Last year, I was truly moved by my visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. The museum is sprawling, containing many buildings over many acres of land. From the moment we walked into the main building, I was entranced.
The structure itself is a work of art. It is a long triangular prism shape with a maze of hallways branching off and then rejoining the main corridor in a zigzagging pattern. Before the entrance to the first hallway, there is a screen showing the life of Jews in Europe before the rise of the Nazi Party. From there, the hallways take off in a loose timeline of the Holocaust, and with each return to the main corridor, the initial screen is farther and farther away. This is depressing, but at the same time, the light from the doors at the other end of the building—the light at the end of the tunnel—gets brighter and brighter. The engineering is brilliant. The building is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it made me feel something. That feeling led to interest, learning, and a greater understanding of the Holocaust.
After leaving the museum, I couldn’t help but think about the Holocaust and how I had learned about it throughout my life. Who or what had taught me? The short answer is books and movies, but not really school. I see this as an area of learning where both my religious and public school educators have failed me.
In fact, one of the only times we discussed the Holocaust in elementary school was when a librarian read us The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco, a beautiful picture book that is based on the true story of Polacco’s great-aunt. The book is about how she and her daughter hid a family of Jews in their cellar, transforming into a touching story about the friendship between the daughter and the girl in the cellar. At the same time, it is also a sad and scary story about the constant state of fear experienced by both Jews and those who were protecting them.
This might strike you as pretty dark for a children’s book. Although that is certainly true, the book makes a difficult subject accessible to kids. Polacco successfully conveys the terror of life during the Holocaust as well as the courage of those who were being persecuted and those who took great risks to protect them. I understood that message when I was just eight, despite having no idea that the story was about the Holocaust or what a Nazi was. Reading it now, the book is just as rich and beautiful.
In Hebrew school, I wasn’t taught much about the Holocaust either. At the end of third grade, my teacher, Morah Elise, decided that we should spend the remaining time learning about the Holocaust. She read us a few entries from a collection of essays written by people with relatives who had survived the concentration camps. The essay I remember is about a woman who did not know she was Jewish until her 20s. She described that she was angry at her parents before realizing that the Holocaust had made them ashamed of and hateful toward their religion. After hearing this essay, I still did not fully understand what had happened during the Holocaust, but I knew that I wanted to learn more. Immediately, though, several parents demanded that Morah Elise return to the curriculum, claiming that the Holocaust was too sensitive of a topic for young children. I haven’t seen Morah Elise since then, but I still feel indebted to her for that one class.
By the time I started middle school, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry that summer. While I liked the book, I felt that it hadn’t taught me anything new and that I still needed to learn more, leading me to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. At the time, I was disgusted by it. I felt that complaining about boys while you are being hunted down by men trying to kill you and your loved ones was stupid and childish. I read it again for eighth grade English class, and, even just a few years later, I was horrified by how I had so clearly missed the point. Of course the writing was immature; Anne was a kid writing private thoughts that she never expected anyone to read. With that understanding, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is an insightful and moving memoir that I wish I could have originally read with a greater background understanding of the Holocaust. The “history lesson” I received in middle school was no help either. We read a paragraph in our textbook explaining that Hitler and the Nazis killed Jews, and that one paragraph was it.
By eighth grade, I had officially learned about World War II and the Holocaust in Hebrew school the year before. I was sure that I knew more than the rest of my classmates who had almost no prior knowledge. In school, we watched The Devil’s Arithmetic, a movie about a time-traveling Jewish girl and her journey through the horrors of the Holocaust as she learns to appreciate her heritage. Although I didn’t connect with the movie’s plot, I was shocked when I saw a visual depiction of a concentration camp for the first time.
The week after we saw the movie, we went on a class field trip to the D.C. Holocaust museum. What I remember most is the lighting of incense in the memorial room and the hall of charred shoes. While not as grand as Yad Vashem, I deeply value Holocaust remembrance and appreciate that we have a museum about the Holocaust in our nation’s capital
In high school, I continued my personal Holocaust education. I first read Cabaret and The Book Thief. While both stories are about the Holocaust, they are told from peripheral viewpoints; I still hadn’t learned about the Holocaust from the perspective of the people who were degraded, tortured, and murdered.
Not long after that, I watched a few of the “classic” Holocaust movies: Sophie’s Choice, Inglourious Basterds, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and several others. Though they all focus on the Holocaust and its effects, none of these movies are remotely similar to each other. I began to understand the diversity of the experiences of Holocaust victims. Indeed, Women in Gold, which focuses on the story of a Holocaust survivor who fought the government of Austria to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her aunt that had been stolen by the Nazis, and Exodus, which shows the creation of Israel, both opened my eyes to the way that the Holocaust not only had a profound, traumatizing emotional impact on survivors but also changed their lives socially and financially following the war.
Ninth grade was the first year that I received a real public school education about the Holocaust. That was way too late. I recognize that the Holocaust is a deeply upsetting and difficult topic to teach. But the current lack of education is also deeply upsetting. If I had only read Anne Frank’s diary, I would have no understanding of the complexity of the Holocaust. For many of my peers, that is their reality. Writing this article, what strikes me most is how much of my Holocaust knowledge came in scattered shards, little bits of information that I sought out myself. With the ongoing need to prevent anything like the Holocaust from occurring ever again, it is a shame that simply learning about it was such a fractured process.
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