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For a long time the Holocaust remained largely undiscussed in public and a few years ago it appeared for the first time as a topic in the National Curriculum. But how, asks Margaret Melicharova, can such a subject be taught and what lessons should we be learning as we pause to remember?AFTER THE liberation of Dachau, an American soldier said to journalist Martha Gellhorn, ‘No one will believe us.’ Another said urgently: ‘We got to talk about it. We got to talk about it, if anyone believes us or not.’

Underground courier Jan Karski took news of the fate of Polish Jews to the Polish Embassy in Washington. A Justice of the Supreme Court told his host: ‘Mr Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.’

Antony Polonsky, academic, writes: ‘Perhaps two kinds of discourse on the Holocaust are needed: scrupulously objective investigation of how the policy of genocide was adopted and implemented, particularly at a time when voices denying that it ever took place are increasingly vociferous; and a literature which will enable us to commemorate the efforts of victims to survive and the civilisation which perished with them.’

For a long time in this country the Holocaust remained largely undiscussed in public, and, by some, still unbelieved. In the 1980s the Holocaust Educational Trust was set up in London to provide material for teachers attempting to bring the Holocaust into its proper public context in European history. In 1991 the Holocaust appeared for the first time as a named topic in the National Curriculum. How, though, might such a thing be taught?

Paul Oppenheimer, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, is happy to visit schools and tell his story ‘before it is too late. Soon there won’t be any left to tell what happened.’ Not enough, then, to write it down: it must be spoken. An enthusiastic inner-city teacher said: ‘This oral living history project allows pupils to relate to other human beings who have been pushed to one side and yet are still fighting for their voices to be heard.’

Barbara Stimler was 13 when the war began - the age of the schoolchildren she talks to now as part of another survivor-testimony programme. ‘It makes me feel so ill, but I have to do my duty, to myself and the new generation. I’m getting older and antisemitism is running more than ever.’

Henry Wermuth doesn’t find it easy either. ‘Sometimes when I look at the children I see the face of my sister, who was killed at 13. Talking to them is my duty to her and all the other dead children. You can’t explain what it’s like to be surrounded by death, to see people shot and hanged, to sleep on a bunk with five emaciated people, all with diarrhoea except the one who has just died whom the rest of us are too weak to remove. You can’t explain the constant fear, the constant selections for the gas chambers. But I try.’

Some of the children thus enlightened are moved and sobered by what they hear, often producing relevant poems and pictures in response. Others, however, seem immune, or cynical, or indifferent, or simply out of their depth. They are as varied in sensitivity, or sympathy, or intelligence, or enthusiasm, as their German counterparts no doubt were, sixty years ago.

‘We were inducted into reading everything that glorified war,’ one German remembers. The Third Reich employed several thousand people as censors, screening children's books to check their adherence to ‘correct ideas’, monitoring libraries, recommending proper interpretations of established works. Red Riding Hood is rescued by a Führer woodcutter; Robinson Crusoe and Friday must on no account be seen as equals; Faust's wish to seize land from the sea on which to create an ideal society directly reflected the Führer’s own land reclamation projects. Even the idea of euthanasia was run past these children, ‘intelligent enough,’ as one said, ‘to grasp the idea, but not intelligent enough to refute it.’

And then there was ‘Mein Kampf’. Compulsory, if not compelling, reading. One man recalls chunks of antisemitic rant from it, read aloud at school. ‘There was ‘the ugly Jew’, you know, and the ‘beautiful Aryan girl’... and he rapes her. That,’ he says with rueful embarrassment, ‘was my first sexual education.’

Ellen Frey, born in 1915, was happy under Hitler. ‘He did things right for us young people: ‘Volk and Vaterland’, he said, and ‘We must bring our people together’. Before that there was nothing worthwhile to stand up for. I was a youth leader, and popular. No, we knew Jews could not join Hitler Youth. Our parents told us, ‘The Jews are everywhere, and have us in the palm of their hand. They push us Germans aside and take the best jobs.’ So, yes, we thought, maybe it’s good that they leave. Kristallnacht? Oh, we were outraged: we said, If they want the Jews out, why don’t they do it in a nicer way. When they had to wear the Star of David, we said, Poor fellows, it’s unbelievable...But one had so many problems oneself.’ Martha Brixius, born in 1911, was not a Nazi supporter, yet she saw how hard it was to resist the pull. ‘I was in Hanover when Hitler was there for a rally. I saw the crowd screaming with enthusiasm and throwing flowers. The crowd is so enthusiastic, it can infect you. And you think, could you be wrong and all the others be right?’

Problems did not end with the war. Anne Karpf’s mother had been in Auschwitz, her father in Russian labour camps. ‘They arrived in London in 1947 to a country which had virtually no concept of ‘a Holocaust survivor’. At best they found incomprehension about their experiences, at worst indifference and ignorance. (A woman who noticed my mother’s Auschwitz tattoo asked if it was her telephone number.) The orthodox line - that survivors didn't want to talk - is a huge simplification. Many did, but found no-one to hear. So they talked to their children, and we became keepers of our parents’ stories’ - and often traumatised by them in turn. In 1988 the first International Jerusalem Conference of survivors’ children was held; for them too, talking brought release. ‘We began to see how deeply our parents’ experience was threaded through our lives, and how instinctively we used the metaphors of survival.’

In May 1994, the historian Martin Gilbert wrote that the Holocaust ‘has recently become the subject of efforts to deny that it ever took place. Those denials are a cruel travesty of the truth. They are an insult to the memory of the dead, and a danger for the future. If we deny what happened in the past - the recent past - we will not be able to learn the vital lessons for the future. The evil that was done to the Jews of Europe must never be attempted again, against anyone.’ That exhortation was made a few weeks before the Rwandan massacre.

‘Vital lessons for the future’: what must be learned is how, and when, ‘ordinary human beings’ acquire a mind-set that makes some people willing to perform atrocities and many people unable to dissent.

Who, after all, were the dedicated teachers who taught their pupils the slogans they chanted? (‘Only those who have learned to obey will be able to command.’ ‘The Führer is the saviour: what he says, we must do.’) Why is neo-Nazism still attractive? A meticulously restored Berlin synagogue, its golden dome a landmark, has armed guards at its door - to defend it from whom?

Daniel Goldhagen, author of ‘Hitler's Willing Executioners’ [to be discussed in the next issue], suggests that the antisemitism behind the Holocaust was not the fury of the few but the inherited zeitgeist of the many. Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies, knows there are other prejudices, other victims. He says, ‘The framework and type of decision-making on the practical implementation of the programme, that we see here, can be repeated elsewhere.’ As indeed it has been. Russia, China, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda....

We must discover how to protect children of the future from such programmes. So it is the record of vivid details, intimate snapshots from the individual sufferings of children of the past, that constitutes a memorial, and a warning, more effective than the terrifying but inapprehensible statistics of death.

In the 1920s, when 6-year-old Moshe Kroskof was at home in Poland, neighbours pretended to his mother that he had drowned in a well. ‘These men and women who were our neighbours enjoyed the spectacle of a Jewish mother’s grief. Tearing her hair and clothes. No one said it was a joke. Nothing! They were enjoying it. Eventually I was brought to her and saw it for myself.’

In 1933 Rita Kuhn was 5. ‘My father told me, ‘Be careful about the men in the brown uniforms. Don’t look at them, and just walk straight.’ I think my father said they didn’t like Jews. From that day on, I had to be invisible, almost.’

Daniel Goldhagen suggests that conventional explanations of the Holocaust ‘do not sufficiently recognise the extraordinary nature of the deed’, including as it did a whole range of cruelties in addition to outright killing. ‘They assume and imply that inducing people to kill human beings is fundamentally no different from getting them to do any other unwanted or distasteful task.’

But is this, in the context of humanity’s violent history, so remarkable? What is strange is that war, with its attendant brutalities, doesn’t arouse the same outrage, the same sensitivities, the same determination that ‘it must never happen again’. Soldiers are human beings too, killed (and killing) in many more millions. Civilians are human beings, slaughtered in more millions still.

‘Genocide compels remembrance,’ says foreign correspondent Fergal Keane. At this time of remembering those who have perished in ‘ethnic cleansings’ as well as in war, we aren’t saying that horrors such as the Holocaust are less awful than they are becoming fully perceived to be. What we are saying, sadly, is that war isn’t perceived to be awful enough.

There is a proverb in Cambodia: If you are strong, make yourself feared; if you are weak, make yourself pitied. The chilling prescriptive nature of this maxim tells us that the weak don’t stand a chance, since the strong know from it that they must resist pity if they are to stay strong. The human race seems all too easily able to create communities where such sayings make sense. But, as the Greek tragedians knew, pity and fear must be purged. There are better things in life. The lesson of Remembrance has to be Cooperation. It can’t be learned too young.

Margaret Melicharova


The Holocaust Educational Trust can be contacted at BCB Box 7892, London WC1N 3XX; telephone: 0171 222 6822; fax: 0171 233 0161; e-mail: ipcaa@dircon.co.uk

Its services include books, videos, cassettes, exhibitions, CD-ROMs, education packs, all available to buy or borrow. Speakers can be arranged, including survivors; teacher seminars are organised; and conferences for A level students take place twice a year.


Available from Amazon co uk

Hitler’s Willing Executioners


For Daniel Goldhagen, the photographs of Hitler’s executioners smiling (as well as the mere fact of snapshots - for which one is usually supposed to smile - being taken at all) offer firm evidence of their willingness. But there is, as always, another view.

When citizens, soldiers, and SS performed their unspeakable acts, the photos show their faces were not grimaced with horror, or even with ordinary sadism, but rather were contorted with laughter. Of all the harrowing contradictions, this holds the key to all the others. This is the most ironic loophole in Nazi reasoning. If the Nazis required that humiliation precede extermination, then they admitted exactly what they worked so hard to avoid admitting: the humanity of the victim. To humiliate is to accept that your victim feels and thinks, that he not only feels pain but knows that he’s being degraded. And because the torturer knew in an instant of recognition that his victim was ..a man, and knew at that same moment that he must continue his task, he suddenly understood the Nazi mechanism. Just as the stone carrier [prisoners in quarries, made to move stones from one place to another, pointlessly] knew his only chance of survival was to fulfil his task as though he didn’t know its futility, so the torturer decided to do his job as if he didn’t know the lie. The photos capture again and again this chilling moment of choice: the laughter of the damned. When the soldier realised that only death has the power to turn ‘man’ into ‘figur’ [inanimate image] his difficulty was solved. And so the rage and sadism increased: his fury at the victim for suddenly turning human; his desire to destroy that humanness so intense his brutality had no limit.
From Anne Michaels’ remarkable and moving novel ‘Fugitive Pieces’.


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