So I’m a historian who works particularly on the relationship between trauma, national memory, and childhood. The focus of my research is not the Holocaust, but it’s a subject upon which I’ve taught, mused, written, and examined. A few years ago, I was a TA in a class on the Holocaust (cross listed in the History Department and the Department of Judaic Studies) at a US University (a pretty prestigious one). Most of the course focused on the realities of the Holocaust: what happened? how? why? Now because of my areas of expertise/interest, I was invited to give a lecture to the entire class as opposed to teaching my particular subset of students each week. The subject of the lecture? The Holocaust in US education and children’s/YA literature.
The thing that I found most distressing about this lecture? The fact that only about nine state in the US require that students learn about the Holocaust in classrooms. Among those only a few require it as a part of history or social studies classes, the rest require it as part of language arts. And, the way that students actually learn about this subject is determined at the discretion of the school district, which means that, as long as students meet the general requirements of standardized tests, they don’t have to learn particular details. So, let that sink in. Even more distressing? The states that “require” students to learn about the Holocaust, have only done so since (at the earliest) the 1980s, and far more likely the 1990s and 2000s. This means that there is an entire generation whose knowledge of the Holocaust comes from popular media and triumphant narratives about US involvement in WWII: these narratives are hugely false, and what I call the “Punching Hitler” story after the iconic image of Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw. In the US the general shared narrative about WWII is that the US went over the Europe, lost a lot of boys, but killed Hitler, won the war, and saved the Jews. o__O That’s…not what happened.
In a class of 200 students, only about 10 percent knew anything about how the Holocaust happened. They didn’t know about the groups that were targeted, the way that anti-semitism and opportunistic nationalist politics helped make it happen, they didn’t know about complicity or bystandardism. They knew nothing. They didn’t know that US officials were aware of what was happening and refused to get involved in the war. They didn’t understand that there was concurrent anti-semitism and racism in the US. They were taught none of these things. And that is actually terrifying, not only because it means that these kids have no idea about the past, but because they can’t see the giant flashing warning signs in our current socio-political world.
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Remember that the next time any of you treat actual, historical events like a bedtime story. Do the research, and unearth the details of what really happened.