Why teach the Holocaust?

A Nazi flag flies in front of the Cologne Cathedral. [Photograph #64457 USHMM

The history of the Holocaust represents one of the most effective, and most extensively documented, subjects for examination of basic moral issues.
Study of the Holocaust helps us  understand the effects of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping in human society, especially how institutionalization of these things occurs within a national government apparatus.
Study of the Holocaust helps us think about the use and abuse of power as well as the role and responsibilities of individuals, organizations, and nations when confronted with issues of hate leading to policies of genocide.
Study of the Holocaust helps us realize that democratic institutions and values are vulnerable, needing to be nurtured and protected.
Study of the Holocaust teaches and reminds us that silence and indifference to the suffering of others perpetuates intolerance and hate and emboldens those who promote intolerance and hate.
Study of the Holocaust reminds us that the Shoah was not an accident in history, but that it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that legalized prejudice and hatred, allowed mass murder to occur.

We should teach the Holocaust because research undertaken in 2000 by Professor Feliks Tych of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland says that although 95% of Poles survived the Holocaust and 98% of Jews were murdered, only 24.5% of Polish students agreed that the Jews suffered most during WWII, while 20% disagreed outright that the Jews suffered most, and 55% answered “hard to say.”

We should teach the Holocaust because, as Professor Robert Wistrich of The Vidal Sassoon International Center puts it in his article, “Denying the Holocaust:”

Portrait of Pastor Martin Niemoeller taken shortly after the liberation. [Photograph #63459 USHMM

“Now, once again, antisemitism and Holocaust denial have become linked to the government policy of a Middle-Eastern state bent on wiping out Israel in the name of “Palestinian rights” … The growing chorus of appeasement reveals just how little has been learned from the history of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.  In 1936 Adolf Hitler, too, could have been stopped with relative ease at the time when his troops reoccupied the Rhineland. His passionate speeches about the “self-determination” of the Sudeten Germans  (compare the Palestinians today) prepared the ground in an appeasement-drunk Europe for the betrayal of Czechoslovakia and its physical destruction by Nazi Germany… Then, as now, radical antisemitism was essentially treated as a side-issue by the Western democracies (including the U.S.) rather than as the most striking herald of the looming totalitarian threat. How much attention was paid in the west to Hitler’s Reichstag speech of 30 January 1939 threatening the Jews of Europe with total annihilation?”As Christians, we have yet another, definitive, sobering reason that we should make it our business to teach and sponsor teaching of the Holocaust:  in direct, heartfelt response to the fact that our Christian predecessors failed to raise their collective voice against the Nazi threat last century in Europe.What better way to demonstrate our firm resolve to right that wrong?  What better way to represent “light” to the besieged Jewish community?  What more direct way to be salt and light to the world, than to take hold of this opportunity to educate ourselves and others in response to world events?We should teach the Holocaust as an act of spiritual resistance and as a tangible expression of the light of Messiah shining in the darkness.  As Pastor Niemoeller said in his last sermon before being imprisoned by the Nazi regime:

We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”


5 comments on “Why teach the Holocaust?

  1. cweinblatt says:

    Captured German war records prove that millions of innocent Jews (and tens of thousands of others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany – mostly in gas chambers. These facts have been proven repeatedly through countless thesis and dissertation research papers. Virtually every PhD in the world will stake their career on these known Holocaust FACTS. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. The deniers have only one agenda – to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred (Jews), or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes.

    Museums and mandatory public education are appropriate tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books and films can also establish the veracity of genocides, such as recent Holocaust films. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from such blind loathing and prejudice. We must disclose the cruelty and horror of genocide to combat the deniers’ virulent and inaccurate historical revision. By doing this, we protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

    Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions. A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny’s only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, Jacob’s Courage


    • Dan Hennessy says:

      I agree with all that you said. The appropriate tools to dispel the teaching of the Holocaust is the subject of my concern. As a public and private secondary school teacher in Los Angeles and New York, I’ve experienced the obstacles in the path of both individual teachers and school districts to implement instruction on the Shoah. With state standards increasingly an issue, for instance, time to implement instruction on the Holocaust is a factor in giving it less attention than it deserves, in my opinion.

      Therefore, I’m working to create an effort to teach the Holocaust, focusing on the private sector, through faith communities, especially Christian communities. I’ve put together a two-hour presentation, “An Overview of the Holocaust from a Critical Perspective” that introduces the Holocaust, to include a segment on the history of Christian anti-Semitism. It could also be used as a semester or year-long course at the high school or community college level. It’s a Powerpoint presentation with graphics and narrative from the USHMM and Yad Vashem, suitable to webinar presentation, which was my first mode of presentation earlier this year at Yom HaShoah.

      I’ve worked on two occasions with Holocaust survivors Erich and Ellen Arndt, who were part of the largest group of German Jews to survive the Holocaust while hiding in Berlin, in an area less than two miles Hitler’s bunker. It’s titled, “Survival In The Shadows: Seven Jews in Hitler’s Berlin” by Barbara Lovenheim, published by CHAI, Center for Holocaust Awareness and Information, Rochester, New York. Erich and Ellen fell in love and were married right up until the time of Ellen’s passing a few years ago. An amazing, funny and engaging, couple. I miss Ellen very much, bless her memory.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. May G-d bless your life and work. ~ Dan


  2. cweinblatt says:

    Dan, you’re doing a wonderful job with your extra efforts to teach about the Shoah. What you are doing is much more than a mitzvah. I wish that your PowerPoint presentation could be a capstone for extended Holocaust education in all public schools.

    One of the reasons I wrote a coming-of-age novel about the Holocaust was to give the YA markets an easy way to learn (through a novel about young love during the Shoah). I felt a measure of relief last year when I heard that Jacob’s Courage was required reading for high school students in Ohio. If you can think of any way to use it with middle school or secondary school students, please let me know or contact my publisher. Nothing would please me more than to know that vulnerable young minds are being taught the truth about the Nazi genocide of the Jews, to counter the mendacious historical fabrications they read on the Internet.

    Keep up the good work, Dan. And, have a happy, healthy and sweet New Year.


  3. Dan Hennessy says:

    Charles… Thank you for the kind words… I will look for opportunities to use Jacob’s Courage… If those schools are interested in utilizing a two-hour overview as part of their dedication to Holocaust education, I’d be glad to assist, either on-site or via webinar with “An Overview of the Holocaust from a Critical Perspective.” It’s very conducive to front-loading students at the outset of a unit on WWII/Holocaust.

    May your Days of Awe be full of wonder… and awe.

    ~ Dan


  4. Dan Hennessy says:

    p.s. Meeting with people such as the principal of the local Catholic high school I recently spoke to, who are aware of the need to teach the Shoah, is a great encouragement for those of us concerned with the memory of the six million and other victims as well as the current state of affairs involving teaching of the Holocaust. There are righteous Gentiles in our midst, we simply need to seek them out.


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