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Home >> Education >> Why Learn About the Holocaust?

Why Learn About the Holocaust?

by Harriet Tarnor Wacks

Director, Holocaust Center, Boston North Inc

Why study about the Holocaust is a question frequently asked about the value of education on the Holocaust. Enough is enough. Sure it was a terrible tragedy, but it happened a long time ago. Besides, what can be accomplished by stirring up all those unpleasant memories? Guilt?" If you are one of those people who may have thought, “Why Holocaust?", please read on.

For many years people did try to forget about the Holocaust, and they were successful. Most history texts summed up this period in one sentence, “During World War II six million Jews died.” Parents avoided telling their children about the Holocaust, perhaps in an effort to shield them from the pain of their past. Almost an entire generation grew up knowing nothing about the Holocaust. Not until Gerald Green's novel was made into a television movie did the world, including many Jews, become conscious that this “unimaginable” tragedy really happened. Perhaps time was needed to put history in the right perspective and to view it with objectivity. That time has passed.

Why should the Holocaust be remembered you may be asking. For Jews, because the Holocaust is an indelible part of their history. It is better that they face the horrible reality as part of their heritage than of their destiny. To forget the six million would be the same as saying they never existed.

The Holocaust should be remembered and studied by everyone. A recent report from the Carnegie Foundation concluded that the study of the Holocaust is a crucial part of American history and must be incorporated into all education.

The Holocaust was not and is not a Jewish problem. It was a crime against all humanity committed against the Jewish people. The Holocaust was carried out by people calling themselves Christians in a Christian world, by both victimizers and bystanders. There are plenty of places to lay blame and to stir up guilt, but that would be fruitless. Instead, it is necessary to examine the events and the circumstances of this modern period in an attempt to at least try to prevent history from repeating itself.

There are people today who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. PHD's from prestigious institutions claim that the Holocaust was just ‘Zionist propaganda’ to arouse public empathy for the rebirth of a Jewish homeland. Gas chambers are explained away as showers, crematoria as ovens to bake bread for the war-torn German people.

One of the first lessons of the Holocaust is that if a lie is told often enough, people will start believing it. The ‘big lie’ that the Jews were racially inferior and not fit to live helped rally the nation of Germany behind Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, culminating with the systematic extermination of countless innocent Jewish lives.

The Holocaust was not inevitable, and Hitler could not have accomplished it alone. An entire nation of doctors and lawyers, engineers and chemists, industrialists and laborers helped to carry out the fanatical plan of Jewish genocide without compromise of policy, even when it threatened the nation's survival. And it almost worked.

Why dwell upon the study of the Holocaust when history is loaded with other tragedies? Because the Holocaust was unique. This is not to say that other tragedies were less horrible, only that the Holocaust was different and should not be compared and trivialized. The very word Holocaust (with a capital H) refers to the planned, systematic annihilation of JEWS between l933 and l945. During this time, many other people were also killed, twelve short years in world history. The darkest and most significant period in this century. It has been said that after Auschwitz anything is possible. As we are still unable to understand the unimaginable of the Holocaust, so do we fail to fully react to the unimaginable aftermath of a nuclear war.

What makes the Holocaust unique? In the past, Jews were killed for what people termed reasonable goals; land, religion, policies. During this period, however, Jews were killed just because they were Jews. There was no way out. No escape. Even conversion would not have helped. And, there was no place to go. No Israel. And the free world greatly restricted immigration, closing their borders to the threatened Jews of Europe.

The Nazis used the tools of modern technology to kill. They were proud of what they were doing and kept accurate records with pictures of their activities. They collected Jewish memorabilia: Torahs, books, Kiddush cups, etc., planning some day to open a museum to show the world what they had done for it. The original documents are available to provide the ready tools to study this period.

The Holocaust should not be studied to terrify or to shock, either children or adults, but to teach what happens when a nation blindly follows a leader and conventional morality is abandoned.

Proper analysis of this major historical event educates people to the meaning of human dignity, morality, citizenship and law. Individuals are encouraged to think about the choices and implications for a society which abuses civil liberties and censors freedom to think. Questions are raised which defy simple solutions. What would I have done? What could I have done? How could civilized people be capable of such inhumanity? Where was the rest of the world? Perhaps the very act of thinking may be the crucial tool to prevent people from doing evil and condition them against it.

If you are still skeptical about the value of Holocaust education and remembrance, consider this. Study of the Holocaust has helped many people confront their own prejudices. This is the first step in combating discrimination. Analysis of this period helps to make people more sensitive to current world-wide violations of human rights and raises the question, "Can we afford to stand idly by again?"

As long as one person is deprived of freedom and dignity, as long as one person is the victim of prejudice and ignorance, no one is truly free. Who knows who the next victim will be?

Genocide against another minority can be prevented only if people learn from the past. What is the alternative?

(Why Study About the Holocaust? ? 1985 Harriet Tarnor Wacks.)