Modernizing Holocaust education for a new generation

I have a distinct memory of going to the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto when I was around 10 years-old with my fellow after-school Hebrew school classmates, to learn about some of the most traumatic events in human history. When we sat in the auditorium watching a slideshow where image after image showed skeletal bodies, mass graves, and scenes of unfathomable horror, a parent stood up and said, “Please, stop the slideshow. It’s enough.” 

From there, a debate began between two parents: one who was for the images to be shown, as it depicted the truth and reality of the Holocaust that we all needed to know, and the other believed the images were too graphic for our young minds. Eventually, it was decided that the images would not be exhibited. I remember coming home from that trip feeling overwhelmed and confused about what we learned and why the parents reacted that way. Whenever I did learn about the Holocaust during my childhood—whether it was at my secular day school or after-school Hebrew classes—I found learning about the Holocaust unbearable. However, I did find more solace with my Jewish peers when learning about the subject in my after-school Hebrew program, as opposed to my day school, where I was often the only Jewish student in the class. In the latter setting, I felt embarrassed by my Jewishness and remember when a student said to me, “Clarrie, aren’t you grateful that you didn’t grow up in that time? Imagine what would have happened.” I know they only meant it matter-of-factly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that my Jewish identity made me stick out in ways I felt ashamed of. I have numerous memories of crying on my mother’s shoulder after having to read books or watch documentaries on the Holocaust asking her, “Why us?” to which my mother could only provide comfort because the answer to that question is too inconceivable to answer. How do you teach your children about the most depraved aspects of human nature? How do you explain hate and the results of a hate so deep it has caused intergenerational trauma?  

I wasn’t sure at the time which parent was right: to show the graphic images, or not? My pre-teen arrogance set in thinking I was “adult-enough” to view the photos, but when I looked at them, I was horrified to my core. To my surprise, these days, there’s a more definitive method of teaching the material to younger kids. 

Michelle Fishman, manager of education, communications and outreach at Neuberger since 2013, said the approach to teaching the Holocaust to younger children has changed. With each subsequent generation, Fishman explained, the Holocaust becomes further removed and with that a more delicate approach is required. 

“There’s a more subtle way to do it,” she said. “We try not to approach the Holocaust in a graphic or damaging way. To younger generations it’s so inconceivable for their young minds.” 

Fishman described that the centre works to provide entry points that seem more approachable or relatable to children through their programming. 

This year’s theme for Holocaust Education Week is Holocaust Distortion, Myths and Misinformation. The program delves into how social media distorts and misinforms the public on the Holocaust and spreads disturbing images of yellow stars being used by anti-vaccination protestors or the appearances of youth dressed as victims of the Shoah. 

“You want to provide relevant access points as opposed to scaring them into their understanding of the Holocaust experience. If you scare them away because they’re not emotionally prepared, they won’t want to learn about it.” 

It’s a similar approach for Danielle Weissberg, a French and Judaic studies teacher at Montessori Jewish Day School in North York. 

Born in Belgium to parents who survived the Holocaust—her father was one of the people who worked in Oskar Schindler’s factory, but later was moved to the Matthausen Camp and then to a sub-camp in Ebensee where he was liberated by the Americans—it always felt immediate and known.  

Growing up in Antwerp, all Jewish families were impacted in some way by the Holocaust. “You know that it [the Holocaust] is possible because it’s so close to you,” Weissberg said. When she moved to North America, she was initially “shocked” to meet Jews whose families hadn’t been personally affected by the Holocaust. Because of this, her teaching had to adapt to meet students’ varied experiences with this chapter of history. 

Weissberg teaches the Holocaust in a “very gentle” manner as some students are more sensitive than others. The method is to “interweave” the Holocaust into other studies and classes in order to make the content not so jarring. The Toronto-based teacher also tries more innovative ways for students to learn on the subject matter like going to a travelling exhibit of Anne Frank, or attending a concert of music written in Theresienstadt, or showing films of children who were hidden during the Holocaust, or delving into Jewish resistance movements. 

The most emotional part of Holocaust education at her school is the annual Yom HaShoah ceremony, where survivors can come in and speak, and thoughtful commemoration takes place. 

If children feel uncomfortable during lessons, Weissberg understands if they want to leave the classroom and take a break from the material. 

“It’s important to not analyze them [the students] and to let them comprehend what’s going on in their own time,” she said. “I’ve always felt more objective being the educator and haven’t found the subject difficult to teach. It’s our history and we should not feel any shame or embarrassment about it.  We did nothing wrong. It’s important to emphasize the acts of kindness and resistance. When we talk about the Holocaust we teach about values. It can be incomprehensible, but values are something that can be taught.” 

For Fishman, she hopes Jewish and non-Jewish groups come away from the Neuberger Centre being able to reflect on their individual lives and the collective roles that “we each play in this civil society.” 

“I want them to be empathetic and aware of the world and the people around them. Everyone has choices, and their choices are important in this democratic society, and to not take it for granted,” she explained.  

When I listen to how both these educators discuss facilitating the Holocaust, it makes me look back on my own education and how I wish it went differently. Unfortunately, I was embarrassed when learning about the Holocaust in my public school and the graphic images I saw only made me retreat further from finding out about this stain in history (and luckily, I never had any family members directly impacted by the Holocaust). Only with time did I eventually take the initiative to learn more about the Holocaust and allow myself to be fully engaged with the material, letting the pain of history enter without judgement. For more sensitive people, like myself, a gentler approach would have enabled me to sooner realize my Jewish identity is not one to hide from, but one to fully embrace and be proud of. I just wish I knew it earlier.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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