Web Exclusive: Holocaust Education for a New Generation: Learning to Meaningfully Confront Our Past

by: Chana Silberstein, Chana Lightstone, Efraim Mintz and Aaron Herman

Chana Silberstein received her doctorate in psychology from Cornell University and oversees the development of curriculum for the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (www.myjli.com). Chana Lightstone, B.A., Jewish Studies, Brandeis University; M.A., Jewish History, New York University, is a research associate at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Efraim Mintz is the founder and executive director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Aaron Herman is author of Beyond Never Again: The Holocaust Speaks to our Generation, a course produced under the auspices of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

The Holocaust is the singular event of the last century that most marked the face of contemporary Jewish life. A shocking example of the cruelties that are tolerated by modern civilized states, it destroyed the existing structures of Jewish society in Europe. In the aftermath, as world Jewry struggled to resettle the refugees and to rebuild the institutions that had been decimated, different strategies were adopted for dealing with this cataclysmic event. This paper seeks to examine different trends and approaches in Holocaust education of the past half-century, as well as to suggest an alternative approach to Holocaust education developed by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

It is easiest to categorize the varied responses to the Holocaust by dividing this period into three eras: the first generation response, 1945-1965, directly after the tragedy; the second-generation response, 1965-1985; and the third generation response, from 1985 to the present.

At first, in the wake of the tremendous tragedy, many refused to speak of their past. It was extremely difficult to recount personal experiences, especially in such close proximity to disaster. Psychologists coined the term Holocaust silence to explain the reluctance of survivors to share their memories. Alicia Appleman-Jurman, who survived but lost her entire family, describes the reticence characteristic of that era. She explains, “No one wanted to hear it. They didn’t believe that such terrible things happened. That’s why so many kept the stories to themselves” (Sims, 2002, p. 1).

A United Nations report attributed Holocaust silence to a “variety of reasons: severe traumatization, feelings of shame, lack of trust, fear of awakening bad memories as well as fear of reprisals against themselves and their families” (Allen, 1996, p. 94). Another study links the unwillingness of American Jews to discuss the Holocaust to “wartime isolationism, lingering anti-Semitism and Jews’ fears of standing out in a country that had not yet completely accepted them” (Laderman, 2003, p. 167).

Holocaust avoidance was apparent in public pronouncements by significant Jewish figures. In a famous speech in America trying to garner support for the foundling State of Israel, Golda Meir referred to the loss of six million Jews only indirectly, passionately begging, “Don’t be too late. Don’t be bitterly sorry three months from now for what you failed to do today” (Meir, 1948).

Silence was also evident in the classroom, where Holocaust education was all but nonexistent. When discussed, facts and examples were irrevocably skewed, such as in The Diary of Anne Frank, now a Holocaust classic, first published in 1952. It was censored and heavily edited in this initial publication in order to make the story a universal one, removing its Jewish character. Jessica Landfried describes the tendency to view Anne through this lens, a figure that anyone could relate to, regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, etc. (Landfried, 2002). Tim Cole demonstrates how Anne’s reputation was transformed from that of a victim of the Holocaust into a symbol deploring racism and bigotry of any kind (Cole, 1999). In contrast, specifically Jewish accounts, such as those of Elie Weisel and Primo Levi, were not modified, and their sales remained quite low – reflecting society’s disinterest in the topic.

A dramatic shift in attitudes towards the Holocaust occurred in the next generation, the period between 1965 and 1985. After the Six-Day-War in 1967, Holocaust consciousness in America increased radically. Hasia Diner discusses how the war served to unify American Jewry, and describes that in this era, “survivors of the Holocaust who had settled in the United States began to organize in a way to share their memories with their children and with other American Jews. That they began to speak out at a time when Israel seemed so beleaguered cannot have been accidental” (Diner, 2004, p. 331).

The 1970s also saw the rise of Holocaust memorial events. In 1971, the American Federation of Jewish Fighters, Camp Inmates and Nazi Victims organized a conference in Israel for survivors. They were instrumental in establishing Yom HaShoah, an international day of Holocaust remembrance, as well as a general curriculum of Holocaust studies for public schools. The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council soon issued a compendium of guidelines and suggestions for such programming. Diner concludes that during this time, “the pace of Holocaust-related activity quickened so much that the tragedy emerged as a major element in American Jewish consciousness” (ibid.).

During the third-generation post Holocaust, much of the reticence of the earlier generations is gone. This is likely related to the fact that many survivors have died while the remaining ones are aging — with many failing in health. With the Holocaust moving into the realm of the past as opposed to the recent present, a sense of urgency seems to have emerged to “work against time” in documenting that past. This is evident in the proliferation of Holocaust literature and projects such as Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust archive. Dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials have opened – most notably the United States Holocaust Memorial in 1993 and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 1997.

Regarding American Jewry, Simon Herman opines that, “Jewish identity has been profoundly affected by… the Holocaust” (Herman, 1989, p. 66). This impact is notable in the broader American scene as well. Novick notes that more than “fifty years after the fact and thousands of miles from its site – the holocaust has come to loom so large in our culture” (Novick, 2000, p.1), and the Holocaust has become “a master moral paradigm in American consciousness” (Loshitzky, 1997, p. 8).

This trend has carried over into Jewish education, where Holocaust education has taken on a prominent role. Many Hebrew schools and high schools include Holocaust units and Holocaust memorial events, often with the underlying message that we must understand anti-Semitism to prevent it.

However, this inundation has also yielded unanticipated negative effects. Many people have become apathetic to the Holocaust or resistant to learning about it. The term Holocaust fatigue was used by a New Zealand parliament member, among others, who claimed that he had been saturated with such discussions (Kohn, 2005). Many claim that the Holocaust is overemphasized, such as Israeli writer Ahad La’am, who maintains that such an emphasis suggests that Jews have replaced the affirmation of life with an obsession with death (La’am, 2006).

Another aspect of Holocaust fatigue concerns educators in the classroom. Schweber notes, “Where I once worried that the sanctification of the holocaust stifled learning, I now worry that the trivialization of the holocaust impedes its understanding” (Schweber, 2006, p. 44).

This forces us to reconsider why indeed we must teach the Holocaust at all. Now that scholars and museums have taken up the cause of researching the Holocaust and documenting Jewish experience, are there important reasons to include this as part of a day school education? Indeed, some have argued that the only necessary response to the Holocaust is living more Jewishly. And, as we have seen, there may be a price to teaching the Holocaust, if we have not sufficiently considered our goals. We may breed insensitivity and disrespect to those who have perished. Worse, we run the risk of alienating a generation of young Jews who come to associate Judaism only with suffering.

A Curricular Concept

In light of the above considerations and concerns, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute felt that teaching the Holocaust also offered an opportunity to honor the memory of the victims with a living memorial to what it means to live as a Jew today. What follows is a discussion of some of the thinking and strategy that guided our own development of our curriculum, in the hope that they may assist others in rethinking their curricula as well.

In somewhat similar style to the museum approach of a “living memorial,” effective curricula must consider the Holocaust in the context of Jewish life and Judaism, the perseverance of the Jewish people through one of the darkest eras of human history, and the Holocaust’s continuing impact on the world today. It must also consider the Holocaust on a scale that can be processed, in terms of the experience of individuals, rather than simply cataloguing historic evils.

It can be useful, therefore, to anchor the course in broad themes that extend beyond the Holocaust. Holocaust education, within a Jewish framework, should challenge students to consider how the Holocaust shapes their theological and ethical understandings. Among the themes raised by the Holocaust are altruism, anti-Semitism, the existence of evil, and the search for meaning in the face of suffering.

To be credible, a curriculum of this sort must grapple with the question of the existence of evil in God’s world. Considering this question against the backdrop of the immensity of suffering in the Holocaust can be overwhelming. It may be easier to introduce the question of theodicy by asking the students to consider how they might respond to a good person who has just suffered a terrible calamity. Together, teacher and students should be able to identify appropriate responses to suffering, such as empathizing, refraining from providing simplistic explanations, or sharing moments of prayer.

The teacher can then transition from the microcosm to the macrocosm, emphasizing the magnitude of six million individuals. The Holocaust is not just the murder of six million. It is the act of one individual being murdered – repeated six million times. Seeing the Holocaust as the suffering of a people in the aggregate is not to understand suffering. Suffering is understood one life at a time, relating to the individual pain that each person in the Holocaust endured.

The exercise of responding to a single individual before considering the Holocaust may make it easier for the class to consider appropriate and inappropriate responses to the question, “How could God allow the Holocaust to happen?” It is clear that easy or pat answers are unsatisfying and even offensive. Considering the individual first allows for thoughtful and compassionate exploration of questions of theodicy.

Certainly, a discussion of this kind needs to explore how “questioning God” can be compatible with unwavering faith. Citing cases such as Abraham imploring God to spare Sodom, Moses questioning God regarding the suffering of the Jewish people, and Job crying out in anguished pain can help students recognize that questioning God and beseeching him to remove evil is compatible with – and a logical outgrowth of – believing in a omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent God. It is only the believer who has questions; the non-believer, residing in a random universe, cannot reasonably expect justice.

In addition to considering the philosophical implications of human suffering, the Holocaust offers pragmatic insight into how individuals can marshal the inner resources to cope with suffering. One possible strategy is reframing one’s experience. This theme is at the heart of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, in which a poor fisherman finds a rare, precious pearl and is overjoyed at the prospect of an easier life. However, the pearl destroys the balance in his life, as he becomes suspicious and mistrusting. On his way to sell it, bandits attack and his daughter is killed. In a moving concluding passage, the fisherman hurls the pearl back into the sea. Students are able to explore the limits of the human ability to judge the impact of a given moment against the expanse of time.

A moving example of this kind of reframing appears in Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (1988). She tells the story of a boy barging into Gestapo headquarters, demanding the release of his sister. The officer taunts him, agreeing to free her when the boy grows hair on the palm of his hand. The young boy opens his hand to reveal coarse, black hair. The shocked officer called the young boy “Satan,” and releases both him and his sister. What the officer does not know, of course, was that the hair on his palm was due to a skin graft years earlier. A painful accident many years earlier has now been reframed as a new chance at life.

It is not always possible to contextualize pain and suffering so that it can be reframed as “good.” Nevertheless, if one can retain some island of positive experience, one can still embrace life. As Viktor Frankl points out, the need for meaning is the most powerful dynamic within the human psyche (Frankl, 1956). Frankl recognized that those who were able to find a deep sense of meaning and purpose that infused their days with hope were far more likely to survive.

Thus, Holocaust curricula within the school setting can explore the search for meaning as an active process, and can be a powerful way for people to find strength and comfort in the face of adverse circumstances. The organization Shem Olam is dedicated to documenting the many ways in which Jews tenaciously sought ways to cling to their Jewishness in the ghettos and in the camps. Their continuing project, called Netsach, Eternity, seeks to make their entire archives – tens of thousands of books, manuscripts, documents and photographs – accessible on the Internet. Similarly, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s collection of Holocaust responsa, She-elot uteshuvot mima-amakim, is a powerful testament to the desire of Jews to remain true to Torah values under the most adverse of circumstances. Examining this primary material invites students to identify their “ultimate values,” as well, ideals never to be fully or partially compromised.

Another fruitful avenue of discussion is the role of righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, despite great personal risk and sacrifice. The landmark study conducted by Samuel and Pearl Oliner (1988) tried to determine what distinguished the rescuers from the overwhelming majority of people who were actively or passively complicit with the destruction of European Jewry. They found that the rescuers were not significantly distinguished from the general populace by their educational levels, nor by their political views. Significant factors, however, included having close relationships to families and communities that taught straightforward understandings of right and wrong. In addition, rescuers possessed a sense of caring and empathy coupled with the feeling that they could make a difference. In contrast to Kohlbergian tradition, which places emphasis on honing subtlety and complexity in moral thinking, the Oliners’ study weighs in heavily on the importance of directly stressing moral action and behavior.

We honor the memory of the victims and remain faithful to our charge as Jewish educators when we examine the Holocaust through the prism of our own Jewish values. Doubtless, each school community will have to identify for themselves the themes that are most resonant with their own educational philosophy. Schools oriented toward philosophical approaches to education should anchor their teaching of the Holocaust in the classic texts dealing with questions of human suffering. Schools that emphasize a more emotional approach to education will emphasize stories of faith, inspiration, sacrifice, and Kiddush Hashem. Schools that are anchored in social action will examine Jewish and non-Jewish activism and use this discussion to engage their students in current socio-moral action initiatives.

By attending more consciously to the meaning we attach to Holocaust study, we can craft Holocaust curricula that positively transform our students and make the past part of their present.


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