The Holocaust was a genocide in World War II, in which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party systematically murdered six million European Jews, amongst millions of other minorities. As one of the biggest tragedies of the modern era, mentioning the Holocaust today, eight decades after it began, raises all sorts of questions about racism, democracy and the nature of man. Plus, the fact that extremists are blaming Jews for the spread of COVID-19 shows that discussions about racism and anti-Semitism are still necessary. Middle school and high school kids may benefit from the dialogue surrounding these questions and issues, as they are in the midst of forming their own opinions about the world. But is there an obligation to teach these kids about this tragedy, or should this tragic event not be singled out more so than others in history?
Here are three reasons why Holocaust education should be mandatory in schools, and three reasons why not.
Meaning in uniqueness
The Holocaust was a unique historical event in that it engulfed entire countries in hate and compliance. It allowed everyday citizens to enable or contribute to horrific crimes. Teaching about the Holocaust is important to make students aware that under the “right” circumstances, anyone can get caught up in allowing violent crimes to be committed or even committing them themselves for what are perceived as the right reasons.
The relevance of this Holocaust lesson was demonstrated by the post-Holocaust Milgram experiments. Participants were brought into a lab and told to administer electric shocks to a person in another room, should that person answer questions from a “memory test” incorrectly. Sixty-five percent of the participants continued to give shocks up to the highest, deadly level of 450 volts because the head of the experiment told them to keep going. In other words, these experiments showed how humans are conditioned to obey authority, to the extent that they would kill another person if told to do so. The Holocaust is a crucial, illustrative lesson on how almost anyone can be engulfed in and justify violent racism; this lesson must be taught to impressionable schoolchildren to prevent it from happening again.
The danger of erasure
As time goes on, there are fewer living Holocaust survivors. COVID-19 has also contributed to the dwindling number of survivors. This means that there are fewer witnesses to the Holocaust’s events. Time is of the essence; letting kids hear survivors’ testimonies directly is more impactful than just reading stories, and schools should jump on the opportunity to have survivors speak to the kids while they’re still here.
Many Holocaust deniers overlook the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust, and without survivors to contradict them, the tragedy of the Holocaust is in danger of being minimized. For example, in Poland, a controversial bill was signed into law in February 2018 that advocates for criminalizing the mention of Poland’s role in the Holocaust, which may eventually erase the Holocaust from Polish history. Without mandatory Holocaust education, it would be too easy for the world to forget or even deny what happened.
Teaching important lessons
The subject of the Holocaust provides the basis for examining simple and complex moral issues. For example, in the movie Freedom Writers (which is based on a true story), a high school teacher uses the Holocaust to teach lessons about tolerance to at-risk youth who had been engaged in race wars. Teaching children or teenagers about the Holocaust can provide them with concrete examples of the detrimental effects of bullying and racism. Additionally, discussing such topics helps students develop their own critical thinking about morality and how they can spread tolerance in the world. Today, when anti-Semitism in the US (and in Europe) is on the rise. Not to mention, with white supremacist shootings at synagogues in recent years, it is all the more important to teach teenagers about the dangers of anti-Semitism and how to prevent more from occurring.
It’s time to move on
Do it properly, or not at all
Curriculum constraints and the limited time in which students are allocated to explore such a broad topic may cause Holocaust education to backfire. To illustrate this, research done by the University College London on Holocaust education showed many flaws in their subjects’ (secondary school students) knowledge of the Holocaust. Many of these students thought that Hitler was the sole perpetrator of the Holocaust, and relied on harmful stereotypes when explaining why Jews were the primary victims. If this is the misinformation that students emerge with after receiving Holocaust education, then it may be better to leave it out of the curriculum altogether or wait until they are more mature.
Punishing children for the sins of their parents
Continuously teaching about the Holocaust has the potential to blind students to how repentant Germany is today for its past actions; just ask the estimated 10,000-30,000 Israelis who live in Berlin today. Another example: the German organization March of Life encourages young Germans to meet with Holocaust survivors, uncover their own difficult family histories, and organize marches around the world under the banner of “Never Again.”
Britain’s Lord Baker of Dorking pushed to stop Holocaust Education in British schools because it made children see modern Germany in an unfavorable light. In Germany, there’s a collective guilt about Jews and the Holocaust, and many people think that it’s holding Germany’s citizens captive. Making Holocaust education mandatory may keep the world from moving on, and it is unfair to hold modern Germany accountable for its predecessors’ actions.
Keeping the trauma going
Although the Holocaust happened decades ago, there’s some evidence that it has had long-lasting traumatic effects on younger generations that didn’t experience it firsthand. Grandchildren of survivors report emotional difficulties that follow them into adulthood, stemming from hearing constant details about the Holocaust from family members. As there is a lot of sensitive material used in Holocaust education, including graphic imagery and details of torture, it may have emotionally damaging effects on young people. This kind of heavy subject matter should not be forced upon students who may not be emotionally ready or able to handle it.
The Bottom Line: There are important lessons to be learned from the Holocaust but forcing schools to teach about it may not be conducive to moving on from the tragedy. Did you study the Holocaust in school? Do you think your children should learn about the Holocaust?