Opinion: We Need Better Holocaust Education

6 mins read

In my 1,024-page AP World History textbook, there are two paragraphs about the Holocaust. This is essentially the only Holocaust education I’ve received in any history class from kindergarten up to the start of junior year, and it is not enough.

In the United States, Holocaust education is flawed, both in terms of length and quality. California is one of only twenty states that require Holocaust education. Even in states with these mandates, Holocaust education can be inconsistent, inaccurate, and even antisemitic. Thus, Holocaust education at M-A is better than in many other schools across the country. This doesn’t make it adequate, though.

Nationally, antisemitism is on the rise—and M-A isn’t immune. In December of 2022, a custodian found swastikas painted on the walls of a school bathroom. With this surge in antisemitism, it is essential that youth learn about historical hatred of Jews in order to prevent ignorance that can lead to violence and prejudice.

There is far more than a single cause of this rise in antisemitism, but a lack of Holocaust education is undoubtedly one of them. A nationwide survey by the Claims Conference found that “11 percent of U.S. Millenial and Gen Z respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.”

Holocaust education at M-A begins for ninth-graders in Multicultural Literature & Voice (MCLV) with a unit surrounding Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s autobiography Night. MCLV teacher Erin Walsh explained, “I always teach the history of the Holocaust as we read the book. I start the unit with a mini-lecture on what led up to World War II and the Holocaust so that we can identify some of the root causes. I think it’s really important to supplement Night with additional, historical texts.”

The Night unit is great; the book itself is powerful, and the MCLV teachers teach the historical context for the story well. But this unit is only a first step. Walsh agreed, saying, “I don’t think the Night unit is sufficient on its own. We have put a huge amount of work into the unit, but it doesn’t cover every aspect of the Holocaust that should be discussed. If anything, it’s an introduction, and it provides an access point.” It’s also important to note that MCLV is an English class, not a history class, and thus much of the unit is spent analyzing literary elements of the autobiography rather than learning details of the Holocaust.

The next time the Holocaust appears in M-A’s curriculum is in sophomore history, in either World History or AP World History.

The two paragraphs detailing the Holocaust in the AP World textbook are at least historically accurate and cover a variety of key facts. Of course, not all learning comes from a textbook, and a teacher may choose to spend more or less class time on any given subject. Regardless, a curriculum given to our teachers with just two paragraphs about such a significant tragedy is unacceptable. And for me, the in-class learning about the Holocaust was a two-page Google Docs worksheet about mass atrocities, with ten sections for ten genocides, one being the Holocaust. The worksheet asked students to identify “when,” “where,” “by who,” “against who,” “number killed,” “causes,” and “consequences” of each atrocity.

History teacher Austin Hunt explained that AP World and non-AP World have a similar amount of Holocaust coverage, and that AP European History–the sophomore history course that was replaced by AP World in the 2022-2023 school year–did not significantly differ in its amount of Holocaust coverage.

Holocaust education at M-A hasn’t always been this way. Kjersti McCormick, an M-A graduate of the class of ‘88, said, “My AP European History Class was very thorough. The Holocaust, including the context of how things evolved in Europe in the early 20th century to get to that point, was definitely well covered.” It is possible that M-A’s Holocaust education used to be more comprehensive, but in an effort to diversify topics covered, important coverage of the Holocaust was omitted. One teacher said that sophomore history classes used to spend a substantial amount of time creating a Holocaust museum project.

Sophomore world history is the primary opportunity for Holocaust education at M-A—and throughout local public schools—and it is also the most lacking in appropriate Holocaust education. Hunt said, “I think the Holocaust warrants a longer discussion [than other topics] in my classes. I think the Holocaust could and should be a two-week long class, but it’s all opportunity cost. Any time I’m spending on the Holocaust means I’m spending less time on other things. In high school, the idea is that we should be giving an overview of a lot of information, but to dive really deep into it, you need to take a whole course on it, and go to museums.” The majority of M-A students will not end up taking a year-long Holocaust course and therefore depend on M-A classes for their entire Holocaust education. And so, while it cannot be an in-depth week-long topic, the Holocaust should at the very least take up one day of the school year.

The Holocaust appears—or should appear—one more time in the M-A curriculum, in junior-level U.S. History or AP U.S. History (APUSH). In a 2022-2023 APUSH class, Holocaust education consisted of one optional assignment. Senior Danielle Koo explained, “We had a substitute in APUSH and our teacher left us a note on Canvas saying that we could use the class time to study or to complete two optional assignments. One was about the Holocaust and the other one was for LEQ (Long Essay Question) practice. Since these assignments were optional, I bet most people did not complete them.” Senior Thomas Scott, who was in a non-AP U.S. History class, said, “We did not talk about the Holocaust this year.”

While the U.S. was more detached from the events of the Holocaust than European countries, the Holocaust is still undoubtedly relevant in U.S. History. Koo said, “Holocaust learning is extremely important because of the U.S. involvement, or lack thereof. To not know about the Holocaust is to lose a crucial part of understanding history and culture. It also helps us recognize what the Jewish community had to go through and understand why younger generations still carry that pain today.”

M-A’s U.S. History classes ought to include at least one mandatory, in-depth assignment about the Holocaust and its relevance within U.S. history.

Holocaust education has immeasurable benefits. As the adage goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Walsh explained, “The only way to ensure that something like the Holocaust doesn’t happen again is through education. We have to tackle the topic head on, and we have to be uncomfortable, and acknowledge the horrors that occurred. Education is empowerment.” Holocaust education prevents antisemitism, both by demonstrating how Jews have been oppressed throughout history and by helping students understand that antisemitic ‘trolling’—drawing swastikas, doing Nazi salutes—is far more serious than a joke.

This shouldn’t just be a concern for Jews, as hatred of one group quickly spreads to hatred of others. Lessons about Nazi theories of Aryan superiority and scientific racism are beneficial in teaching about diversity and acceptance. Appropriate Holocaust education also includes information about the persecution of other minorities during the Holocaust, such as Romas and LGBTQ+ people.

Holocaust education provides context for Jewish emigration out of Europe and the establishment of the state of Israel, demonstrates the dangers of scapegoating, and, as explained in a UNESCO article, “deepens reflection about contemporary issues that affect societies around the world, such as the power of extremist ideologies, propaganda, the abuse of official power, and group-targeted hate and violence.”

The JFCS Holocaust Center provides Holocaust learning frameworks for teachers in order to impart students with a rich education regardless of the time frame they have to learn it. Thorough Holocaust education includes a discussion of Jewish culture, the rise of antisemitism and Nazi ideology, the terror of the Holocaust, and the short and long-term impacts.

Taking the time to hear from a Holocaust survivor is another way to provide students with fulfilling Holocaust education. The William J. Lowenberg Speakers Bureau brings Holocaust survivors to speak at schools in the Bay Area. Jeannette Ringold, a Menlo Park resident who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child in Holland, said, “For those of us that can still speak, it is worth doing. There is nothing like hearing it from the person who experienced it.”

Improving Holocaust education is not a difficult or lengthy task, and it is one that must be done. A meaningful history education includes thorough discussion of the Holocaust in order to understand the past, contextualize the present, and make progress in the future.

Ben Siegel is a junior at M-A and in his second year of journalism. He is an Editor-in-Chief and manages Bear Tracks, the M-A Chronicle’s weekly newsletter. His opinion piece calling for improved Holocaust education was recognized by CSPA as the best personal opinion about an on-campus issue in 2023. You can find more of Ben’s music journalism at Riff Magazine.

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