Why We Need a New Way to Teach the Holocaust:

Narratives Matter

The Problem

Like many in my generation, I learned about the Holocaust in Sunday School. I had two Hebrew teachers who were survivors, and interacting with them left me with a deep, burning understanding that we must pass this story on. The stories they told are seared into my memory.

And yet, I have never shared those stories with anyone – they are too horrible to contemplate. As much as I know we must pass on this knowledge, I do not want this horror seared into my children’s memories too.

This has been a consistent problem for Holocaust education. Many of us, today’s parents and teachers, were raised with a type of multigenerational, community PTSD, reliving the horror of the Holocaust over and over, and unable to move beyond the trauma of the experience. We fear to pass the PTSD on to our children and students.

We know there are many reasons we must teach our children and students about the Holocaust: to guard against it ever happening to anyone again; to remember the lost families and lost cultures; and to enrich our own practice of Judaism through understanding how our ancestors fought for theirs.

We know our children and students must learn about this tragedy, but we deeply desire a better way to teach them about it: one that does not primarily involve tears.

We need a new narrative.

The Traditional Way We Teach the Holocaust

The Perpetrators’ Narrative:  This picture, taken by a German soldier walking through the Warsaw Ghetto, gives the distinct impression of a victimized, troubled population completely indifferent to the suffering of others.

Traditionally, we have presented our children and students with the most horrific stories we know, in an attempt to imprint upon them the horror that our people endured.

We have presented Jews as the eternal victims, helpless in the face of the oncoming force of Nazi hatred. We focused on the huge number of people lost: faceless, nameless bodies fed to the fires.

Most unforgivably, we allowed the perpetrators to dictate the story to us. We used the pictures and propaganda produced by the perpetrators to tell our story.

We forgot that they had an agenda to dehumanize the Jews. By using their propaganda – and even their simplest photographs were propaganda – we have allowed them to continue that agenda and to make us feel somehow less than human, to be eternally victimized.

A New Narrative

We need to tell the story from our point of view – using the pictures, the literature, the art, and the music left behind by our ancestors. We need the testimony of the survivors.

When we tell the story in this new way, we see a different story. We see a story of people who held onto their humanity and their Judaism in the face of chaos and terror.

When we give the people back their faces and their names, we find individual stories of strength and courage, even if many of them end in tragedy.

This is the narrative we want to teach our children and students. A narrative that acknowledges the horror we endured but recognizes the strength with which we met that horror.

This is a narrative that reminds us that, once again, as has happened so often in our history, they tried to kill us, they tried to destroy us from the inside out, they tried to take away our humanity – but they failed.

Our Ancestors’ Narrative:  This picture of a communal kitchen from the Lodz Ghetto tells a story of resilience. This is the story of a functioning community where Jews help each other.