Teaching the Holocaust in California Schools: Problems and Prospects

By Schwartz, Donald | Social Studies Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Holocaust in California Schools: Problems and Prospects


Schwartz, Donald, Social Studies Review


The industrialized killing of European Jews, in its various dimensions and facets is filled with themes and issues which are disturbing, controversial, and sometimes incomprehensible, hardly a subject that can be addressed in just a few class sessions. It challenges preconceived notions of European history and society, for how could a culture that was in the forefront of some of the most progressive developments in western civilization-one which produced Beethoven, Goethe and Einstein-also create Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz? It raises questions concerning nations, institutions, individuals, and the human condition. It presents students with significant moral and ethical issues concerning passivity in the face of evil. As the "ultimate genocide" against the "ultimate Other"1, the Holocaust represents a challenge to conscience as well as a challenge to faith.

According to the California History-Social Science Content Standards, the topic of the 'final solution' is addressed in 10th grade world history classes (Standard 10.8.5) and in 11"' grade United States history (Standard 11.7.5). Unfortunately, the curricula in those subjects preclude any opportunity for an in-depth unit on the Holocaust. The problem has become even more acute today, as teachers find they must spend precious class time prepping students on how to pass state-mandated examinations.

Consequentially, the subject of the Holocaust in classrooms is often trivialized, treated superficially, and lacks depth, context, or analysis. Students are offered simple answers for complex phenomena. An explanation commonly advanced in high school history classes holds that Germany faced enormous economic problems in the 1930s which they blamed on the Jewish minority, and that the resulting scapegoating led directly to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Such an interpretation suggests that Jews were accidental victims, and ignores historical and ideological factors responsible for the Holocaust. Such desultory treatment could do more harm than not teaching about the Holocaust at all, for it trivializing issues and events, leaving students with simplistic and inadequate explanations. Even after having been introduced to the subject, many students hold misconceptions, such as:

* the Holocaust was just another chapter in the sordid chronicle of man's inhumanity toward man;

* all Germans were persecutors;

* all Poles were collaborators;

* all Jews were victims who passively accepted their fate;

* all concentration camps were death camps;

* because the Holocaust occurred, it was inevitable.

Examining momentous events divorced from context results in facile, one-dimensional interpretations. Thus a study of the Holocaust must require students to delve much further into the past, long before the Nazi era. They must consider centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, the detrimental repercussions of 19th century nationalism and racism, the impact of World War I, the failure of the Weimar Republic, the effects of the worldwide depression, and why the genocide was formulated in Germany and not by other countries, where anti-Semitism was at least as virulent as in the Nazi state. The curriculum should explore concepts such as prejudice, stereotyping, and the bystander syndrome; it should investigate the process of decision making under the most extreme conditions. Topics should also address issues related to rescue and collaboration, the response or lack of response on the part of the United States and the Vatican, the motives of the perpetrators, and the role of technology and bureaucracy in the "Final Solution". John Roth, a Holocaust scholar from Claremont McKenna College, endorses an interdisciplinary approach, arguing that "knowledge about the Holocaust depends on study that concentrates on art, film, music, drama, poetry, fiction, and even Internet developments, along with the documents and eyewitness testimonies that are of such basic importance in historical studies. …

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