Yad Vashem: Holocaust Education Should Focus on Victims' Choices

A chapter on life must be taught; it's not right to focus only on death, says Dorit Novak.

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A  Holocaust survivor attends a demonstration calling on the Israeli government to increase stipends for the country’s Shoah survivors, in Jerusalem, Aug. 5, 2007.
A Holocaust survivor attends a demonstration calling on the Israeli government to increase stipends for the country’s Shoah survivors, in Jerusalem, Aug. 5, 2007.Credit: AP
Or Kashti
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Holocaust education should focus especially on choices the victims made during the Holocaust, even under the harshest conditions, says Dorit Novak, the director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.

Novak made the statement in response to remarks by Prof. Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University, who heads the Education Ministry's advisory committee on history studies. Yablonka, who told Haaretz yesterday that she wanted to stir debate on Holocaust education, said an emphasis on "the technical study of the Holocaust, how Jews were murdered...is the least important aspect, from an educational point of view."

Novak said she agreed with Yablonka's main points, and that a "chapter on life must be taught while teaching the Holocaust, and that it's not right to focus only on death.

"Teaching the Holocaust only through the crematoria also does an injustice to the victims, because until the last moment many of them lived lives full of value, even in the most difficult moments. The facts are important but in and of themselves they have no significance. What is important is the educational weight and the values - and that is precisely the task of educators," Novak said.

Yablonka said yesterday in Haaretz: "The emphasis on the victim - what they did to us and how they killed us, lacks educational value. Students become emotional and undergo an immediate experience, but in the long-term it lacks significance." She added: "Healthy nationhood cannot be build on such ground."

A senior figure in one of the institutes for Holocaust studies said there was too much emphasis on the Jewish aspects of the Holocaust rather than "on the issue in principle of genocide, which in this specific and special case was of the Jewish people. This issue is not dealt with because it raises questions about human evil and how the Holocaust could have happened in a modern society... Yablonka is right when she says death in the Holocaust should not be described in a plastic matter. That is a type of voyeurism."

Prof. David Ohana of the history department at Ben-Gurion University disagrees with Yablonka. "In recent decades the concept has become entrenched, in the world and in Israel, that the Holocaust has universal significance. This must be disputed. The Holocaust has only particular significance. The technical details - the stages of the Final Solution, the train system, etc., these are the Holocaust," Ohana said.

As for the argument that "victimhood," is emphasized, Ohana said: "We were the victims. That's the truth, and there are among us still people with numbers on their arms."

Long-time history teachers said they agreed with Yablonka. "All efforts must be directed to explaining to students why and how the Holocaust was made possible.

The question of whether Jews were shot or gassed is less important than how the Germans arrived at the Final Solution," one teacher said.

"We have become 'technicians' of the teaching of history. Learning is mainly in templates, because these are still the main demands in the matriculation exams. Beyond the professional frustration, template-teaching creates mainly obeisant citizens," another educator said.

Yablonka said she received many messages of encouragement from teachers after the publication of her remarks yesterday.

"My first instinct was to cry because the distress and despair are so great. I made the remarks out of love for the country and the teachers, where my loyalty lies," she said.

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