Horace Mann does not teach enough about the Holocaust


Allison Markman, Staff Writer

During the assembly last Tuesday, we were asked to stand up if we had ever learned about the Holocaust. I have attended HM my entire life, so when nearly everyone in Gross Theater stood up, asserting that they had studied the Holocaust, I was shocked. Though completely nonplussed, I suspect that these students stood up, earnestly believing they had studied the full extent of the Holocaust. 

At our school, there exists a false perception that all students have studied the Holocaust in depth. Maybe it is due to the large Jewish population in the school or because the event is prominent in societal consciousness, but as a senior, I have yet to study the Holocaust in a classroom. I do not think I am alone, and I believe it to be a phenomenon pointing to a larger issue. 

The Holocaust, instead of being analyzed and examined in classrooms, seems to have been understood, almost discounted as collective memory: something that we all know and accept as a deplorable piece of human history. However, the acknowledgment of the Holocaust as a tragedy is inadequate. Students must study the history behind the systematic, state-sponsored murder of 11 million people, as well as the political context that allowed a person such as Adolf Hitler to accumulate power, to ensure it does not happen again. 

One year ago in an op-ed, advocating for Holocaust education in our curriculum, Emily Salzhauer (12) referenced particularly frightening statistics about Holocaust denial that remain equally as frightening today. She mentioned that 63 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by NBC gave a misconstrued death count, lower than the actual 11 million. Further, one in ten respondents had never even heard the word “Holocaust” before. As horrifying as these statistics are, they fail to approach the crux of the problem in our community.

Upon discussion with peers, it appears that most teachers assume that the subject matter has been covered before their curriculum. When teachers shift the responsibility to teach about the Holocaust away from themselves, students never end up studying the Holocaust in depth. While I can confidently say that students at HM are familiar with the scale of the tragedy, the Holocaust can not be reduced to simply a death count. To understand the Holocaust as solely a tragedy is to undermine the propagation of hate and prejudice that resulted in state-sponsored genocide. Simply diagnosing the Holocaust as a familiar matter of societal consciousness gives us a false sense of proficiency. Instead, I urge classrooms to examine the effects of such a devastating event, in hopes that it can relay solutions and illumination to current and future political climates.

With the rise of the far-right globally, we are at greater risk than ever of a repeat of the tragic events of the Holocaust with other populations. From Hungary, to Brazil, to Italy, and even the United States, authoritarian regimes are gaining traction, placing everyone who exists on the margins of these regimes at risk. The Holocaust is not the only event that fits this mold. The stories of minority persecution in Apartheid South Africa, the genocides in Rwanda and Armenia, and so many others go unremembered. The best way to combat this historical amnesia is with education. One of the most common answers I have heard to the question of why we study history is to ensure that the past does not repeat itself. As a bit of a history class aficionado, I do not think this is the sole reason, however, it resonates with me in particular after the assembly. 

I understand history is vast and it truly is impossible to add a complete history of the Holocaust to our already extensive curriculums; however, I have a few proposals to include history that extends beyond devastation. When we discuss World War II in our U.S. history classes, we should learn about the United States’ late involvement in the war, the complexity of Americans’ reactions and hesitations in doing so, and FDR’s decision to turn away 937 displaced Jewish adults and children seeking refuge from Nazi persecution. At the end of Atlantic World History classes, there should be a brief history characterizing the rise to power of ultra-nationalists such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. We should be learning why they were allowed to accrue and retain such power along with the legacy of disdain and suspicion that they left between groups of people. Lastly, like Emily and I, and many of you did in fifth grade with Lois Lowery’s “Number the Stars,” a novel about a Jewish family trying to escape Nazi-occupied Denmark, we should incorporate selections from the wide array of literature about the Holocaust into our English classrooms, including books written by survivors. I have read Elie Weisel’s poignant and devastating account of Nazi death camps in his autobiography, “Night;” other books I recommend include “The Happiest Man on Earth” by Eddie Jaku, and the graphic novel “MAUS” by Art Spiegelman.

While the assembly was a start, that alone is insufficient. One survivor who spoke for less than one hour cannot teach us a complete history of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not a box on a checklist that one needs to check, but rather a portion of history that should be studied in depth. Not solely for the story of tragedy, but for an understanding of how human beings allowed it to happen.