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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

What We Need to Learn From the Holocaust

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In my column today, I write that the U.S. should learn the lessons of the Holocaust. Reminding people is a good idea, but it’s not enough. We need a new relationship with the Holocaust.

We need to address the memory problem in three ways.

First, we need to insist that teenagers be taught about the Holocaust. I want my seventh- and eighth-graders to not only know what happened in the camps but to see atrocities on a daily basis. The media could also lead with this message: You’re entering a digital era where the haunting images of camps are used to dehumanize Muslims. That would be bad, too.

Second, many current textbooks do not use a clear narrative, so if you want teenagers to know the Holocaust, you need to make sure that they look at the pictures and not the words. When I was in fourth grade, we had a textbook that led with the “6 million” figure. That was the standard then. But the book also explained how the Nazis forced Jews to renounce their Judaism and led them to wear black armbands, and it also explained that Jews were forced to take both Jewish names and the family names of non-Jews.

That was an essential sentence. If we understand who the victims were, we will see their deaths for what they were — political persecution. Reminding today’s youth of the persecution and the denial helps teach the “tale of the Holocaust” in the formal textbook world.

Finally, we need to embrace the best ideas of Jewish folklore in the context of the Holocaust. As Jewish folklore writer David Wertheimer points out, myths and folktales help make the Holocaust real.

Folktales like “The Magic Arsonist” keep alive the memory of the destruction. And all historians need are stones and books to tell us the full horror of the Holocaust. (I’m fascinated by the counterpoint of the Holocaust that we Germans did not know or understand. The lie that sent hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners to Auschwitz was that the Germans did not know in advance that they were sending Jews and Gypsies and even homosexuals to die.) We need the Czech community to write out tales for the future. We need a generation of Jews to tell their own stories — and to transcribe their knowledge in a book.

At least four generations of Holocaust survivors have died. That is why it is so critical to this story. More important than remembering is to teach the lessons from the Holocaust that apply to the present. You must never forget the horror that your ancestors faced. But you must also work on recognizing the humanity and human rights violations that occur now, and that violent ideologies have evolved from the Nazis. We need to remember to remember.

But what is going to happen to the Jews? Our children and grandchildren must see the Jewish community as more important than any other group, without question. The postwar history is full of Jewish martyrs. And we have to make sure that we don’t forget. That’s how we’ll turn the Holocaust around.

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