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Russian Ignorance of Holocaust Difficult for Teachers to Overcome

June 5, 2000
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When Sweden’s vice prime minister opened a conference on Holocaust education last week, the event went unnoticed by the Moscow media.

They were busy discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing crackdown on Jewish media tycoons.

But for the 50 Jewish activists, teachers, public figures and historians who gathered at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow, the discussions hosted by Lena Hjalm-Vallen were part of a struggle to educate a Russian populace that is mainly ignorant about the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

The Russian city of Smolensk, for example, “is very anti-Semitic,” said Mikhail Steklov, a history professor there. “Neo-Nazi groups are quite active, there are lots of inscriptions like `Jews, Get Out of Russia’ in public places and absolutely no resistance and no public awareness of the fascist danger. When I asked students which of them can explain what the Holocaust is, only 5 percent out of 200 understood the word.”

The Soviet government is partially responsible for the ignorance. Under the Communists, the Holocaust was completely universalized, and those killed during the Holocaust were commemorated only under the rubric of “victims of crimes against humanity.”

At a January international conference on Holocaust education in Stockholm, Russian Vice Premier Valentina Matvienko vowed to destroy the “wall of silence” about the Holocaust in Russia.

Similar words were repeated last week in Moscow by high-ranking Russian officials, including Deputy Minister of Education Vladimir Kondakov, who said that his ministry is preparing a national education program on the Holocaust.

Nationwide programs of this kind have already been introduced in Sweden, where a million copies of the book, “And Tell That to Your Children,” are being distributed as part of a state-supported Holocaust-education project.

In Russia, which has a population of 150 million, only 20,000 copies of the book have been printed.

Ilya Altman, the head of the Holocaust Center in Moscow and one of Russia’s leading Holocaust researchers, says Holocaust education is more than just a Jewish issue in Russia because many Soviet citizens helped the Nazis murder Jews during World War II.

Education specialists say Russians generally don’t see the value of teaching the Holocaust. Tatyana Arsentyeva, who teaches at a Moscow high school, says students and their parents opposed her plans to introduce a Holocaust course.

“They say they don’t understand why their kids should study that,” she said. “They say they don’t need it. I can’t see how we can use books like the Swedish one right now. Our Swedish colleagues simply underestimate the level of anti- Semitism and of unwillingness to tackle these problems in Russia.”

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