NEW MILFORD, N.J. (JTA) — There are hundreds of books about the Holocaust on classroom and library shelves, but my co-author, David Gold, and I decided that books and videos that hit people on the head with huge numbers of dead people — and even survivor memoirs — weren’t always reaching students. All you had to do was look around to see we were failing.
People didn’t seem to understand that the Holocaust’s main lessons were about the way people treated each other, how they made decisions, and what they believed when they read newspapers and listened to the radio. Rare was the course that made students understand they had to have values and take responsibility for their own actions.
So we sat down in front of our computers, clicked on Googletalk and together wrote "Why Should I Care? Lessons from The Holocaust," a “living” book that is constantly revised on the Internet and in paperback. It is designed to grab young peoples’ attention and make them think about the world and their role in it.
For me, the journey began 31 years ago in Teaneck, N.J., during the first oil crisis. I drove my kids to nursery school and found swatiskas and anti-Semitc graffiti scrawled on the beige brickwork. I was furious, but there was no one to blame. Before 1979, relatively few people knew about the Holocaust, and more didn’t care. As the Jewish student adviser at William Paterson College, I decided I wanted to do a program for the students.
In those days Holocaust education was rare in any school system, Jewish or secular. There was scant material to use in classrooms. There were few statewide or national observances or commemorations. Teachers went to film catalogues and chose the shortest film they could find because they had just 40 minutes to make the point.
Most chose a 28-minute documentary by Alain Resnais called “Night and Fog,” but it closed down conversation. Piling horror on top of horror did not work. It’s even worse now — in the age of HDTV, hi-res violence, blood and gore hit student’s eyeballs daily, and grainy black-and-white images from the past hardly moves them.
When Holocaust education was incorporated into national social studies standards, I realized students were getting too little too late. Already hard-wired for bullying and hatred, it was hard to undo damage by showing “Schindler’s List” and expect a paradigm shift in behavior and values. Today there is erosion, misinterpretation, trivialization and, perhaps worst of all, exploitation of the Holocaust as a fund-raising tool and political bludgeon.
So what good is studying the Holocaust if no one cares — or doesn’t know how to care?
In 1982, it already made sense to me to start in first grade with Disney’s “Dumbo the Elephant” because the film could be used to teach values and character by showing that those designated as different can get hurt, especially if “good” people around them do nothing to stop it. I was told it was a desecration to think that way, but as time passed I was convinced I was right.
A little more than three years ago I visited Gold, my old college buddy from Brooklyn, when he was sitting shiva for his mother. We talked and decided to work together to create a new approach.
The perspective we offer in "Why Should I Care?" came from continued study and personal experience. He was a Judaic studies instructor on the university level; served as director of the National Commission on Youth for the American Jewish Congress; was a founding director of The American Endowment School in Budapest; and served on the board of the Endowment for Democracy.
In 1979 I founded Group Project for Holocaust Education, which became Second Generation North Jersey, the first such group in the state. I was Second Generation Education Liaison to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and served on the first state commission on Holocaust Education in the nation, as well as the Goldberg Commission on American Jews and Rescue during the Holocaust. I was familiar with lots of the material being produced for classrooms.
At the same time I was mothering three teenagers in New Milford High School, then a hotbed of bullying and anti-Semitism. That’s where my son Dan was barred from entering a classroom because a student decided “No Jews Allowed.” Dan was told he was going to hell for killing Jesus, and that Anne Frank’s diary was a lie. The principal told me the Holocaust was a matter of opinion, and what did I mean the Jews didn’t kill Jesus?
Fifteen years after the state made teaching the Holocaust mandatory, my son’s classmates sneered their way through “Schindler’s List.”
That had to change. David and I realized we needed to use students’ vernacular and the context of their lives to break through their cynicism. With brand-new media and communication tools at our disposal, we wanted to reach students imbedded in pop culture and the Internet. And so we link to hundreds of sites that make points true to the legacy that Holocaust survivors want to leave behind. We use a cultural framework the students understand.
At its worst, Holocaust education creates disdain for Jewish people, ramps up the Victim Olympics and creates old-fashioned anti-Semitism with a modern twist — the exact opposite of what the survivors want. At its best the result is a caring, responsible human being who understands what the Holocaust really stands for.
"Why Should I Care?" is written in short takes that show how the unprecedented Holocaust reappears on a smaller scale in genocides today. We use Borat and Bono, the National Geographic Genome Project, Harry Potter and genocide survivors’ stories as means to engage students, to get them to think critically and challenge them to care.
Yes, academic research and documentation of the Holocaust must continue, for the scholars are the engines that generate the stories containing the values needed to “repair” the world. They allow us to translate that material into language, form and perspective that works for students, survivors and people of good will.
There may be those who disagree, but David and I believe “Never Again” is not a slogan for Jews only. "Why Should I Care?" is written precisely to make that point.