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Teaching About the Holocaust: Influencing How Generations Will Learn from the Past

As Holocaust survivors are dying out, and as Israel, the Jewish State, is viewed more and more as an oppressor, there is a shift from study of the Holocaust to the study of genocide, intolerance, human rights, and hate. The essential but little known role of the German medical profession, and the even less well-known moral, legal, and philanthropic support provided by American eugenicists for German eugenic policies, are very likely to be forgotten. Dismissing or covering up the public health policies and medical practices of German physicians would be another way of forgetting both the Holocaust and its medical crimes, one aspect of the Holocaust that distinguishes it from other genocides.

William Porter states in this essay a sentiment that is widely held by students who study medicine and the Holocaust: “…a more realistic portrayal of the Holocaust in our education seems like a profound way to take meaning from its atrocities as we shape tomorrow’s leaders.” Read his perspective in his paper below.


Teaching About the Holocaust: Influencing How Generations Will Learn from the Past

By Medical Student William Porter

When I reflect on the way my perception of the Holocaust has changed over the course of this elective, I cannot help but feel astounded by how many of the ideas we explored were completely new to me. Despite addressing this topic many times before throughout my educational journey thus far, I found myself taken aback by a more critical analysis of the events leading up to the atrocities we are all so familiar with. For example, the fact that Eugenicism in Germany had large American influences seems to contradict my perception of how the Holocaust came about. Such discrepancies led me to think back on the way I was taught about the Holocaust in the first place. I believe that careful examination of the way we teach our youth about the Holocaust can have a profound impact on our ability to learn as much as possible from this terrible failure in human history.

As we discussed in class, it is important to remember that the physicians and other party members who participated in the Holocaust were not “aliens” who came from another planet or purely evil humans who woke up every day planning to commit murder out of pure hatred. The Holocaust was a calculated and rationalized progression of ideology gone awry, slowly developing in a step-wise progression which culminated in the horrors we now reflect on. The Final Solution represented the last step in a very gradual progression stemming from beginnings in seemingly rational practices. Moreover, the underlying eugenic framework was not a purely German sentiment at the time. The Germans were able to bring these ideas to the forefront of the global scene in a far more pronounced way, yet they cannot be credited entirely for the desire to sculpt their society into a uniform and superior machine. The role of some of the greatest minds in other countries, such as the U.S., in sculpting this thought process cannot be overlooked. These ideas, among others, shed light on the need to dig deep into the forces at play in the Holocaust in order to fully understand it and learn from it.

Thinking about my early and secondary education, I have realized that all my knowledge about the Holocaust resided in a look at that end result: fathoming the atrocities and plans of an irrational and evil regime. The farthest my analysis ever went was to put the events in the context of the German post World War I depression, explaining how Hitler was able to gain support for his cause so easily. Yet that thought process still aligns with the idea that the Nazis were an “alien” and evil group who came and went, simply taking advantage of the German people’s desperation to enact a plan that had been intended from the beginning. Outside of school, I had a real fascination with the Holocaust growing up, but even all of the supplementary reading and media I was exposed simply served to paint the Nazis as the ultimate enemy against which the Americans fought as the “good guys.” Growing up, the Nazis were always used as an end-all description of evil and everything that is wrong in the world. I remember a real fear that I experienced when learning about some of the more terrible facets of the Holocaust, only finding consolation in the fact that Americans were the saviors and would never be capable of such destruction.

With my own experience as a lens for analyzing the way in which children are exposed to the Holocaust, I can see the huge discrepancy between the perception we cultivate in our society and the truth that has recently come to light through this course. How can we hope to learnanything from the atrocities of the Holocaust if we refuse to see the Nazis as human beings just like us? Distancing ourselves from the ideologies underlying the development of the Holocaust only serves to quiet the cognitive dissonance that occurs internally when we entertain the idea that we would ever be capable of committing similar acts of hatred. Armed with the knowledge of America’s lack of infallibility throughout history, in addition to the true nature of the German rationale behind the Holocaust, it is easier to see how we could travel down a dangerous path similar to the one that Hitler led the Germans down so many years ago.

Our overwhelming thirst for progress must be checked as we continue to uncover new frontiers in medicine, genetics, and societal attitudes. I think a very effective means for enacting this would be to provide a more critical look at the American role in the Holocaust to students earlier in education. Children in Germany grow up with the knowledge and guilt burdened on them by generations past. The benefit of such a thorough education for German children is that they are able to develop a greater respect for the value of all human life in the context of a political system. American children, coddled from a young age to embrace the infallibility of the “greatest country in the world” could benefit from a more realistic portrayal of the Holocaust in which our role in, and susceptibility to, its ideas are more fully explored. With everyone believing in American supremacy, it would be harder to question any ideas which gain popular traction, just as many Germans allowed nationalism to supersede morality. Thus, I think looking to our education of younger generations as a vehicle for societal critique is a valuable endeavor worth exploring, keeping in mind the need to provide an age-appropriate presentation that recognizes the developmental milestones in our capacity to think critically.

To that end, a look at how schools are handling the Holocaust is a valuable launch point for future implementation of this framework. In a cross-sectional analysis of Holocaust education in textbooks from 1970 through 2008, Patricia Bromley and Susan Garnett-Russell outline the degree to which different countries address the Holocaust. They found that more globally connected countries were more likely to teach their students about the Holocaust. Of more interest to me was the notion that there has been a “shift in the nature of discussion, from a historical event to a violation of human rights or crime against humanity,” in presenting the Holocaust to students (Bromley and Russell 2010). This development seems to demonstrate a changing focus away from the distancing sort of treatment we would give to the Holocaust, describing it as a historical event to which we are unconnected. I am comforted by the fact that this study implies we have begun to realize the importance of keeping such events connected to human rights and a modern context, rather than dismissing them as historical events without contemporaneous relevance.

In looking at the current American perspective on Holocaust education specifically, the United States Holocaust Memorial website demonstrates a promising initiative to educate teachers on how they can handle the Holocaust in a manner which does not shy away from addressing the complexities of such a difficult topic. An appreciation for the complexity is vital to being able to critically evaluate the Holocaust, and thus I think this is a very important facet of education to be cultivated. Regardless of how we treat the Holocaust in an educational context, being critical of our own perspective should be at the very foundation of how we educate futuregenerations. In order to make sure we do not go down a similar path, we need to keep in mind that as a country we are susceptible to something similar happening, and it may occur slowly over time without us even noticing. Vigilance and a critical eye are essential in moving forward as we continue to turn over stones in our quest for the progression of humanity. Fostering this awareness through a more realistic portrayal of the Holocaust in our education seems like a profound way to take meaning from its atrocities as we shape tomorrow’s leaders.

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