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Holocaust education in crisis? UNESCO and UN online panel discusses challenges and opportunities


75 years after the end of the Second World War, evidence suggests that historical knowledge of the Holocaust is declining, despite efforts to promote comprehensive Holocaust education. According to a recent survey, one third of Americans is unaware of the number of Jewish victims, while CNN revealed in 2018 that one in twenty Europeans does not know what the Holocaust is. Simultaneously, research indicates that Holocaust education can favor learners’ positive attitudes towards human rights and civic engagement.

Addressing these findings and the questions they raise, UNESCO and the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme organized an online panel discussion on “Holocaust education in crisis?” on 10 November. Experts from leading Holocaust education institutions shared their future vision for Holocaust education against the backdrop of increasing generational gaps, digitalization, and rising mis- and disinformation.

Diversifying perspectives to increase impact

Opening the discussion, Elke Gryglewski, Head of the Educational Department of the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference in Germany pointed at the need to balance remembrance with education. “It is important to combine commemorative elements that support Holocaust remembrance with factual historical knowledge in order to create a better understanding of this history and its consequences for the present societies,” she said, adding: “Without knowledge about national socialism and the Holocaust, nobody can understand contemporary German, European and even global political structures and persisting sensitivities. Education about the Holocaust can raise awareness about past and present forms of antisemitism and the destructive consequences of racism and othering. Here again it is important to provide learners with a profound knowledge of these forms of discrimination, related structures and ideologies.”

This knowledge needs to be nuanced. Gretchen Skidmore, Director of Education Initiatives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) suggested a multifaceted approach to the history of the Holocaust, which considers the diverse roles of individuals. “Often, the responsibility for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust is exclusively attributed to Nazi leadership. Holocaust education should aim to shift this narrative and bring forward that Nazi leadership depended on millions of ordinary people who collaborated in the persecution of Jews. Taking this perspective can help to create an understanding of civic responsibilities and the role individuals can take in confronting discrimination and the threat of future genocide.” She further explained: “Evaluations of the museum’s educational programs have shown increased skills in terms of civic engagement, a changed worldview and a shift in the way learners were thinking about others.”

Supporting teachers and addressing misconceptions

While Holocaust education can yield important results way beyond historical learning, the complex nature of this history can pose an important challenge to educators.

“We are looking at the Holocaust education issue the wrong way around,” said Debórah Dwork, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity at the Graduate Center – CUNY.  “We need to focus on the teachers, not the students and pupils.  And we need to move from teacher training (workshops, day programs) to teacher education.   Teachers teach material with which they are comfortable; that they feel confident presenting.  They teach what they learned when they were at college or university.  Until colleges and universities routinely offer courses on the history of the Holocaust, teachers will never get the robust foundation they need to be successful in the classroom.”

Research of the UHSMM has shown similar results: “Background knowledge and sense of pedagogy around this complex history is lacking among teachers. There is an urgent need for teacher education,” agreed Gretchen Skidmore. ”At the same time, there is a need for clear frameworks. Even though there is great interest, there is still no consensus of what methodologies are most effective in Holocaust education across the United States.”

Stuart Foster, Executive Director of University College London Centre for Holocaust Education, provides such guidance to educators in England. Over the last years, the Centre for Holocaust Education has trained 14,000 teachers and conducted extensive surveys to gain a better understanding of how the Holocaust is taught and what knowledge is retained by learners.

Recent studies have revealed widespread misconceptions about the Holocaust among English learners, which, according to surveyed teachers, is compounded by increasing levels of disinformation online. “One of our studies showed that 56 per-cent of students in secondary schools in England believed that Hitler was solely responsible for the Holocaust”, reported Stuart Foster. “Education is crucial to counter these basic misconceptions, to complicate the picture transmitted by mainstream media, and to strengthen critical thinking and media and information literacy. Even general misconceptions about the history of the Holocaust can have damaging consequences and can feed into intentional distortion or even Holocaust denial.”

Engaging learners through oral history

To increase learning, Holocaust education should be engaging. “Teaching about the Holocaust is also about making young people care about this history,” said Stuart Foster. “That’s why it is important to attach a human face to this otherwise abstract history.”

Testimony and oral history can be a powerful educational tool to not only bridge generational gaps, but also geographical distance. Yael Siman is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social and Political Science at Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. “In non-European contexts, like Latin America, it is important to break with the misconception that the Holocaust is distant from local lives and histories,” she explained. “We need to think of effective teaching mechanisms to convey the global scope of the Holocaust. For example, through highlighting connections to local histories of immigration, refuge and transit.” For this, oral history can be a powerful tool: “The more personal, the more specific the testimony, the more it resonates with students.”  

UNESCO and the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme are committed to advancing Holocaust education worldwide. UNESCO’s work in this area is undertaken within the framework of the Organization’s prorgamme on Global Citizenship Education and encompasses the development of guidance materials, international capacity-building, as well as awareness raising, such as through the annual commemoration of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.

The online event was opened by Maher Nasser, Director of the Outreach Division of the UN Department of Global Communications, and Cecilia Barbieri, Chief of the Section for Global Citizenship and Peace Education at UNESCO. Tracey Petersen of the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme provided an overview of recent findings and Karel Fracapane, UNESCO Programme Specialist, moderated the discussion.