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Remembering the Holocaust: Bearing Witness Ever More

The Economist, August 24, 2013

The study of the Holocaust is expanding worldwide—for differing reasons

ACROSS the globe, schoolchildren study the industrialised slaughter of Jews by the Nazis. Holocaust museums in America, Israel and Poland each draw more than a million visitors annually. The UN has passed two resolutions in the past decade to institutionalise memory of the Holocaust worldwide. Yad Vashem, an Israeli museum and remembrance authority, trains 10,000 domestic and foreign teachers every year. “Interest is growing immensely,” says Dorit Novak, the director-general. Membership of the Association of Holocaust Organisations (AHO) has increased from 25 in the late 1980s to over 300. Commemorative museums have opened from Germany and France to Brazil and Japan. Of the 16,000 books on the Holocaust listed in America’s Library of Congress, more than two-thirds were published in the past two decades.

In its immediate aftermath, the Holocaust went largely unacknowledged. Perpetrators and bystanders preferred to forget. Commemoration began in Israel, where many survivors had gathered. But even there it was done quietly. For the exuberant young country the slaughter of European Jews was an uncomfortable image of passivity and presumed feebleness. A 1960 study showed that barely a quarter of schools taught children about the Holocaust. Only when Israelis came to feel an existential threat during successive wars with Arab neighbours did that change.

In 1982, the education ministry made teaching about the Holocaust compulsory for all children. Coverage in history textbooks increased from 20 pages in the 1960s to 450 in the 1990s. Today, every Israeli schoolchild spends a semester studying the history of what they call the Shoah, along with further coursework in literature, music and art classes. Some 200,000 students and soldiers tour Yad Vashem annually, the soldiers carrying their guns. The state has managed to draw great strength from keeping alive the memory of the murdered.

Yet over time the depiction of mass slaughter has changed. When Israel was meek, it stressed the heroism of the Warsaw ghetto. Now, with reassuringly powerful armed forces, the focus is more on victimhood. Schools teach that “we need a strong army because the world hates us,” says Dan Porat, a professor of Jewish education in Jerusalem. Domestic critics have called some Israeli history teaching simplistic. The Holocaust is at times presented as evidence of a lack of Jewish national spirit, they say, rather than an excess of Germany’s. Government offices exhibit photos of Israeli air-force jets flying over the death camps of Auschwitz. On Holocaust memorial day, inaugurated five years after the founding of Israel, politicians routinely present the country’s foes as would-be annihilators. “All our [current] dangers are viewed through the prism of Auschwitz,” says Avihu Ronen, a lecturer in Jewish history at Haifa University.

In the West, it fell to the media to stimulate public discussion of the Holocaust. Early works struck themes familiar to Israelis. “Schindler’s List”, a 1993 Hollywood film about a German businessman who bribed Nazi officials to shield his Jewish employees, turns from black-and-white to colour when the survivors arrive in Jerusalem. More recent Western depictions have diverged from the Israeli narrative. Europe’s young, now three generations removed from the killing, flinch from guilt imposed by elders. According to Centropa, an educational centre in Vienna, students respond best to Holocaust teaching when first told about the Jewish past they have lost. “If they relate through Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, the Jews of Prague and Weimar culture, they will learn about the Holocaust through the backdoor,” says Edward Serotta, Centropa’s founder. Dutch schools draw pupils in by holding commemorative walks to buildings that once housed Jews.

Unlike Yad Vashem, which portrays Jews as outsiders in Europe who find redemption in Israel, new Jewish museums in Austria and Poland present Jews as an intrinsic part of European heritage and culture. “It shocked me,” says Mr Porat after a visit. “I never thought of Jews as being Poles.” The exhibition at Yad Vashem ends with a display of Israel’s declaration of independence and the playing of the national anthem, whereas European equivalents emphasise a Jewish rebirth in places where massacres happened (Berlin has the world’s fastest-growing Jewish community—from a very low base).

America may have the world’s second-biggest Jewish population but, with no death camps to commemorate on its soil, it follows a surprisingly universal path in Holocaust teaching. Museums and syllabuses are often used as pathways to examine genocides in general, focusing on the dangers of “racism, bigotry and intolerance”, says Dan Napolitano, director of education at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the largest of America’s 30 museums and 70 centres on the subject. An increasing number offer courses for soldiers, lawyers and policemen that warn against the abuse of power.

Discussing the Holocaust in the context of other human horrors is popular in Latin America, Africa and Asia as well. Richard Freeman, who runs the oldest of South Africa’s three Holocaust centres, has used Nazi race laws to examine white rule. “There are very close parallels between Germany’s establishment of a racial state in 1933-39 and South Africa’s apartheid state,” he says. “The separation of communities, the ban on mixed marriages—it’s a powerful link.” In Senegal, a UN official in charge of promoting memories of the Holocaust in Africa has spoken of using it as a way “to develop remembrance about slavery”. Argentine pupils examine the Holocaust in the light of who was responsible for their own dictatorship a little more than a generation ago.

Moral equivalence

Later this year AHO, the world’s biggest Holocaust association, is to stage China’s first international conference on the topic in Harbin. The north-eastern city once had a thriving Jewish community, but a more important stimulant for local interest in the conference will be parallels to be drawn, rightly or wrongly, between the Holocaust and Japanese wartime atrocities. The Imperial Japanese Army used the city for experiments on humans, including vivisection and dropping anthrax from low-flying planes, killing an estimated 400,000 people.

Methods developed by early Holocaust centres have become guides for memorials to Asian tragedies. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia and a Chinese museum commemorating the “Rape of Nanking” by Japanese soldiers in 1937 have drawn on Yad Vashem. “Israeli people did a great job of teaching the past,” says Xiaowei Fu, director of the Judaic studies department at Sichuan University in Chengdu. She has tried to drum up interest in the Holocaust with an essay competition offering a cash prize.

In some places, the Holocaust now overshadows the conflict that fuelled it. Indian history textbooks devote much of their second-world-war coursework to the slaughter. “Imagine yourself to be a Jew or a Pole in Nazi Germany. It is September 1941, and you have been asked to wear the Star of David,” instructs a tenth-grade textbook called “India and the Contemporary World”. Here and in some other places, the Holocaust is seen as the core event of the 20th century in Europe, and it thus draws millions of tourists to its memorials. Last year, 46,500 South Koreans visited Auschwitz, only a few less than Israel’s 68,000.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust

The main geographic exception to the growing global interest in the Holocaust is the Muslim world, where it is commonly viewed as a dramatisation meant to win sympathy for Jews bent on grabbing Arab land. None of the three main UN information centres in the Middle East marks Holocaust Day. “I cannot really speak about the Holocaust in Iran,” says a UN official in Tehran. Iran’s recently retired president called the Holocaust a myth. In parts of Paris with a lot of Muslims, some schools have reportedly removed mention of the Holocaust from the syllabus for fear of appearing pro-Israel. “I know of cases in which the teacher mentioned Auschwitz and Treblinka [another death camp], and students clapped,” wrote Georges Bensoussan, a French historian, in a 2004 study of immigrant schools.

Nonetheless, Western Holocaust centres are making inroads in the Muslim world. The internet allows circumvention of local censors. The Aladdin Project, a Paris-based initiative, has staged Holocaust lectures from Beirut to Baghdad, praising Arabs who offered refuge to Jews fleeing persecution in the 15th century. Next month, Washington’s Holocaust museum will hold its first training programme for Arab educators. The UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, which runs schools for the children of Arabs who fled Israel at its founding 65 years ago, repeatedly tried to teach Holocaust classes but was thwarted by Hamas, the Islamist group.

It is not only Westerners who want to talk about the Holocaust in Middle Eastern schools. Morocco may become the first Arab country to put Holocaust teaching on its syllabus. King Mohammed VI has long sought American congressional support by wooing Jewish groups. Members of the Berber ethnic minority also champion it to win support for their struggle to reverse 1,400 years of Arabisation; they have taken Holocaust courses at Yad Vashem and translated teaching material into their vernacular, Tamazight. “We’re trying to relate the Jewish physical genocide to our cultural one,” says Massin Aaouid, a Marrakech travel agent who helped to organise a Holocaust road show in southern Morocco two years ago.

Perhaps the biggest threat to remembrance of the 6m Jews killed by the Nazis is trivialisation. “The Holocaust has lost its specificity,” says Eckhardt Fuchs, a German academic preparing a study of textbook coverage worldwide. Politicians in America and elsewhere routinely employ the Holocaust as a rhetorical device to denote evil. The term has cropped up in comic books and heavy-metal music. Even in Israel, mentions are increasingly casual; farmers upset at diminishing returns from tomato concentrate have called ketchup their Auschwitz. Israeli politicians flock to Holocaust survivor beauty contests. A joke popular among Israeli schoolchildren asks, why did Hitler kill himself? (Answer: he read his gas bill.) In Britain, some teachers use the Holocaust as a lesson against bullying, reducing Nazis to schoolyard thugs. Treating it as a neat moral issue, warns Paul Salmons, a British academic, could devalue study of the Holocaust regardless of its proliferation.

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