‘What does it mean to teach, to learn, to remember the Holocaust?’

Andy Pearce

This year, on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the New York Times poignantly announced the ‘Holocaust is Fading From Memory’. Referring to a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the newspaper reported a raft of findings pointing to ‘critical gaps both in awareness of basic facts as well as detailed knowledge of the Holocaust’ amongst a significant proportion of adults in the United States. Particular issues emerged amongst ‘Millennials’, prompting alarm that ‘today’s generation lacks some basic knowledge about these atrocities’ and fear this will worsen as the survivor generation continues to pass away. For its sponsors, the survey highlighted the importance of Holocaust education.

The themes of teaching, learning, and remembering the Holocaust overarching the Claims Conference survey are ones which an international group of experts and myself have explored in my latest book, Remembering the Holocaust in Educational Settings. They are also issues that colleagues and I at the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education shed light on through landmark research in 2009 and 2016.

The latter of these projects saw us publish a study into students’ knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, drawing on data from more than 8,000 11 to 18-year-olds. One of our key conclusions was that ‘despite the Holocaust being a staple in the curriculum for almost 25 years, student knowledge and conceptual understanding is often limited and based on inaccuracies and misconceptions’. For us, this meant ‘a reconsideration of existing educational practice’ was imperative. It was crucial to address not only gaps in knowledge and understanding but also students’ tendency to make up for these gaps by drawing on myths and mythologies in popular culture. Crudely put, knowing more “facts” would not suffice; young people needed to develop critical faculties at the same time.

Despite their differences, the echoes between and across our research and the Claims Conference survey warrant consideration. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, teaching, learning, and remembering the Holocaust have become social, cultural and political concerns over the past generation. Considerable public funds are committed to supporting them; both countries have a Memorial Day and Days of Remembrance; both are founding members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; and both are home to various Holocaust-related organisations, memorials and museums. To discover serious issues in levels of historical knowledge and understanding in these countries thus poses profound and elemental questions – questions specific to each country, but ones equally relevant to Holocaust cultures around the globe.

Many of these concern how we understand Holocaust education and Holocaust remembrance. Our conceptions of these activities are more complicated than we might presume. There are matters of rationale and aims: for instance, why teach and learn about this topic? Likewise, why remember such history – what good can it do, what can it achieve? Then there are issues of content and selection: for example, what can be taught and what is essential to learn, given the practicalities of the classroom? What do we choose to forget in order to remember? What are we prepared to compromise on and why? Then there are questions of form: how do we teach so that children actually learn, and how do we evaluate this education? What is ‘remembering’ in a classroom – an act of recall, an exercise in empathy and feeling, a means for memorialisation or a process of working with memory? Finally, there are matters of power: who decides and what determines the answers to such questions?

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. But it illustrates the complexities of teaching and learning about the Holocaust, on the one hand, and of remembering it, on the other. Moreover, the nature of this complexity illustrates how teaching, learning, and remembering the Holocaust in particular are actually inseparable from fundamental questions about education and memory in general. So it is all the more frustrating that as Holocaust education and Holocaust remembrance have grown in prominence over the last two decades, the two have often come be understood as synonymous.

This is to no-one’s benefit. Failing to see distinctions between what we call education and what we describe as memory cannot help us to rectify shortcomings in students’ knowledge and understanding of this history – or, indeed, any history. Nor will it enable us to ensure that, in the approaching ‘post-survivor era’, young people can evaluate truth-claims and critically debunk spurious assertions without having to recourse to piety and liturgy. And while teaching, learning, and remembering the Holocaust may potentially contribute to efforts aimed at combatting antisemitism, it would be complacent and naïve to assume this will inevitably and osmotically occur.

In a recent article, the authors of the Claims Conference survey stated, ‘the message is clear: we need a broad-scale – and indeed, international – strategy to educate people about the Holocaust’. It is hard to disagree with this sentiment. But unless we take the time to interrogate what we mean by education, by remembrance, and how the two interrelate and depart from one another, then such a scenario will remain elusive.

A good place to start would be in complicating often simplistic understandings around what constitutes history and what is memory. Generally speaking most scholars have moved beyond a polarised separation of these two phenomena and emphasise these are distinct entities with a complicated relationship. This is not always the case in the public sphere, however, where ‘lived history’ is set against ‘just history’ and ‘consigning history to books’ has connotations of ‘sterility’.

In recognising the complexities of history and memory, we can also move to identify just what victims and survivors of the Holocaust can help us to know and understand – and what they cannot. For example, when we want to construct explanations of why the Holocaust happened, we must turn our gaze elsewhere.

Finally, then, we should look to draw on Saul Friedländer’s notion of an ‘integrated history of the Holocaust’ and apply this to our approaches to teaching, learning, and remembering. It has become almost axiomatic in these enterprises to focus on restoring the humanity of the victims and listening to their voices, and there are good reasons for this – certainly if our objective is to memorialise. Yet to develop holistic knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, to educate about it, we should follow Friedländer’s lead and integrate all involved into our historical consciousness. In doing so, we will unavoidably face uncomfortable realities and realisations not just about the Holocaust, but about ourselves as a species and our potential for violence and atrocity. Opening our eyes to these truths is our best hope for meeting the challenges before us.

Remembering the Holocaust in Educational Settings, edited by Andy Pearce and published by Routledge, is now available in print and ebook versions. Research conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education directly informs and underpins its programmes of Continuing Professional Development, which are available to teachers across England free of charge.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “‘What does it mean to teach, to learn, to remember the Holocaust?’
  1. Miriam David says:

    This is all very interesting… but I think we need a more nuanced approach… I am the daughter of a German Jewish refugee who came to the UK in 1936 because of Nazism … he lost his doctoral position and went east for 3 years… His parents and grandmother and aunt only came on July 30th 1939 (just in time)… in this last year I have acquired a German passport and naturalization certificate but have not yet used either… We have talked about this in my family which is extensive…

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