroughly exploring the history of those it affected, what could remain years from now will be nothing but a vague memory of a distant historical event, obscure and marginal.
My new position at Yeshiva University gives me a perfect opportunity to address the challenges that Holocaust education faces. The center will bring together under one umbrella the expertise of a leading research institution to undertake the sacred task of educating a new generation of teachers and graduate students about the Holocaust, and to do so in a fashion that does justice to this monumental subject. As Elie Wiesel said, a new approach to Holocaust education – one that repairs its flaws — is what we owe both those who survived and those who died.

About the Author
Dr. Pilnik is the director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at Yeshiva University in New York City. Formerly, he was the executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee from 2014-2019. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, majoring in Comparative Literature and Jewish Thought; an MA in Jewish Studies from McGill University; and a doctoral degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Modern Jewish Studies, which he earned in 2013. His PhD dissertation dealt with the commemoration of the Babi Yar Massacre in Soviet Russian and Yiddish literature.
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