February 21, 2008
Robert Wiener’s article on “Holocaust fatigue” (“Educators worry about the future of Shoa memory in the schools,” Dec. 13) set off an ongoing discussion and a flurry of letters to this newspaper. As the director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the matter.
“Holocaust fatigue” is a fact, and not just among certain quarters that, spurred by anti-Semitism, wonder why Jews insist on drawing attention to an event that occurred more than a half-century ago. Indeed, there is also resistance to Holocaust education from some members of the Jewish community. They do not believe that the Shoa was or should be central to our people’s history. They would like to “move on” and add it to the long list of catastrophes to be generically addressed on Tisha B’Av.
The reasons for this are complex and dynamic. We live too close to the event. A canon of prayers, readings, and rituals has not been set. Also, many people in these communities are grappling with the tensions of being survivors or the children and grandchildren of survivors. For many of them, the subject is still taboo.
I hear from those who believe Jews should place emphasis on Torah rather than Shoa. Identifying oneself as Jewish through the Holocaust is, they believe, not the way to keep Judaism alive.
Fortunately, educators realize that the Shoa can be a poignant lesson on the values and vitality of Judaism. The majority of survivors, after all, chose to remain Jews. Even those who survived without their faith intact chose to remain committed to the Jewish community.
“Holocaust fatigue” can also affect Jewish students who year after year hear a variation of the same story, instead of a lesson that touches their hearts and engages their minds in critical thought. Fatigue is a consequence of repetition. Originality, new perspectives, new meanings are a critical part of effective education. Given the plethora of new Holocaust-related research, new or newly discovered diaries and memoirs, films, plays, novels, and creative pedagogies, there is no reason for students in our day and synagogue schools to find this subject as less than truly engaging. Our programs in non-Jewish public and parochial schools counterparts prove this all the time.
We believe that the Holocaust should be taught in the context of genocide as a recurring and ongoing predicament — an indication that we as a community of nations have neither learned nor integrated an understanding of the underlying factors and causes. New Jersey’s 1994 mandate to teach the Holocaust includes teaching about genocide. And too many news reports suggest this approach to Holocaust education has never been more relevant.
Where offered, courses on the Holocaust at middle and high schools, colleges and universities are usually oversubscribed. Why? Because the Holocaust is a meticulously documented historical event that contains personal stories, literature, science, theology, and philosophy. Those who teach about the Holocaust report that students become better students and more interested in learning about history. They tend to read beyond what’s prescribed, and their writing skills improve. Most importantly, they become kinder to one another and the school climate improves.
The challenge for educators is to demonstrate the relevance of Holocaust education and commemoration. To this end, the Holocaust Council of MetroWest continually seeks innovative and inspiring ways to present this multifaceted subject. We believe that testimonies from living eyewitnesses are the most immediate method of conveying the story of the Shoa. We have held speaker training sessions to help survivors successfully tell their stories.
Given the average age of survivors, we urge those organizing Holocaust programs to invite these eyewitnesses. At the same time, we recognize that some audiences decline this suggestion because they feel sufficiently versed in the history of the Shoa, or do not wish to engage a survivor from outside their own congregation or community. Thus we recommended alternatives.
We realize that there are many effective ways to teach audiences of all ages about the Holocaust. We create and facilitate special conferences, programs, and commemorations for the general community as well as special interest groups. These include teachers, students, scientists, mental health professionals, and survivors and their descendants. We work with schools, synagogues, civic organizations, and museums. “Survivors Speak,” a program we created for the Morris Museum that is taken throughout and beyond the MetroWest community, is now in its sixth year. The museum fills its 300-seat theater with both teachers and students from schools throughout New Jersey.
Recently I spoke to the facilitator, who told me that they had filled every one of their five sessions this spring. That’s more than 1,500 people at that one facility. Holocaust fatigue? Not on our watch.
Barbara Wind is the director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest
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