Teaching Genocide and Mass Violence

Situated adjacent the National Mall in Washington D.C., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) dominates the landscape of American Holocaust consciousness, remembrance, and education. On an elevator ride to the sixth floor and the start of the permanent exhibit, visitors to the museum watch a 15-second-long video showing footage of American soldiers encountering one of the concentration camps in 1945. In a retrospective voiceover, one soldier reflects on his initial shock at seeing the horrors of the camp: “We had come across something and were not sure what it was – a big prison of some kind. There were people running all over: sick, dying, starved people. You can’t imagine it; things like that don’t happen.” This video foreshadows the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust that visitors are about to witness in the permanent exhibit. The video also serves to perpetuate an American Holocaust myth; the myth that Americans had little to no knowledge of the Holocaust until the reporting of the liberation of the camps in 1945. For, as the myth goes, had Americans known about the atrocities, surely, they would have done something to speak out, to collectively, publicly condemn the mass murder of European Jewry. Though it is entirely possible that this individual soldier may not have known about the Nazi camps, the opening of Dachau in 1933, the persecution and plight of Germany and Europe’s Jews, and the ultimate extermination of millions were widely reported in the New York Times and local papers across the country. A recently-opened exhibit at the USHMM, Americans and the Holocaust, seeks to examine what ordinary Americans knew about the Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s.

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We’re at crossroads today: learning lessons from the Holocaust is fundamentally important. Understanding the dire consequences of hate and intolerance is more important today than just about any point in history. Unfortunately, it comes at a time when our memory of the Holocaust is fast fading. It seems as we continue to lose survivors and their critical connection to the past, we lose our willingness to apply their lessons to our own time. A year ago, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany brought this sobering reality to the forefront: Nearly half of millennials cannot name a single concentration camp. Nearly a third of Americans drastically underestimate the number of victims of the Holocaust. Most astounding, almost 70% of Americans say they don’t care about the Holocaust.

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Last week, two students from Minnetonka High School in suburban Minneapolis posted a photo of themselves giving a Nazi hand salute accompanied by an antisemitic sign. This incident is just the latest of a number of similar instances, with photos surfacing from Indiana and Wisconsin showing students giving the Nazi salute. Understandably, each case has sparked calls for more and better Holocaust education in schools. This latest photo prompts the question: what do students in Minnesota’s public schools learn about the Holocaust?

Gauging the state of Holocaust education in the United States is no easy task. The decentralized nature of American public schooling means that state departments of education, local districts, and individual classroom teachers decide what to teach and how it is taught. No comprehensive survey of the state of American Holocaust education exists, and such an assessment would be nearly impossible to conduct. The New York Times recently reported on an unsettling survey, which found that while the majority of Americans believe Holocaust education is important, many people, especially millennials, lack even a basic awareness of the history of the Holocaust. In 2013, Rhonda Fink-Whitman’s viral YouTube video showing American college student’s lack of knowledge of the Holocaust renewed a push for Holocaust education legislation in Pennsylvania and across the country. Indeed, Pennsylvania joined a growing list of states that have passed Holocaust education legislative mandates.

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This spring, CHGS offered a class titled, “The Armenian Genocide in the Age of Alternative Facts.”  This course was designed to discuss the historical origins, the social context, and the consequences of the Armenian Genocide in a modern key. As such it consisted of three parts: the Genocide itself, it effects on the Armenian and Turkish communities, and the persistent denialist discourse, i.e. the alternative facts angle. In all, the class had about a dozen students, each bringing different backgrounds and knowledge of the Genocide to the class discussions.We read two books, Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide and Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide,  by Karnig Panian and Vicken Cheterian respectively. Panian’s book recounted the author’s childhood experiences in the desert of Der el Zor and subsequently in the orphanage at Antoura, set up by the Ottoman government to Turkify orphaned Armenian children. While Cheterian’s work dealt with the historical and political component of the aftermath of the Genocide. Cheterian also guest lectured to the class via Skype from Switzerland. The latter part of the class dealt with academic denialism of the Armenian Genocide grounded in an alternative or parallel interpretational framework that seeks to justify, negate, question, or minimize its reality.

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Kentucky recently became the eighth state in the nation (joining a small but growing list of states) to mandate Holocaust and genocide education for all middle and secondary students. The Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act recently passed the Kentucky General Assembly and was signed into law on April 2nd, 2018. The law states: “Every public middle and high school’s curriculum shall include instruction on the Holocaust and other cases of genocide, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that a court of competent jurisdiction, whether a court in the United States or the International Court of Justice, has determined to have been committed by applying rigorous standards of due process.” While such well-intentioned legislation aims at countering increasing anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world, the bill may well fall short of lawmaker’s intentions in its implementation in classrooms. The legislation makes no provision for supporting the state’s teachers in complying with the law. Further, the law’s language may curb teachers from robust explorations of genocide by limiting permissible case studies.

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“A Holocaust video game!” exclaimed the man sitting to my left with an alarmed look on his face. Professor Wulf Kansteiner, in a keynote address, had just suggested both the inevitability and the necessity of such a video game in his argument for expanded tolerance towards the shifting nature of Holocaust narratives in societal consciousness and education. Indeed, half the audience gathered at the three-day Holocaust education conference, “Near but Far: Holocaust Education Revisited,” in Munich, Germany seemed incensed by the idea of a video game about the Holocaust. The other half – a mix of professors, teachers, and site educators – nodded their heads, if not in approval, perhaps knowing that the future of Holocaust education, as outlined by Kansteiner, is already emerging. Indeed, such games are making a tentative foray into an industry whose revenues have surpassed those of the movie industry for more than a decade.

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Part I: Man’s Inhumanity to Women

Mid-semester, in our high school genocide studies course, my students and I were about to begin class by turning to the assigned readings on the Bosnian War and the question of genocide in former Yugoslavia. I had prepared slides for the day’s discussion that included numerous photographs, which, in retrospect, showed mostly Muslim boys and men behind barbed-wire fences. As students were coming into the classroom, one student, Elise (a pseudonym), began describing a performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues she had seen the previous weekend. One monologue in particular resonated with the week’s readings: “My Vagina was My Village.” The monologue describes the intimate, excruciating story of a woman being brutally raped during the course of the war, as well as the physical and emotional aftermath of living with the trauma. As Elise described the monologue in careful detail, the class grew increasingly quiet, students’ eyes trained on their desks. I too sat motionless not wanting to interrupt Elise but wondering if the topic of rape was too difficult, inappropriate for high schoolers. Elise ended her comments with a question that reverberated around our classroom: “Why don’t we talk about rape and the stuff that happens to women?” After a long pause, she continued: “It’s almost like…the way it’s talked about…genocide…I mean…it’s almost like it’s something that men do to other men.”

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As a middle and high school history and social studies teacher, I have taught about the Holocaust and other genocides for many years. At the beginning of my career, students in my classes would have encountered only the Holocaust, but, recently, I have broadened my curriculum to include many additional examples and aspects of genocide. Despite growing efforts to expand the field of genocide education, there is still a gulf between academic scholarship and curriculum and practice within secondary classrooms. Scholarship, often inaccessible for secondary educators, is slow to make its way into course content. Understanding Atrocities: Remembering, Representing, and Teaching Genocide (2017) is the latest among recent efforts to bridge this gap and recognize the role of educators at all levels and community organizations in conversations about genocide education. This collection expands the conversation to include many voices, especially concerning the teaching of genocides other than, or in addition to, the Holocaust.

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Was Hitler a bully?   Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, shared in an essay in Slate how his 5-year-old daughter’s teacher compared the “worst criminal in history to a playground tormentor.” Perhaps an extreme example. Yet to understand this increasingly common trend to educate students about “Bully Hitler,” one must recognize two developments that are currently shaping the way teachers, curriculum writers, and educational institutions in the United States are educating young people about the Holocaust. First, there is a universalization of the Holocaust in an attempt to make its study relevant to students’ lived experiences and to provide them with overt moral and ethical lessons in the form of social-emotional and character education. Second, increasingly, many state legislatures have mandated Holocaust education, often suggesting a study in the form of character education to younger students, some as young as elementary school (5-10 years old). New Jersey’s Commission on Holocaust Education, the entity responsible for ensuring schools meet the state’s Holocaust-education mandate, reminds educators that, “the law indicates that issues of bias, prejudice and bigotry, including bullying through the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide, shall be included for all children from K-12th grade.” Thus, increasingly, students are taught to link the Holocaust with bullying and pushed to contemplate the choices they might have made during the Holocaust, as well as the choices they might make in their school’s cafeterias, hallways, and playgrounds as bullies, bystanders, or upstanders.

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Review of Sarah Donovan’s (2016) Genocide Literature in Middle and Secondary Classrooms: Rhetoric, Witnessing, and Social Action in a Time of Standards and Accountability.

In 2016, Michigan became the newest state to enact legislation to mandate the instruction of genocides for secondary students, specifically citing the Holocaust and Armenian genocide. Michigan joined seven states that have legislative mandates to teach about the Holocaust and genocide in public middle and high schools. Currently, several projects are calling for directives to teach about the Holocaust from all 50 states (e.g. New York’s Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect and The Butterfly Project). more...