For 76 years, educators and religious leaders have battled ignorance, indifference, a lack of comprehension — even outright denial — in teaching the Holocaust. The depths of evil that humans are capable of is difficult to explore. The subject is difficult to convey.
Still, groups all over the world dutifully pass on the stories of this heinous stain on human history, in which 6 million Jews and millions of other people were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices during World War II.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, trains educators "to bring their students safely in and safely out of the learning environment" with age-appropriate material. The University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation, founded by famed film director Steven Spielberg, teaches through testimony. It houses some 55,000 audio and visual testimonies, the bulk of which are from first-hand witnesses to the Holocaust, including sobering, heart-wrenching words from elderly survivors about their horrifying past.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. bills itself as a "living" museum that "inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity."
Hundreds of other museums and memorials are tasked with the same kind of duty: to remember the dead, to teach the living.
As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, a question has arisen:
Is graphically recounting the Holocaust's horrors — the well-known stories of executions, gas chambers, crematoriums, death camps, sadistic SS guards, mass graves — the only way to honor the dead and educate the living?
In 2005, Arthur B. Shostak, a retired sociologist from Philadelphia's Drexel University, went on a Holocaust tour in Europe. An American professor led the tour, which was attended by 25 or 30 American Jews. It was both eye-opening and distressing, but probably not for the usual reasons.
"We listened — day after day and camp after camp — we listened to the horror stories. And at the end of the two and a half weeks listening to this chap, my wife and I had an epiphany. A shared epiphany," Shostak, now 83, explained when we first interviewed him in 2019. "And the epiphany was we had just been subject to a great distortion, a great one-sided version, which drew standing applause at the end of the two and a half weeks from everybody — except my wife and me."
The problem wasn't with what the tour leader had related to his group, Shostak says, but what he hadn't. In the telling of all the Holocaust's horrors — in the stories of refugees being forced from their homes, in the trips through the haunting camps, in the stark black-and-white photos of the emaciated, wide-eyed survivors, in the shared, shameful history of death that envelops all who look into this scar on human history — what Shostak and his wife found missing were the stories of hope.
Over the next several years — his work continues today — Shostak pored through the narratives of more than 200 Holocaust survivors, personally interviewed scores of them and studied remembrances from many other prisoners of war. In his research, he found hundreds of what he calls "help" stories from the majority of survivors — tales of those who risked their own safety to aid those in need under the most horrific of circumstances. Many happened at the camps themselves.
Shostak's 2017 book, "Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust," recounts several of these stories, including that of Ruth Kluger, a starving 13-year-old who was moved to the line for the gas chambers upon her arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. A young Jewish woman spoke up for Kluger, convincing German officers she could work in the camp. From the book:
Now, many decades later, Ms. Kluger regards the brief incident as "an incomprehensible ace of grace, or put more modestly, a good deed. I was saved by a young woman who was in as helpless a situation as the rest of us, and who nevertheless wanted nothing more than to help me."
She sees in this act of stealth altruism proof that "even in the perverse environment of Auschwitz absolute goodness was a possibility, like a leap of faith, beyond the humdrum chain of cause and effect." Ms. Kluger believes every survivor has a similar story, a "lucky accident," a "turning point" to which they owe their life.
The stories are more than hopeful. They're inspiring. And these lessons don't apply only to the Holocaust, Shostak says. These stories of help can be uplifting in any place a human dilemma is found.
"I wish the Black History Museum on the Mall [National Museum of African American History and Culture] highlighted examples of the Help Story during the mid-passage of slaves from Africa to the West Indies, and later during slavery in the USA," Shostak writes in an email. "Likewise, I wish media would highlight the Help Story during genocides in Darfur, Rwanda, the Sudan and elsewhere."
They need to be included especially, Shostak insists, in any recounting of the Holocaust.
Magda Herzberger has her stories of hope, too. Herzberger, now 94, first entered Auschwitz as an 18-year-old forced from her home in war-torn Romania. A few weeks into her time at the camp, with disease and death all around her — Auschwitz was one of three camps she spent time in during the war — Herzberger found herself considering suicide.
A fellow prisoner, at risk of incurring the wrath of the soldiers, approached the despondent Herzberger one night — the girls were classmates in elementary school — and over the next few days talked her out of it.
"She said, 'Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Didn't you think of your parents? You don't want to fight for your life for the sake of your parents? Don't have these crazy thoughts in your life," says Herzberger, recounting the episode over the phone from her home in Fountain Hills, Arizona. "The whole week she was giving pep. She brought hope into my life. She saved my life."
Balancing Horror and Hope
The danger of teaching about humanity, especially in World War II Europe, is the possibility of losing sight of, of diluting by even a little, the historically inhumane crimes of the Holocaust.
Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. From Yad Vashem:
Most of the Jews of Europe were dead by 1945. A civilization that had flourished for almost 2,000 years was no more. The survivors – one from a town, two from a host – dazed, emaciated, bereaved beyond measure, gathered the remnants of their vitality and the remaining sparks of their humanity, and rebuilt. They never meted out justice to their tormentors – for what justice could ever be achieved after such a crime? Rather, they turned to rebuilding: new families forever under the shadow of those absent; new life stories, forever warped by the wounds; new communities, forever haunted by the loss.
With that as the predominant view, Shostak has spent years traveling the world, talking to Holocaust museum curators and others to urge more consideration for the "hope" stories in addition to the recitation of the atrocities.
"I'm asked often by audiences for a ratio, and I don't hesitate to say that a museum or an event is reasonable in putting 60 percent or more of the attention to ways in which people hurt people," Shostak says. "But I want to see 40 percent of attention to the not-often discussed ways in which victims tried to help one another.
"At this point, I argue that the ratio should be changed, but I understand why the ratio, regrettably, is as one-sided as it is at the time."
Shostak's view has met some resistance from traditionalists who support the museums and have known only one way to teach the Holocaust.
"They've spent their lives accepting and even appreciating the horror-centric approach," Shostak says. "That approach portrays the victims as beaten upon, as defeated. And they can live with that. They can accept that. That approach basically emphasizes the bestiality of the perpetrator. They prefer to have the perpetrator demonized. They like that.
"The museum directors explain to me around the water cooler, as it were, that my approach will 'muddy the water.' My approach will introduce nuance. Will introduce complexity. My approach will detract from a sharp focus on bad behavior by the Other."
Help's Place in the Holocaust
Herzberger, who has given hundreds of talks over the years and written an autobiography titled "Survival," has a unique perspective on the debate as it relates to Holocaust education. She calls her former classmate who helped her at Auschwitz and others who stepped up at the Bremen-Farge and Bergen-Belsen camps her "guardian angels."
But she knows, more than most, the pain and death of the Holocaust, too.
"I am a Holocaust survivor, but I am also an educator," she says. "I have to tell you: There were those among us who tried to help. But on the other hand, there were some who worked with the Nazis in order to get better conditions. They sold themselves to the Nazis. They had to be like the Nazis. They had to beat us and be cruel.
"You cannot just say one way. You have to mention the horrors and you also have to point out the people among us who could not be destroyed. We maintained our humane feelings and our desire to help others."