Teaching the Holocaust: A Job Best Done by Business?

What is the best way to perpetuate the memory of the Shoah, and what lessons should it teach?

Trips to Poland have been integral to Holocaust Remembrance Day since 1988. Every year, tens of thousands of people from Israel and throughout the world walk from Birkenau to Auschwitz, in the March of the Living. And every year, Israelis in their tens of thousands, many of them in high school or the army, fly to Poland to tour the concentration camps. But opinions are divided on the value of these trips.

Hanna Yablonka, professor of Holocaust Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is critical of what she calls “the emotional manipulation overseas.”

Nir Keidar

“When a teenager goes to Auschwitz and says, ‘Now I understand why we need a state,’ I wonder what the schools did for 11 years if they failed to make this point,” she says. “Even worse, everything you learned in four days [during the trip] you’ll forget in a week. The trip to Poland is a small catharsis for the short term, accompanied by torments that are not genuine. It certainly isn’t education. Education through emotion is not education for the long term.”

Nevertheless, which tools can aid in managing the memory of the Holocaust?

“The memory of the Shoah will be preserved not with the help of marketing activities such as the March of the Living, but only if children learn at a very young age who the people were who died, how they lived, the culture in which they were raised. What is taught today is how they were killed, and that’s much less interesting. Children are sent on trips to Poland who have no connection to our language, our culture, this land, but they’re sent overseas to preserve memory. All these delegations have long since become chiefly an economic enterprise. The age at which children travel to Poland is a manipulation. Does a soldier who was in Auschwitz a year ago and is guarding a checkpoint today remember the lessons of the visit to Poland? Very doubtful.”

On the other side of the debate stands Gila Oren, the head of the marketing and advertising department at the College of Management. Her recently submitted doctoral thesis at Ben-Gurion University was on “managing the remembrance of the Holocaust.”

“More than a few times I’ve heard the cynical nickname ‘Jewish Woodstock,’” says Oren, who will march in this year’s March of the Living. I also hear the phrase ‘There’s no business like Shoah business.’ This is another [sacred] cow we must slaughter. There is business in the Shoah, and it is good that there is business, since otherwise we would not remember it. People come to the March of the Living and justify themselves in face of this ‘Woodstock,’ since it is a sad matter, so why this happiness? I think the opposite — if you want to be sad you can sit at home and wail while watching ‘Schindler’s List,’ but the potential to derive genuine benefit, to preserve memory, is actually in joy: How cultured, how beautiful, how inspiring that teens and adults from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews, come to honor the dead and to learn about them. The joy of the trip is no less important than the sadness, since the educational potential is in the tension between sadness and joy. The sadness is always there. The duty to learn and to draw conclusions is what’s important,” Oren says.

According to Oren, the March of the Living is important not only in deepening remembrance and understanding the historical warning of the Holocaust, but also in the sense of togetherness it generates.

“My first time in the March of the Living, I understood we are not alone. I met thousands of people from all over the world; one group marching together with a survivor in a wheelchair, and he was the king of the world, and you say — this isn’t only our story, there is Judaism in the Diaspora that we [in Israel] simply don’t see. Suddenly you realize that Judaism isn’t [only] me and my friends in Tel Aviv, and there is great joy, the joy of rebirth. The March of the Living isn’t defiance nor a demonstration or defiance, it’s life. We come to bring joy to the dead, and the dead rejoice. The horror already happened, now let’s remember it.”

Oren’s positions are met with a raised eyebrow, at best, and often with rage. That’s not surprising, considering that she analyzes the treatment of the remembrance of the Holocaust using terms borrowed from the cold, rational field of business administration.

“When I say the memory of the Holocaust is a brand that exists in a competitive environment, people get a fever. Whenever you link the concept of ‘marketing’ to ‘the Holocaust,’ people feel nausea. I understand it, since such ideas do not sit well with our basic outlook.”

And still, you engage intensively with the subject.

“Because one can get a fever or nausea, but one can also look at the issue from a slightly different angle. My research represents a perspective that says that while the memory of the Shoah is dealt with by a long list of disciplines — historians, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists — the only people who had not touched the subject until now were those from business administration,. But if we don’t deal with the memory of the Holocaust using intellect and not intuition, it will remain in the hands of history, and we have an interest in preserving it the way we want it to be preserved.”

The question is whether a concept like “brand management” is really appropriate here.

“What is a brand? A brand has, for example, symbols connected to it, and which identify it. The collective memory also has, whether it is a yellow star or towers with smoke coming out. Brands operate in a competitive arena and even if it is difficult to think in such terms, in reality the memory of the Holocaust also competes for a share of the public’s awareness — and the competition is fierce.

“The World Trade Center tragedy is much closer to the Americans, in terms of time and emotions, than the Holocaust. So how do you make sure the Shoah remains in the American consciousness as a topic that should be taught? There are many sites competing with [the Jerusalem Holocaust museum] Yad Vashem for the tourists’ attention — how can the director of this institution see to it that it’s in their awareness? Every executive in every company knows that every activity must be managed, so why does managing memory raise such antagonism?” Oren says it’s all a matter of one’s associations with the idea of “management.”

She emphasizes that it is the international sphere where the management of the memory of the Holocaust is most important, noting that while Israel does quite well with managing Holocaust Remembrance Day domestically, more must be done abroad.

“For us, six million people are an entire world. For the Russians, where tens of millions died during World War II, this number makes less of an impression. How do you explain to a group of Russians visiting Auschwitz the extent of the horror?”

The place doesn’t speak for itself?

“In the past is definitely spoke for itself. Quite a few Poles told me they came to Auschwitz ‘when it was still possible to smell the smell of death.’ Over the years is turned into a museum. The survivors are dying, the concrete horror is disappearing. We must start to think about this issue with other tools.

“One of the important topics is the handling of the issue of the emotional dualism. We always prefer to avoid negative emotions, but the 1.5 million people who come every year to Auschwitz meet the horror. If I am the educational director of Auschwitz and I know that the existence of this emotional duality, which also has both negative and positive emotions, both Shoah and rebirth, this strengthens the present. I want them to feel it. How? That’s a management-strategy question.”

Another issue is determining the results of visits to the camps: Do they make the world a better place, do people see it as a historical warning and do they become more tolerant? Otherwise, why preserve such places, asks Oren: “Maybe there are more effective ways to preserve the memory?”