The Holocaust has been called “the greatest crime in history.” Sadly, if recent national surveys are even remotely accurate, it has already faded from America’s collective memory to a startling degree. As I’ve indicated in this column several times, Millennials and younger are revealed to be dismayingly uneducated on the subject, to the extent that roughly 20% of New York State residents between 18 and 39 years old believe, “Jews started the Holocaust.”
This also bears repeating: Go to a supermarket, a public park, or a shopping mall, pick out 10 people under 40 and think, “Two of these people think Jews started a war that resulted in many millions of their deaths.” Keep in mind that most of them think perhaps a maximum of 2 million died; the actual 6 million total deaths are nowhere on their radar screen.
Chilling, isn’t it?
New York has the most Jewish residents of any state and is one of only 23 states that mandate Holocaust Education in schools. When you consider that our home state came out in the bottom 10 in the nation in Holocaust Awareness, we should all be alarmed.
As I am now in Israel to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my family, I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the most comprehensive and expansive museum on Earth dedicated to preserving the tragic memory of the Holocaust. There I met with Sheryl Ochayon, the Program Director of the Echoes & Reflections project at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. Ms. Ochayon is a Harvard-educated lawyer whose entire professional focus is on improving Holocaust Awareness through education, across the globe. It’s interesting to note that her mother, a survivor, was the first teacher to develop a Holocaust elective in a New York City school, in the 1970s.
Frequent Kadima readers will be aware of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County’s ambitious initiative to radically improve Holocaust Education locally and achieve better educational outcomes for High School students, especially graduating seniors (the Ulster Co. Holocaust Awareness Initiative). Consequently, I was eager to ask her if she agreed with data suggesting that current educational modalities are failing, and what she believes is the cause.
Ms. Ochayon agrees with almost all our theories regarding Holocaust Education: as it’s currently constituted, the curriculum is largely inadequate; that failure is due to a lack of emotional connection and student identification with the horror of the event; and far more than statistics and bare facts, the modern-day history student responds better to stories and relates more to narratives of defiance than victimization. Also, she agrees the Holocaust is an unparalleled jumping off point for teaching the damage hatred wreaks on society.
So closely aligned were our visions of the challenges and opportunities in achieving better educational outcomes from Holocaust Education initiatives, we agreed to meet again in New York in November to expand our discussion. We are indeed eager to garner counsel and operational support from the leading Holocaust education institution in the world.
As to the experience of visiting the Yad Vashem facility itself, there is literally nothing like it anywhere. Jew or gentile, it’s an absolute must see when visiting Israel. Candidly, it’s my opinion that if one visits Israel and does not go to Yad Vashem at least once, the trip has been wasted. If I could transport a group of high school students to Israel for one day and tour the museum with a knowledgeable guide, I truly believe they would learn virtually everything they need to know and remember it for the rest of their lives.
The main exhibits are meticulously fact-based, yet emotionally engaging to a stunning degree. The various sections are replete with first person narratives from survivors. The historical narrative of Germany’s politically motivated, virulent antisemitism from its roots through the Final Solution up through the liberation of the camps, and its aftermath, is delivered clearly and chronologically. I deemed it more effective than any textbook and accompanying lecture could be in communicating the unfathomable cruelty and sheer insanity of the Holocaust.
I found it extremely well thought out, especially because it delivers the true history of the Shoah in a manner that is emotionally trying but just toes the line of being horrifying, if not nauseating. It’s as if there was some scientific process behind the exhibit design that determined what was just enough dissection of man’s inhumanity to man to get the message across, but not so jarring as to disgust a visitor and distract them from continuing their exploration.
In fact, I’m confident there was much audience testing that went into designing the museum and it was obviously done brilliantly. Yad Vashem is a manifestation of storytelling genius that has little equal in delivering an educational message; the result is a lasting awareness of the impact racism, hatred and bias can have on the world.
As excellent as the Museum of Jewish History in New York City and the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC are, they’re not equal to Yad Vashem.
I have one final thought to share. When one exits the main exhibit hall, you walk out onto a wide patio that looks out over a vast panoramic view of the Israeli countryside. This was a conscious design decision, I was told, and it hits the mark. It communicates a fundamental net takeaway in understanding the totality of the Holocaust experience: the Jewish people emerged from a living Hell to build the modern miracle that is Eretz Yisrael.