Teaching and Learning About the Holocaust In Israel: A Virtual Field Trip

Opening Ceremonies and Day One

Welcome to the conference

Opening Ceremonies

The opening ceremonies of the conference took place on August 8 after our tour of the campus. The first speaker addressing  representatives from thirty-one nations was Israel's Minister of Trade and Labor and deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Ehud Olmert. He asked, "how to do keep the Holocaust relevant for future generations?" With the loss of the survivors to old age and a new wave of worldwide ant-Semitism, lessons on the Holocaust have new urgency.

The Chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, Mr. Avner Shalev,  pointed out that many students today equate Israel's actions against the Palestinians with those of the Nazis, and Holocaust deniers are on the rise. These trends make the conference an important opportunity to exchange methodologies and generate dialogue on where our priorities lie as educators. Learning through travel is another method for cultural exchange. As for me, teachers can also use the Internet to help their students understand the events and causes of the Holocaust, but they can also share their findings as a result of the conference using that same global communications tool.

First Plenary Session: August 9, 2004
Theme: The role of the Shoah in Jewish Education - The Challenge of the 21st Century.

Rabbi Prof. Yitzhak Greenberg, President of Jewish Life Network/ Steinhardt Foundation

Rabbi Professor Yitzhak Greenberg of Harvard University spoke first. The following is a paraphrased synthesis of the contents of his speech. He said that the Holocaust has become a standard for examining collective behavior. Christians now use it as a starting point for self-examination. The Holocaust has also increased in importance among Jews as well, and it must become an integral part of Jewish education in order to integrate the event into Jewish identity. Jewish students, and students in general, must be able to differentiate totalitarianism from democracy, and the Holocaust is the extreme example of totalitarianism run amok. What are the forces that are bring the Holocaust to the center of Jewish education? Demographic: The Shoah demographically threatened the Jewish population of Europe and the World. One third of European Jewry was decimated before 1945. 90% of Eastern European Jewry was destroyed. This represents a massive threat to the culture of Jewish life. Many feel that Israel's survival is still equated with threats to the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

Spiritual forces: The Shoah gave renewed meaning to the coming of the Messianic Age that is so central to Jewish thought. God's creation encountered forces of destruction even as God's own creation generated the devastation that was the Holocaust. This contradiction may never find reconciliation within Jewish education, but it is a spiritual force that brings the Holocaust to the forefront of Jewish curricular development.

Theological forces: Monotheistic religion is one of the contributions of Jewish thought to Western civilization. The Holocaust brought into question the existence of a benevolent, omniscient being. The evil and horror that found expression though Nazi terror is almost impossible to explain if the existence of an all-powerful creator is accepted as truth. Theologians found themselves at pains to explain it, and many explanations fall into anti-Semitic rhetoric. Were the Jews being punished for some failure? Many Jews, especially survivors, still grapple with the question "Where was God?" or "Was God in Auschwitz?" As the Jewish population had to heal from its wound caused by the Shoah, so their souls had to integrate and ameliorate the history of the Shoah into their theological views. This process continues even 60 years after the event.

Ethical forces:  The Holocaust showed that Jews cannot rely on the outside world to secure their existence. Too few "Righteous Gentile" rescuers can justify seeking help from the non-Jewish world for safety from genocide. The advent of Zionism offered the Jews a chance for independence. The movement arose even before the mass killings of the World War II era. In 1937, the Zionist movement was formalized, but competing voices within the Jewish community sought a role in the creation of the Jewish state. As the state of Israel moves forward toward securing its role within the international community, the Shoah must guide the use of power as a tool of the state.



At right: From Yad Vashem: Zionist Youth groups met during the Holocaust period.

Yad Vashem: Zionist Youth Groups

Reshaping Jewish Identity

The Holocaust could only have occurred in modern history. Destruction, murder, war, technology, bureaucratization, hatred: all fueled the modern machinery of genocide within the Nazi state. In the modern world, students of the Holocaust must have an understanding of what it means to be a Jew before they attempt to master the history of the Holocaust. This premise is critical more Jewish students who seek to understand their own culture's world view. Jewish self-critique must include an examination of anti-Christian stereotypes. As Jewish education seeks to understand the causes and course of the Holocaust, it must also seek to build reconciliation between its own identity and the rest of the world. This process will hasten the creation of the Jewish ideal of the perfection of the world.

Dr. Kopek on anti-Semitism in the media Dr. Jöel Kotek, Centre Documentation Juive Contemporaine, Paris

Dr. Kotek told us that he gives his students a "diagnostic Holocaust test," which will assess students' prior knowledge of the Holocaust. I read about a similar technique in Samuel Totten's Holocaust Education, Issues and Approaches (2002). He asserted Jewish students come to the classroom with a sort of "ignored ignorance" of the Shoah and its impact on their own lives. Students lack positive and rational responses to questions on the Holocaust that cry for correction and informative responses.

Dr. Kopek was critical of the global media for using the Holocaust to accuse Israel of misuse of power, specifically against the Palestinians. He asserts: The Shoah is unique -- it cannot be applied to other abuses of power. (My note: but can it be used to guide behavior so as to prevent abuses of power?) 

Studying the Holocaust calls for being a better global citizen. Understanding the place of the Holocaust in history must motivate an awareness of other genocides, especially the recent 1994 Rwandan genocide and the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan).

Mrs. Shulamit Imber, The International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

The Shoah and Defining What It Means to Be a Jew Today

The trauma of the Holocaust generated the question "who are we?" How long must it take to recover from this biological wound inflicted on our people? Sixty years is not long enough for a full recovery. Education and introspection must act as the balm that continued to heal the wound, but the scar will last forever. The Shoah damages Jewish cultural life, so it becomes imperative for educators, Jewish and non-Jewish to examine the nature of Jewish life before the Holocaust. Holocaust education must also "rescue the individual from the pile of bodies." Each person in the graphic documentation of the Holocaust had a name, a family, a purpose in life, and potential that was not realized. Students of the Shoah must personalize their study of it for the events to be relevant to them today. When we understand Jewish life before, during, and after the  Holocaust, we begin to grasp the depth of the loss caused by the Holocaust. The people of that era had to face "choiceless choices," to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children, to die fighting or to die complying with their perpetrators. These choices had no positive outcome.

Survivors are dying at a high rate, so it become critical for the second generation to assume the responsibility of telling their stories with the same moral authority that they did. Survivors are the world's conscience, and without their voices, the immorality of genocide dims as time continues.

Discussion Groups - Teacher-Training in Holocaust Education - What are the Dilemmas?
Dr. Jan Darsa, Facing History and Ourselves, Boston, Massachusetts

Challenges: How can the Holocaust come into the curriculum in a way that does it justice? How can we help adolescents move beyond their own world? How can educators exercise discernment when choosing materials, especially websites? How can we prevent "traumatization" of students who have emotional ties to the events? How can we help students assess loss? How can we break down modern stereotypes of Jews, rescuers, bystanders, and perpetrators? 

Presentation: Dr. Jeff Elllison, Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, Chicago, USA: From One Generation to the Next: A Case Study of Holocaust Education in Illinois"

5 states mandate Holocaust education. 10 states encourage it. Lucy Davidowicz questioned the accuracy of Holocaust curricular guides now in use across the US. Totten points out the shallow level at which modern curricular guides deal with the issues of the Holocaust. Illinois was the first state to mandate Holocaust education. Even though the population is predominantly white and Protestant, most agree with the state's mandate. 92% of Illinois schools teach the Holocaust in some form or another. Problems include lack of clarity and rationale. Students can be traumatized by the graphic nature of the events. Teachers need to be trained in the appropriate communication of this topic.

Presentation: Hadasa and Clilc Bau: Rebecca and Joseph Bau: The Miracle of Schilder's Survivors

Joseph Bau imageThe presenters were the daughters of Rebecca and Joseph Bau (website: http://www.josephbau.com/, who met and were married at Auschwitz. He was an artist who continued his art while in captivity. His daughters are carrying on his message since he died in 2002. They learned about the Holocaust through the art of their father, but he also included humor and irony in his description. Bau saved over 400 Jews by forging documents for them. Early in his career, he became skilled at writing German Gothic letters, which he used to help his fellow Jews escape. He met his wife and fell in love with her in the camps. He melted two spoons down and used them as substitute rings until they were formally married in 1946. They were protected by Oscar Schindler, and this scene is recreated in the movie Schindler's List. 

The Bau sisters are second generation survivors, but they avoided many of the emotional problems faced by those who must deal with their parents' trauma. The fact that their parents openly discussed their experiences helped bring the issues into the light. Bau's art continues to educate and inspire teachers and students of the Holocaust as the Bau sisters travel the world to tell the story of their parents. They also hope to maintain a Bau art gallery in Tel Aviv.

Above: a Bau Holocaust cartoon
Image Courtesy: http://www.josephbau.org/shoa_pics/swastika_low.jpg

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