Last week embraced in its arms “Yom Ha’Shoa,” Holocaust Remembrance Day. When you come from New York and live in south Florida one has perceptions about the Holocaust; even if you are not Jewish, you can’t really escape its presence. So one’s impression is that everyone knows what you know. It turns out many of these are mis-perceptions. It They are enhanced by the memorializing of the horror. The United States has a National Holocaust Museum. According to Wikipedia 66 cities have their own memorials mostly erected by Jewish organizations but some with city and/or state monies. The Holocaust seems omni-present from this perspective. Then came last weeks’ survey.
Chuck Todd of MSNBC’s MTP Daily show cited a very recent survey by the Claims Conference showing that only 11% of Americans know what the Holocaust refers to. The number is 22% for Millenials. The Pew Center estimates that that by 2019 there will be 73 million ’em, Millenials, that is. Only 22% percent! More shocking is the Claims Conference reports that 41% of American and 66% of Millennials could not identify Aushwitz–not where it was, mind you, but what it was! The venerable Anti-Defamation League reported in a recent study that 50% of all Americans couldn’t recall what the Holocaust was. How could this be? Might education be the answer?
Well it turns out that only 8 states mandate Holocaust education, meaning 42 don’t. Michigan just became the 8th. Twenty years passed between one state and the next and during that time the slaughter in Rwanda took place with more people dying at the hands of their fellow countrymen. And the discussions were framed by academics around the globe in terms of and in reference to the Holocaust. There was even a pit-in-the-stomach discussion about whether Rwanda, as horrid as it was (800,000 dead in less than 100 days!), could or should be referred to as a Holocaust.
On the up side Rhode Island maybe become the 9th state to mandate Holocaust education in public schools and there is a movement afoot by 20 legislators to pass legislation that the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides must be done in every state. In the current political climate, I wouldn’t look for that to happen anytime soon.
Fr. Patrick Desbois is a French priest/academic has dedicated his life to this study and getting an accurate count of the dead. He is the Director of the Bramen Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “Holocaust by Bullets.” He is willing to bet his collar that the vaunted 6 million Jewish dead figure so often scorned by the deniers is wrong. Wrong low, not high. He has discovered vast fields in eastern Europe that cover he is certain a million more bodies. The figure he figures, is 7 million and with hard work and scientific tools he is going to prove it.
Even if one wants to teach the Holocaust, it isn’t easy. Let us assume it’s occurence as a fact as do the vast majority of Americans who know what it is. The first question is how do you present that fact to young minds? The second question is how young is too young? The third question is what do you concentrate on, the tools of mass murder–mass shootings, gas chambers, ovens–or how such a wicked virus appears and infects people, the social-psychology behind what became the tools of mass destruction?
These are terribly complicated questions. What causes people to hate other people enough to annihilate them–all of them? What causes groups of engineers to enter a contest sponsored by the government to build an oven that will most efficiently and effectively reduce a human body to ash and not ask should it be built at all nor less for what purpose? Or this question: For how long can a human being be able to do hard labor on let’s say 500 calories a day before that person drops dead or falls prey to mortal illness? A week? A month? A year? Some of Germany’s best scientific minds worked on such problems and none? a few? ever scratched their heads, stood up, and said, “Whoa? Why do we need to know this?” No less did any of them do anything about it.
There are philosophical questions. Does this horrific act demand the continued fund raising for museums and memorials or is the money better spent on education of students? With challenges in education coming at us from around the world added to the woeful status of teachers in America, with the daily leaps in new, mostly math and science education to be taught, is there time for Holocaust education? Is there time to teach the teachers how to teach it? Or…can we afford not to?
The nation’s oldest human relations agency, The American Jewish Committee, created a poster of babies in a circle, each a different shade color than the next. It read, “No One Is Born Hating.” You have to teach a child to hate, you have to teach a child not to hate. Well-respected Holocaust Education curricula begin young with lessons about how to treat people, anti-bullying, and not a word about mass murder. As one progresses from elementary school, to middle school, to high school, this great paint by numbers picture has more an more numbers painted in so by the junior and senior year students are dealing with the tough stuff, the real stuff and dealing with the totally filled in picture head on. One of the famous challenges to students: Your home is broken into by Nazis. They give your family 10 minutes to take everything they want. The hitch is it has to go in one suitcase and able to be carried by one person.
What would you choose? Try it.
There is even the argument that to some seems a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” argument. It is the pitched battle over the use of the word itself. Is a slaughter such as the Turks brought down on the Armenians or the tribes of Rwanda brought down on each other a Holocaust? In sum, can there be more than one slaughter called a Holocaust? If so why? Should it be the cradle from which all social and moral teaching about genocide comes? If everything so to speak is a Holocaust, even abortion, then is anything a Holocaust? Lost in the arguments are the pre-Holocaust writings. They made it clear that the purpose was to eradicate the Jewish people and reduce their memory to a museum where the curious could study about the Jews time on earth and their accomplishments during it. Hence the oven; hence the need to know how long it took to starve a person to death.
These are arguments not to be settled here, or maybe ever. But some glaring questions seem less complicated. In a nation of 350 million people, more and more not from Europe, is 8 states teaching Holocaust education out of 50 enough? And the majority of those 8 states not surprisingly having the largest Jewish populations. Is the level of ignorance acceptable, even dangerous?
And mind you, we haven’t touched upon the other 194 nations in the United Nations and their populations’ ignorance on the subject. Poland just passed a law making it a crime for any Pole to link Poland to the acts of the Holocaust or activities during it. That’s 193 and counting to be worried about….
As a friend said, “That’s why history repeats itself.”
Bill Gralnick, your weekly blogger, writes social and political commentary published every Sunday. His essay style is thought-provoking but easy to read.
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“Mirth, Wind, and Ire” http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/692523
“More Mirth, Wind, and Ire” http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/7584411
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