Extremism and domestic terrorism are not new problems in our country, but they are challenges that in recent weeks have come into sharper focus. How to address these trends and reverse the rise in extremist and domestic terror activities – actions that are dangerous to human life and that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States – is an increasingly urgent question.
As we gather to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 8, we are reminded that education is one of the most powerful tools we have to create lasting and meaningful change. History provides an invaluable lens through which we may understand the present.
Learning about the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust and the defeat of European fascism in the middle of the 20th Century provides important context for understanding contemporary extremist movements. By studying the lessons of this history, we are equipped to recognize warning signs. The Holocaust also provides a wealth of examples of successful resistance activities – as well as demonstrating the danger of inaction in the face of extreme views that promote and result in violence.
A 2020 study released by Echoes and Reflections found that students who receive Holocaust education in high school demonstrate not only increased historical knowledge but are significantly more likely to be willing to challenge biased or incorrect information and stand up to negative stereotyping.
As our legislative leaders and stakeholders engage in conversations around mandating such content nationwide, it is important to draw from the lessons learned from existing Holocaust education mandates in states around the country.
Education mandates can be a powerful tool when they are framed thoughtfully, including: clearly defined guidelines for implementation; meaningful instruction centered on human experience; professional development for teachers and administrators using appropriate, historically accurate sources; tools and resources to engage students’ families and the broader community in addressing bias and discrimination; and – perhaps most importantly – funding to implement the above. Too often, these efforts are well-intentioned but poorly defined, poorly executed or unfunded, resulting in implementation that is inconsistent, superficial and ineffective.
To teach about the Holocaust in a way that is meaningful and which can help students to thoughtfully navigate today’s world, it is essential to go beyond names, dates and statistics.
When Illinois Holocaust Museum first opened, we regularly received requests from teachers for the dimensions of the early 20th Century German rail car in our Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition, the type of rail car used to conduct deportations during the Holocaust. When these calls came, we knew what the teacher planned to do with that information: tape a rectangle on the classroom floor and have the students stand in it, so they would “know” what deportation felt like. But what did that teach the students? That they felt uncomfortable standing close together for a few minutes? It certainly did not teach them what it felt like to be forced from home, crowded into a dark, enclosed space without food, water, or basic sanitation for days on end, traveling to an unknown destination. Nor did it teach them about what happened at the end of that journey, in the forced labor camps and killing centers of Nazi-occupied Europe. Communicating the full context of this experience for those who lived it is essential for this lesson to have meaning. For Holocaust Education to be effective, teachers must engage the human dimension of this history and the inhuman choices that were made during that time.
Fortunately, these types of calls have decreased dramatically, as Illinois Holocaust Museum has spent the past 12 years providing high-quality professional development throughout the Midwest and across the country. The teachers we work with learn to incorporate eyewitness testimony, including accounts from survivors, rescuers and perpetrators, to foster students’ historical empathy and help them to understand the human experience of deportation: not just how many people were forced into a single rail car, but with emotional connection for those who lived it and respect for the memories of those who did not survive.
Holocaust survivors hope that current and future generations learn from their experiences, so that we will all make better choices in the present and future. This is an important – even essential – step in preventing the mindset of hatred and dehumanization that allowed these events to happen from taking hold.
It is critical that we extend these lessons beyond the classroom, engaging parents and entire communities in these transformative conversations. We all have a role to play in encouraging empathy and recognition of shared humanity and in fighting hatred and extremism.
Holocaust education is rightly identified as an important weapon against extremism and domestic terrorism. We urge Rep. Slotkin and all legislators working on this issue to include provisions to ensure that educators receive the training and resources they need to wield it effectively.
Susan Abrams is the CEO of Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie and a member of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission.