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The International School for Holocaust Studies

How We Approach Teaching About the Shoah

Shulamit Imber



The Human Being as the Center

Our educational rationale places the human being, the individual, at the center of our understanding of history. Facing the Holocaust means probing not only such phenomena as mass murder, Nazi policy, the statistics of death and the chain of historical, political and military events. It involves an attempt to understand human beings and the manner in which they contended with extreme situations and with profound ethical dilemmas. The story of the Holocaust is first and foremost a human story. Any discussion of its victims, its perpetrators or those who stood by and watched must attempt to understand the human being involved. The encounter between students and the “simple” people who were present in the events of the Holocaust – their daily lives and reality – must serve as the foundation for meaningful educational work.

Attention must focus not only on the heroes of uprisings and resistance on the one hand, or on high-ranking murderers on the other. It is imperative that we remember and attempt to understand the difficulties and dilemmas confronting those whose names were all but lost, often along with their lives. Only in such a manner will it be possible to create a real and intimate connection between the learners and the subject matter, and to begin to discern the commonalties and the differences between our own period and that of the Holocaust.

Examination of the various crossroads at which Jews, Germans and others stood, and the dilemmas and challenges that they faced, will allow the educational process to progress from the particular historical situation to a sounding of the universal human voice. Providing the history with a human face, an examination of the human complexities involved, help to prevent the dangers of banalization, of a one-dimensional picture or of an abstract, alienated view. These understandings serve as the basis for all educational work undertaken by the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.

Inter-Cultural Dialogue

Historians today point to the narrative nature of historiography, of a past that is open to a range of interpretations and understandings, dependent in part upon the point of view and perspective of the narrator. The International School for Holocaust Studies applies this understanding to its pedagogical work and conceptions as well. Awareness of these processes, and of the manifold ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is shaped, is among the factors which shape the School’s educational work and which allow fruitful dialogue to take place in the encounters we hold on a regular basis between educators from various countries. An understanding of other points of view, we believe, enriches one’s own insights and provides an opportunity to examine one’s own identity, past and memory. Sensitivity to other points of view and to other groups is among the central values that the School’s educational work seeks to inculcate. We seek to implement this value in the educational materials that we develop and in the seminars and courses we conduct.

The Survivors’ Heritage

Holocaust survivors play a central role in the writing of Holocaust history, in the shaping of memory, in commemoration and in educational work. Testimonies and encounters with individual survivors serve as a central axis in passing on the history and the memory of the Holocaust to future generations. The impending disappearance of the survivor generation challenges educators throughout the world to find new ways to relate the history and to perpetuate the memory and heritage of the survivors to a younger generation that will no longer come into direct personal contact with the generation that experienced the Holocaust and its era.

Inculcation of Jewish and Universal Values

The mass murder of the Jews during the Holocaust stemmed from a radical racial ideology which set itself the goal of demolishing existing humanistic ethics and physically annihilating the nation which it identified as having created the infrastructure of human ethics – the people who bequeathed to the world such ethical foundations as the Ten Commandments and its injunction that “thou shalt not murder”. As one of the central goals of its educational work, the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem seeks to instill these Jewish and humanistic ethical values, pointing to the Nazi attempt to undermine them.

The program inculcates universal values of preservation of human rights, and promotes individual responsibility in fighting racism and xenophobia.

A Multi-Level Approach

Educators and psychologists tend to agree that the inculcation of ethical values must begin at a very young age. The school consequently develops materials appropriate for all ages, beginning with very young children and continuing through to the college level. We believe that people of all ages are able to confront the Holocaust at an appropriate level. A fitting educational process must be constructed for each age group in order to allow each to confront particular aspects of the human history of the Holocaust. This process will contribute to an internalization of values and, it is hoped, to the construction individual moral identity and ultimately to a more ethical society. The student’s encounter with the past and with its ethical dilemmas will be internalized over the years and will contribute to the construction of his or her own identity and personal ethics.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Study of the Holocaust as a human experience extends beyond the boundaries of the historical discipline. Our presentation of the story as a human one mandates that other fields of knowledge that contribute to our understanding of human beings and the human spirit be incorporated into the learning process. These include art, literature, philosophy and more. Incorporation of these disciplines allows access to parts of the human psyche that the intellectual examination of historical documents alone does not always facilitate.

The Righteous among the Nations

The Holocaust was a historical event in which extremes of the human capacity for evil were brought into sharp relief. At the same time, however, it was also a historical event that brought out extreme cases of uncommon human courage and compassion. Our encounter with these two opposite ends of the human spirit call upon us to constantly examine our own personal ethics and conduct. Awareness of the importance of the actions of rescuers – the Righteous Among the Nations – was expressed in the Israeli law that serves as the basis for the establishment of Yad Vashem in 1953. Since its founding, Yad Vashem has occupied itself with locating, identifying and paying homage to these rescuers. More than 22,000 men and women who risked their lives to save Jews have been recognized to date as Righteous among the Nations. Unquestionably, the Righteous among the Nations serves as a powerful educational tool, and this effort is unique in the world in terms of its nature and its extent.

Conclusion

In sum, every teacher who wishes to teach this chapter in human history first needs to be a student, building a concrete base of knowledge. After s/he has acquired the information and feels emotionally equipped to deal with the subject, then it is our job to present them with various interdisciplinary approaches on how to teach the Holocaust in the classroom. Pedagogical methods and educational materials will hopefully provide teachers with invaluable skills that will better prepare them to teach the Holocaust to young minds in the twenty-first century.