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The Holocaust: “A good way to commemorate experiences such as these is to make a commitment to teaching about them”

The Holocaust: “A good way to commemorate experiences such as these is to make a commitment to teaching about them”
  • © Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
  • Family portraits

Interview with Celeste Adamoli and Emmanuel Kahan of the Education and Remembrance Programme at the Argentine Education Ministry.

What is the role of education with historic events like the Nazi holocaust?

The objective of the Ministry of Education’s Education and Remembrance Programme is to consolidate an education policy that promotes the teaching recent history through preparing and making available materials and training for teachers throughout the country. Our actions fall within the scope of the National Education Law (Law 26,206), Article 3 of which indicates that “Education in a national priority, and hereby declared as a policy of State so as to build a fair society, to reaffirm national identity and sovereignty, to enhance the exercise of democratic citizenship, to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, and to strengthen the country’s economic and social development”.

Article 92 of the same law calls for the implementation of concrete actions towards the inclusion of a shared suite of minimum curriculum content items in all jurisdictions, regarding issues such as building a national identity from a Latin American regional perspective, the recovery of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands), and building and exercising remembrance of recent history, with the objective of “encouraging students towards democratic ways of thinking and reflection, defending the rule of law, and full respect for human rights”.

Working towards this ideal, the Federal Education Council’s Resolution 80/09, known as the Holocaust Teaching Plan, calls on top level national and provincial officials to take concrete steps to include this issue in the curriculum and in teaching.

Why the emphasis on the recent past?

Promoting teaching of the recent past is based on the idea that human rights are conquests won by society, and therefore that by teaching about them we can reinforce the ideas of responsibility, participation, and inclusivity. We believe that education - seen as a way of making the past available in a permanent dialogue with the present and the future - is what makes it possible to invite young people to reflect, to debate, to come up with new questions, and to seek out new responses in terms of finding their own position in the context of their living situation.

Thus, teaching the recent past is a fundamental contribution towards building a nation underscored by fairness, equity, and social and economic development, inhabited by active citizens whose civic responsibility is also fuelled by their recognition of their role as participants in a shared past.

Is holocaust education a subject covered in schools in Argentina? How is it taught?

Yes; since the promulgation of the Federal Education Council’s Resolution 80/09, known as the Holocaust Teaching Plan, top level national and provincial officials are instructed to take concrete steps to include this issue in the curriculum and in teaching. In this regard, we at the Education and Remembrance Programme are working to prepare materials, to provide training for key provincial stakeholders through the Education and Remembrance Network, and to provide training seminars for teachers working in different grades in the country’s education system.

Since the programme was created, in 2006, a wide range of materials have been published, not only offering a conceptual and historic perspective but also suggesting a number of ideas for how to teach these subjects in the classroom. Fragmented Memories, for instance, is one of the books that allows teachers to find a wide range of heartfelt testimonies regarding life in the concentration camps that were operated during the Holocaust. The Shoah on Screen - a translation of a work by Anne-Marie Baron - relates to a series of classic films on the Holocaust, from “Night and Fog” (Resnais, 1955) through to “The Pianist” (Polanski, 2002) - providing a wide range of perspectives for work with students.

Finally, Holocaust: Questions, Answers, and Teaching Proposals is a publication produced entirely by the Education and Remembrance Programme team, aiming to provide teachers with conceptual, historical, and methodological tools to cover this subject in the classroom.

What education experience in Latin America or the Caribbean strikes you as of particular interest in the field of remembrance and education?

The body of work created in the field of remembrance studies suggests that the regional has indeed seen many initiatives relating to education and remembrance. Indeed, the methods and processes whereby memories are built are to a certain extent, adopting the conceptual framework of Argentine historian Emilio Crenzel, diverse and bound together with the contexts in which the stories and voices of experiences from the recent past come together in our countries.

Thus, experiences in education and remembrance in Argentina are sure to be different to those found in other countries. Here, during the process of transitioning to democracy - precipitated by our defeat in the Falklands Conflict - the issue of forced disappearances and human rights violations by the armed forces was cast in the forefront of public debate. We would imagine that the situation would be different in Chile, where the Pinochet dictatorship lasted through to 1990, and ended through the dictator’s defeat in the 1988 plebiscite regarding the continuity of his government. Indeed, the situations and contexts experienced by human rights movements, underscoring the role of remembrance in legitimising the classification of those affected as victims, must be even more different in those countries where state, paramilitary, or insurgent violence continues to be a fact of life.

We need remembrance in order to build the present and to dream of the future, but this remembrance is a collective process that is in a permanent state of reconstruction. What are the characteristics of a school that can take on this challenge and this opportunity?

We are living in an age when forms of remembering are proliferating rapidly: museums, memorials, artworks, photographs, dates on calendars, marks and monuments on the land, and many more. Remembrance has become a core issue in contemporary politics and culture in western societies. However, many experts warn that this fetish for remembering through memorials leads to difficulties in bestowing the past with current vitality. Historian Eric Hobsbawm used to say that people live in a permanent present “lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in”.

What role is to be played by education and teaching in overcoming such fundamental paradoxes? How can we leverage the work of teacher to formulate and promote questions rooted in the present that allow us to understand past times that bear the hallmark of horror, imagining fairer futures? How can we endow these past times with value? What resources can we use to open them up to the new faces of coming generations? What must never be forgotten? What questions must we understand?

Teaching about the recent past in schools is an activity that often faces these stumbling blocks. They are questions that may be present in all aspects of education, but are particularly acute when it comes to teaching about traumatic events from history. One of these issues is linked to transmitting a sense of ownership from one generation to the next, with young people reading the events of the past from the perspective of their own existence. Thus, adult teachers take on the task of transmitting a responsibility and a culture of taking special care in passing on knowledge of extreme situations; and young people, through their place in the world, are destined to recreate this culture, often providing it with new meaning, while sometimes even adopting positions of indifference to it. As Jacques Hassoun put it in his book The Memory Smugglers, “successful transmission offers he or she who receives it a space of freedom and a foundation that allows that person to abandon (the past) to (better) reencounter it”. Thus, transmission is possible only through introducing differences in the inheritance received.

Transmission with “flaws” that permits revision with freedom?

Yes, transmission works when these “flaws” appear; new questions arising from the inheritance received. Generation, class, geographic, and ideological divides give form to these “flaws” - flaws that, far from being seen as errors, can be viewed as the driving force behind reflection in teaching and policy on learning about the Holocaust.

Theodor Adorno’s well-known phrase, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again,” can takes its place as a ambition for our role as educators that is as necessary as it is challenging. We can take a cue from this apothegm to guide us along a difficult path for which there is no guaranteed formula for success; just willingness and conviction.

How can we draw lessons from the Holocaust that allow us to gain a perspective on current situations of high risk or clear violation of human rights?

Commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz is an act laden down with different meanings: we take pause on the date when this bastion of Nazi annihilation finally ended its terrible activities to ask ourselves how this Holocaust machine could ever have become operational. However, we also take pause at this time to wonder whether we have truly been freed from Auschwitz.

These two approaches - albeit not the only possible conceptualisations, nor necessarily the most profound - allow us to reflect on a series of key problems when it comes to thinking about strategies to cover the Holocaust in the classroom. First, by thinking about how this machinery of extermination could ever have been set in motion, we are able to recognise the historical processes that led to a genocide; and in this particular case, we can recognise that the extermination of the Jews in Europe was thought through and planned before it began.

Secondly, we ask whether - even after the liberation of Auschwitz - we can truly say that we are free of its machinery or the chance that it could be repeated. An example might be painful to think of, but can equally be enlightening: there were two genocides during the first half of the 20th century, that of the Jews and that of the Armenians. What happened in the second half? Genocides and other variants of crimes against humanity began to multiply: Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Rwandan massacres, the genocides in Bosnia and Guatemala, and the policies of state terrorism implemented by military dictatorships in South America.

We can remember Auschwitz to gain perspective and throw light on questions about our present?

Naturally this is not a matter of trying to set Auschwitz on an even footing with other experiences. However, as historian Enzo Traverso put it, we can raise the questions, at least regarding practices for the transmission of the past in education; even after Auschwitz we are living with “imprisonment” camps such as Guántanamo or Abu Ghraib.

Here, teaching about the Holocaust makes us face up to situations of unique complexity in terms of the what, how, and why of teaching about the most extreme and horrific experiences, events that have left many imprints on our societies. How do we teach horror? How do we teach of painful past events that have left their mark on our present worlds? How to we start to think and reflect on human behaviours that violate human rights? What do we teach about these events? What teaching methods do we use? What resources? These questions cannot be sidestepped when it comes to planning how to teach about the Holocaust in schools. These are questions that are intimately linked to our social responsibility and our task as teachers.

Studying, reflecting, and discussing the implications of the Holocaust allows us not only to engage in remembrance of a key historical event that had a profound effect on human culture; it also opens the way to a series of questions regarding understanding and respect for those who are different to us in our own communities, defence and respect for diversity, and building blocks for citizenship. Here, we believe that studying these historical events can serve as a bridge questioning our own experiences: how to participate in active and responsible civic life; how not to remain indifferent to the pain of others; how to demand that societies and governments respect universal human rights.

These questions on how to teach the Holocaust allow us to return once again to the potential found in these events to give way to critical thinking. Thus, it may be a good thing to bear in mind - as we are approaching an anniversary that rightly deserves to be marked - a statement by Argentina political scientist Pilar Calveiro, telling us that “The precise repetition of the same story, with no variations, across the years, may represent not a triumph of remembrance but rather a defeat. First, all repetition dries the story out in the ears of those who listen; meanwhile, to remember is to recreate the past from the current situation of the present, and the project of the future.”

Therefore, we consider it vital that this act is not a matter of commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz in a way that is tied down to a fossilised sense of past events, but rather that we should take pause to consider the full potential of the Holocaust for critical thinking regarding our own present, and how to move on towards a better future.

On 27 January the UN commemorates the victims of the Holocaust. What do you consider to be a good way of commemorating these events in the world of education?

That is a difficult question for us, for a number of reasons. First, although the Argentine government’s ministries of education, defence, foreign relations, and justice and human rights are working towards a series of activities to commemorate the Holocaust, educational activities are in recess for the summer vacations. However, over and above this aspect, the problem comes down to a matter of teaching methods: Can we limit discussion of these issues to a moment as fleeting as an anniversary? Here, it could be pointed out that the date of remembrance falls within the vacations, suggesting that schools’ activities to address this topic can and should take place without limiting them to the standardised dynamics of the calendar of holidays and commemorations.

As we previously suggested, the Holocaust - like the state terrorism that took place in Argentina, or the other genocides of the 20th century - was an extremely complex event that must be approached in depth, going far beyond a fleeting date in the calendar. It could even be said that these issues, over and above specific events tied to specific dates, are wide-reaching topics that could be subjects studied throughout the process of teaching and learning.

However, before finishing, there is a question that we would not like to leave unanswered: what do you consider to be a good way of commemorating it? While we may not be certain of the right method, we do have the premise. A good way to commemorate experiences such as these is to make a commitment to teaching about them. To teach about the Holocaust is, after all, the way in which we can address what has happened, and go on to ask ourselves how to move towards a better future.

Más información

Programa Educación y Memoria. Ministerio de Educación de Argentina

Why learn about the Holocaust in schools?

  • 22-01-2013