Panel Discussion at JW3
© Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
Panel Discussion at JW3
© Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Recent research from UCL Centre for Holocaust Education showed shocking levels of ignorance about the Holocaust. In addition racism and antisemitism are at an alarming level. So we have to ask the question “Has Holocaust Education Failed?”. On Tuesday 19 March 2019, The Wiener Library’s Director Ben Barkow joined an expert panel hosted by JW3, in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and with the generous support of the Genesis Philanthrophy Group, to debate this question. 

In my view we need to explore three questions before we can judge whether Holocaust education has failed.

Firstly, what do we mean by the ‘Holocaust’? Is it the murder of the Jews in the so-called Final Solution –from 1941-1945? Is it all Jews who were impacted– so we include the refugees and Kinder and others? Is it these plus a number of groups, such as the Sinti and Roma, gay women and men, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled? Is it more or less all civilians who died in the war?

If we’re teaching about the Holocaust – on any of the definitions I’ve mentioned, why do we talk about the Rwandan Genocide and the genocide in former Yugoslavia as well? These catastrophes are not linked by historical events to the Holocaust, however you define it. And to compound the confusion, why do we not talk about the Armenian genocide, which in fact has direct historical connections to the Holocaust?

So it seems that when we talk about the Holocaust in this context, we’re quite muddled.

Secondly, what do we mean by ‘education’? Does education exist to make people aware of the world they live in and able to think about issues in a mature and responsible way? Or is it basically a kind of propaganda to get people (especially the young) to behave in ways that we approve of? Do we learn about the Holocaust in order to make society better? Or because it is one of the most important events in human history? Do we want to foster critical thought and questioning? Or do we want to foster unthinking conformity?

Does the Holocaust have ‘lessons’ for us? What are they actually? Perfectly valid ’lessons’ might include, don’t trust politicians, don’t trust military personnel, don’t trust policemen and don’t trust the people who live next door. But is that what we should be teaching?

If we want to produce well informed thoughtful citizens, why does Holocaust education basically ignore the work of scholars and researchers who offer us profound insights into the Holocaust and instead focus overwhelmingly on personal narratives of survivors, who are by definition the anomaly of the Holocaust?

Finally, what do we mean by ‘success’ and ‘failure’? Has Holocaust education failed because the internet is full of hate or gunmen attack synagogues and mosques in other countries? Because the Labour Party has become – or always was – antisemitic? Is Holocaust education supposed to make the whole world a better place?

If a school pupil disrespects the authority of her or his teacher, if a student abuses a policeman stopping and searching a black man, if somebody mistrusts their neighbour to the point of rudeness and hostility – are these things a success or a failure for Holocaust education?

We come to the question: what is Holocaust education really for, what is it supposed to do?

Until we get our story straight on that, the muddle will continue and we can expect those on the receiving end of Holocaust education to go on feeling confused.