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How to Teach about the Holocaust - a seminar programme for teachers

Why we want to teach about this theme

The Jewish catastrophe in the Second World War has been a central theme of humanity since the middle of the last century. The Jewish catastrophe, which was caused by a failure of all the moral conventions of our civilisation known hitherto, raised questions about mankind and society which have not yet been resolved. It has compelled us to change our perspective on the criterion of good and evil, morality and immorality. The extent and impact of the change to the world after the Jewish catastrophe corresponds to the difference in the world before and after the flood. Studying all the aspects of the Jewish catastrophe involves studying the motives for carrying out the most extensive mass murder known to humanity and the consequences thereof. And as the Second World War recedes further into the past, more and more questions remain to be answered, or rather to be intensively sought. These are not just abstract questions, such as whether or not God exists, but specific historical questions that should be asked.

Was this catastrophe an extreme exception or the start of something that could become a rule? Was the Jewish catastrophe only a catastrophe for the Jews, merely a problem concerning one of the family of nations or was it a tragedy for the whole of humanity that only started with the Jewish nation? Is the Jewish catastrophe an ethnic problem or a universal issue? Studying this period of history is just as important as being aware of the impact of the development of technical civilisation that has given us the atom and hydrogen bombs, as well as bacteriological weapons that are capable of wiping out the entire population of the planet at a single blast. Holocaust studies involve most scientific fields, from philosophy to psychology, sociology and anthropology. Other areas covered include history, geography, mass behaviour and mass psychology. Holocaust studies also introduce questions relating to personal and social responsibility.

A study of the Jewish catastrophe opens up the possibility of creating a more comprehensive view of mankind. Why should we study this subject? (a subject that is inaccurately called the Holocaust - the Holocaust is a Greek two-term word meaning “entirely burnt, annihilated by fire”; although Jews were annihilated by fire, they were also destroyed psychologically and murdered in many different ways. Perhaps the word Holocaust should therefore be replaced wherever possible by the more precise term “mass murder”). This subject should be studied in order to make people aware to a greater extent of the history of this mass murder, including the psychological, religious and nationalist causes; this not only means greater knowledge but also includes the possibility of resistance.

From my 26 years of experience at the University of Washington I can say that this theme is one of the most fruitful and meaningful pedagogical areas that I have ever come across. It is a subject that gains the respect of students without asking for it, in the way that truth itself gains respect. It is a subject that is very remote from discursive theories - from the very first lesson it gets students to realise that it is not a question of empty or interesting theories but of what fulfils out lives. The Jewish catastrophe is in fact omnipresent in all its dimensions, including the motives, execution and consequences. The consequences of the Jewish catastrophe are still with us, not only as a shocking awareness of the truth, but also as a threat - a specific, available possibility for society to consider, determine and carry out the elimination of an entire nation.

Last time it was the Jews, who will it be today or tomorrow? Everything that happened in history can be repeated. As a result, the Jewish catastrophe ranks among the universal experiences of humanity.

In conclusion, I would like to quote from Yehuda Bauer’s books "History of the Holocaust": "We are living in a time when the Holocaust is possible but not inevitable. The factors that brought about the Holocaust are still here; these include, for example, profound hatred, a bureaucracy able and willing to carry out orders from above, modern technology deprived of moral principles, dictatorship and war. Who will be the next Jew?"

Arnošt Lustig and [email] Marta Vančurová
Prague, 29 May 1998



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