From kindergarten through high school, I went to yeshiva day schools in northern New Jersey. I can't remember the first time I heard the word Holocaust, but certainly, by sixth grade we were watching movies like Shoah and the TV movie Holocaust and writing papers about Anne Frank, the Warsaw Ghetto, Judenrats and Simon Wiesenthal.
Some of it was absorbed, surely. We knew that there was a "War Against the Jews," but mostly because our textbook was so titled. But did any of us truly understand or internalize what we were learning? Some of us had grandparents or teachers--or even parents--who had survived the war. Maybe close connections with those survivors had enhanced understanding of the Holocaust. But maybe not. Perhaps those war survivors had decided to move on into a better future, and left their testimony of the past behind.
Flash forward several decades to today, where, in addition to England's Prince Harry not being aware that his use of a swastika as part of a costume might offend people, now thirty percent of Canadians cannot identify that the main target of Nazi genocide efforts was the Jews.
The Environics survey commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies found that when shown a list of groups nearly 30 per cent instead chose Poles, French, British, Russians or couldn't identify any group at all. In addition, only 40 per cent of respondents correctly indicated that more than six million Jews died during the Second World War.
After some discussion of why this is true (including Apprentice-like breakdowns of college educated vs. non-), the article continues to note a positive effort in one Canadian school:
The students will come face to face with a survivor of the concentration camps in the coming weeks. That meeting is an important way to convey the global horrors of genocide and racism to students, said Marc-Michel Parent of a school board in Lachenaie, Que., that arranged a similar meeting for students.
"She touches the students on a personal level," he said of a meeting with a survivor whose experiences kept the students in rapt attention for two hours."They will remember her for her story but after that the teachers are telling the students that is racism and intolerance still exist."
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to write a book*, geared for teenagers, about hidden children—now in their seventies, then in their teens, these people were hidden by their parents in barns, attics and cellars or lodged with Catholic families. Hiding who they were and where they were was the only chance at survival.
The book required personal interviews, so I sought out survivors and sat across from them in their living rooms, surrounded by photos of their children and grandchildren and the trappings of a post-war life of some affluence. We went through my list of questions and they talked into a tape recorder. Although I had read about the Holocaust for many years, I had never asked survivors to tell me their stories before. Although the survivors were strong enough to tell their stories without disintegration and although I could sit there and conduct the interview, there would be after-effects.
When I hear the name Gurs, a French camp, I think not just of the woman who told me about her experiences there, but about her home now, her life now, the dinner she insisted I eat with her and her husband before the interview began. When I am hungry, I remember the woman who yelled at her son when he said he was hungry. She told him he didn’t know what hunger was. When I use the word "survivor," I remember the man who told me that he felt he had no right to call himself a survivor, since he was never in a concentration camp.
History is still history, a collection of place names and dates. But now they are real people, in my mind; real-life players on the stage of history in a way that the books, papers and movies never were. The first-person testimony. That's the thing.
But as the "war generation" ages, it becomes increasingly more elusive for the students of tomorrow. We need to get the survivors’ stories into the classrooms—teachers and principals need to take the initiative to reach out to the speakers bureaus of The Hidden Child Foundation at the ADL, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Holocaust Museum in DC, the Shoah Foundation, et al. Students need to see individual faces, relatable people, whose humanity will help them to personalize the context of history.
*Do not feel obligated to buy this book to support me. I get no royalties. But if you know of a teenager who is not connecting to the Holocaust as a historical event, this book is part of a series designed especially with teens in mind, and is worth checking out.