Experiential Learning of History through Youth Journeys to Poland: Israeli Jewish Youth and the Holocaust

Article excerpt

The Holocaust stands as the single greatest calamity in modern Jewish history, and is central to the shaping of recent events. The Holocaust refers to the years 1941-45, when the Nazi regime in Germany established the Final Solution, a systematic policy of annihilating Jews. It was by international consent, following these events, that the State of Israel was established in 1948.

Since 1948, teaching the subject in Israel has undergone several stages, reflecting changes in Israeli public awareness of the Holocaust and its attitudes toward it. These changes, in turn, shaped the teaching of literature and history, two disciplines that have been vehicles for teaching about the Holocaust (e.g. Sullivan, 1998). In Israel of the 1950s, when survivors were ubiquitous, the Holocaust was rarely discussed. The reasons for this silence are complex, and run along a continuum that includes the survivors' unwillingness to talk about their agonising physical experiences and loss of family and community, and the building of an Israeli ethos of courage and resilience (Amir, 1992). Gradual changes in Israeli society brought about a broader, pluralist approach that began turning toward the background of the immigrants who comprise the population, and also allowed studies of European Jewry and the Holocaust in its historical context. Since the 1990s the Holocaust has been taught as a means of fostering Jewish and Israeli identity. Keren (1985), who examined the centrality of the Holocaust in five different periods in the history of the state of Israel, claims that the turning point for the educational system was an outcome not only of increased public awareness, but of the events 'receding' into history, which allowed an objective, and more balanced and detached, perspective.

Over the years various ways of teaching the Holocaust were examined, and several fairly permanent patterns emerged (Cohen, 1996; Dorshav and Yaoz, 1986; Golan, 1993). One model, developed in the 1990s, involved sending groups of high-school students on trips to Jewish monuments and death camps in Poland. The journey is part of an educational process that is preceded by detailed, in-depth studies, in accordance with Ministry of Education guidelines (Ministry of Education, 1991, 1999).

Research review

Teaching the Holocaust

Holocaust studies are central for education toward Jewish, national, and human values (Kaplan, 1998; Schultz, 1998; Wegner, 1998). To this end, a special curriculum was developed, which includes both compulsory classroom studies and the option of a journey to Poland. Teaching the Holocaust emphasises Jewish tradition, and also the flourishing of Jewish life and learning, accompanied by a history of persecution and suffering. These studies follow a curriculum planned by the Ministry of Education in two main disciplines, literature and history.

Literature addresses the readers' feelings and creates empathy through the experience, while emphasising values. History, being based on facts, addresses the learners' rational capacities (Wegner, 1995, 1998). Both disciplines emphasise the transmitting of values as their goals, but history is perceived as more significant in imbuing religious-Jewish and national values than literature (Bar-On et al., 1998; Cohen, 1996).

The overall goal of the Holocaust curriculum, including the journey to Poland, is to increase students' knowledge, and shape their Jewish identity through a close examination of historical events. Another goal is to increase moral affinity to the global Jewish community, recognising the shared destiny and the historical continuity of the Jewish people. Universal aspects of learning about the Holocaust are addressed and a discussion of the moral obligations of the individual in the world must ensue.

Difficulties in teaching the Holocaust

Golan (1993) sees the Holocaust as an exception to all that had happened in human history. Consequently, teaching the Holocaust involves exceptional issues:

For most Israelis, especially the young, the Holocaust is associated with an annual memorial day. …