Focus on Issues Study Finds Students Can Grasp the Tragedy of the Holocaust
Menu JTA Search

Focus on Issues Study Finds Students Can Grasp the Tragedy of the Holocaust

Download PDF for this date

Fears of educators that intensive study of the Holocaust in public school systems might increase negative or even anti-Semitic attitudes among students or be beyond their capacity to absorb and understand have been decisively dispelled by a pioneering two-year study of such curricula in four American public school systems, according to the National Jewish Resource Center (NJRC). An NJRC spokesperson reported the study was the first of its kind.

The NJRC study also reported that the immensity of the Holocaust and the issues it raises have made it one of the most difficult subjects to teach in public schools.

The study, “American Youth and the Holocaust: A Study of Four Major Curricula,” was made under NJRC auspices, by Mary Glynn, Dr. Geoffrey Bock and Dr. Karen Cohen, to determine just how valid such concerns were. They reported that their study showed that the Holocaust curricula have had a morally positive effect on the students in junior and senior high schools in Brookline, Mass.; Great Neck, N.Y.; New York City and Philadelphia.


The curricula in those communities were described as “probably the four most influential Holocaust curricula” in use in this country, partly because those school systems were among the first in the United States to develop such curricula and had well-developed study programs in progress when the research for the study was done from June, 1979 through June, 1981.

Glynn, a Sister of Mercy nun, was director of the project and assistant director of Zachor, the Holocaust Research Center of the NJRC, during the study, according to the NJRC spokesperson. Bock and Cohen, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were the principal investigators for the study.

They reported finding that study of the Holocaust increased student understanding not only of the specifics of the Holocaust but also of such American mores as respect for minority rights and a personal sense of responsibility for decisions.

The report indicated that the students treated material about the Holocaust with great respect and concern about its implications for their own lives.


Teachers reported an unusually high level of personal involvement and special efforts on the part of students studying the material. The teachers also reported that while the students could be overwhelmed by the massive totals in the numbers of victims, and the graphic presentations of a powerful historical reality, they were also able to understand that the Holocaust had knowledgeable causes and that, as an event in human history, they could come to understand the Holocaust in their own terms.

The researchers reported that it is as an event in human history that the Holocaust is used in these curricula as a vehicle for the teaching of such fundamental American values as democracy, pluralism, respect for differences, freedom from prejudice, individual responsibility, and antiracism.

These themes are so central to the focus and effects of the Holocaust curricula that Glynn called it “the Americanization of the Holocaust.”

The researchers suggested that the “Americanization” concept might be at adds with the concerns of scholars and theologians who, in professional literature, stress the uniqueness of the tragedy — as-do many, if not most, Jews, particularly survivors — in contrast to the concept of its universality, or the perception of the Holocaust as an awesome mystery, beyond human understanding.


But the researchers found in the curricula an assumption that the Holocaust was a profoundly human experience, which can be approached, dealt with and even understood by such young persons as high school students. The study also found that the content of the Holocaust itself set its own limitations on any possible abuse or overgeneralization, the researchers agreed. In fact, they found, the Jewish uniqueness of the Holocaust becomes more clear as more is learned about the victims.

The study found that different approaches taken by each of the curriculums did result in different evaluations, particularly in each student’s understanding of the factors he or she felt accounted for the tragedy.

In Brookline, where emphasis is on the examination and explanation of human behavior, students continued to emphasize the importance of social forces which led Germans to join the Nazis, while students elsewhere emphasized economic factors.

In Philadelphia and Brookline, students gained a greater awareness of the role of prejudice and anti-Semitism in the Holocaust than students in Great Neck, where many students are Jewish and very much aware of anti-Semitism, a fact which led them to consider other factors as well, the study found.


Holocaust studies are mandated in two of the school systems and elective in the other two, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was informed. In New York City, Holocaust courses are organized when there is enough interest on the part of teachers, students and administrators. The courses so organized are one-semester electives in junior and senior high schools. In Philadelphia, courses are taught on many grade levels at the teacher’s discretion. A curriculum was approved by the school board but its study is not mandated.

In Great Neck, Holocaust studies are a required part of the ninth grade curriculum, mandated in 1976. In Brookline, a Holocaust education program, “Facing History and Ourselves,” is a required part of the eighth grade social studies curriculum. A pilot program was started in 1976 and a study program was mandated in 1977.

The pioneering study was supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The amount of the grant was not disclosed By arrangement with the NEH, copies of the study have been distributed to 2,500 teachers and educators in the social studies field. The study is dedicated to Jeffrey Boyko, NJRC treasurer, who endowed the study as part of his goal of stimulating Holocaust study by young people.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund