In a media-driven world where hardly a day goes by without some reference to Hitler, Auschwitz or the Nazis it may seem perverse to worry about how secure is the memory of the Holocaust. But as schools across the country mark Holocaust Memorial Day (officially January 27) what is at stake is not whether we choose to remember but what form that memory takes and how far we are prepared to confront this traumatic past and seek to understand it.
The very fact of a national Holocaust Memorial Day is itself remarkable: mass murder has been present throughout the long history of humanity but rarely has such atrocity become part of the stories we tell about ourselves. Rather, the story of genocide has been a history of forgetting. For centuries communities have written out of the record their acts of mass murder. And today, even as we commemorate the Holocaust, it may be that we avoid its most difficult and challenging questions.
The Holocaust is in danger of being distilled into a moral fable for our times: a story of evil, racist killers, a few heroic rescuers, and a mass of apathetic, morally weak bystanders. It is a very serviceable past with a simple lesson – “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”. But the past is only so serviceable when it is simplified to the point of distortion, and we do young people a disservice to present it as such.
The IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education supports teachers across the country, through professional development programmes and practical classroom materials, as they move beyond easy moral lessons and help their pupils to explore the Holocaust in far more depth. Closer examination of the historical record allows more nuanced understandings of people’s behaviour, motivation and intent; the picture of the past then revealed is far more complex, far more unsettling and far more meaningful than anticipated.
Pupils discover there is no record of anyone being killed or sent to a concentration camp for refusing to murder Jews, while there are records of people refusing the order to murder who were simply given other duties. So how do we explain the thousands of so-called “ordinary people” who murdered? While extreme antisemitic ideology can explain some of the killers, others participated in mass shootings because of peer pressure, ambition, or a warped sense of ‘duty’.
And the killers were not limited to fanatical young men in SS uniforms. In a picturesque Austrian town, local women, elderly men and teenage boys joined in the hunt for escaped Soviet prisoners of war and murdered them. In a village in Burgenland, local people deported the family of their Roma (Gypsy) blacksmith but kept the blacksmith himself rather than losing his skills. What can we say about whole communities becoming part of persecution and mass murder?
When pupils do research into those who saved Jews, they find no template for the type of person who became a rescuer – no common denominator of age, gender, religious belief, nationality, social class, or political outlook. Indeed, there were even antisemites who risked their lives to save Jews, while others with more enlightened, liberal and tolerant views did nothing to help. The only thing many rescuers tend to share appears to be a certain unorthodoxy and non-conformity. So what model do the rescuers give us, exactly, and what are the implications for our education system, presently so focused on examinations and in socialising young people to take their place in the corporate world?
And who can truly said to be a “bystander” when everywhere ordinary people enriched themselves at public auctions, buying the possessions of their deported neighbours? Where then is the line between collaborator and bystander? Greed and self-interest are also a part of this story, and when examined the past reveals a shocking truth: you do not need to hate anyone to become complicit in genocide.
Essentially the moral lessons that the Holocaust is so often used to teach reflect much the same values taught in schools before the Second World War. And yet – in themselves – these values were evidently insufficient to prevent the genocide. Notions of tolerance and of human rights have been advocated since the Enlightenment; belief in the intrinsic value of human life; the “golden rule” of treating others as you would have them treat you; ideas of kindness, courage, charity and goodwill to those in need are all part of the ethical and moral teaching that have underpinned the values of Western society for centuries. And yet it was from that same society that the Holocaust sprang. What are the deeper flaws in our so-called ‘civilisation’ that allowed Europe to descend so completely into genocide, and what are we doing today to examine them?
The IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education supports teachers across the country in trying to meet this challenge, in helping young people to reflect on why and how – not long ago and not far from where they live – everywhere across Europe people became complicit in the murder of their Jewish neighbours. The questions are challenging, unsettling and disorienting, but they are also vital. Because the danger is that unless commemoration is accompanied by detailed study and depth of understanding then the old myths and misconceptions will continue, and the memory of the Holocaust will remain shallow and insecure.
To learn more about the work of the IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education visit www.ioe.ac.uk/holocaust
A version of this article originally appeared in the Huffington Post
To watch a UNESCO film interview with Paul Salmons visit http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/