The Problems of Holocaust Education

January 8, 2009

As a prelude to further thoughts on Noah Millman’s now-several-day-old post on history and narrative (and Holocaust memoirs) that went fantastically hand-in-hand for a reading assignment I had that very day:

“The great injunction is: never forget. But never to forget necessarily means never to construct narrative, which in turn means never to derive moral meaning from experience, but to leave the experience raw, and undigested. That is, perhaps, the truest and most respectful approach, but it is not – and cannot be – the approach of the Holocaust educator.”

And what’s quite fascinating is the way in which the narratives constructed by the Holocaust educators themselves can vary.  Take, for example, the Holocaust museums in Washington and Israel: In D.C., most of the space devoted to ghetto revolts and the resistance is given over to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (I may be wrong when I say “most”; it’s been several years since I was there; it is, at the very least, noticeably disproportionate).  In Israel, Warsaw is given (by comparison) minimal space; it is one of a series, in that narrative — the Warsaw Jews were not unique.  And the space, as a figure of the whole, given to resistance and uprisings is larger in Israel than in D.C.

It’s certainly not any kind of sinister ploy; narratives are going to vary from place to place, especially when you consider the limited size of a museum — each curatorial decision affects the precise nature of the story told in some way.  But I can’t help but think, considering Israel’s early conflicted past with the Holocaust and survivors (the idea, in some places, of those who fought or left — or who were already in then-Palestine working for a state — as compared to those who let themselves be led to the slaughter; there are stories of it being a source of shame in the early decades), that it was a deliberate attempt to point out that there was resistance, that European Jewry had not been in some way weaker than what came in Israel.

Of course, they can’t both be objectively true: Either Warsaw was as singular as the Washington museum makes it out to be, or it was as unexceptional among others as the Israeli museum presents it.  (And things like this are why I get myself into trouble whenever I open my mouth about Holocaust education and its many complications.)


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