In 1989, renowned author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in The New York Times about the movies, TV shows, and theatre productions that attempted to show and teach about the mass destruction of Jewish life by the Nazis. He believed them to be failures.
A survivor of Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where more than 1 million Jews were murdered in the early 1940s, Wiesel revisited his experience to explain just how unexplainable it was.
“Then, it defeated culture,” he wrote. “Later, it defeated art, because just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz.”
In late January, two Minnetonka High School students went viral for their Nazi-themed dance proposal and a video by one of the students rapping about Jews in concentration camps.
The incidents sparked community-wide outrage, prompting the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) to remark in a statement that “we are gravely concerned about the lack of Holocaust knowledge amongst American millennials.”
The statement made reference to a 2018 study which reported, among other things, that 49 percent of American millennials can’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto, 64 percent don’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 66 percent don’t know what Auschwitz is.
Students in the Minnetonka school system study the Holocaust throughout middle and high school. If no one can “retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz,” how can Holocaust education really work?
Education In Minnesota
The 2018 study cited by the JCRC, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, includes jarring figures about how much Americans know – or rather, don’t know – about the Holocaust. But it has no information about specific states, and there is no Minnesota state study to draw on, either.
This makes it difficult to understand the effectiveness of Minnesota’s K-12 Holocaust education, or, in the wake of the incidents at Minnetonka, just how much the state reflects the Claim Conference’s study.
“Being a teacher in Minnesota, I’d like to imagine that we are doing a better job of educating students about the Holocaust. Honestly, I’m not sure that we are,” said George Dalbo, the education outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Dalbo previously worked as a social studies teacher for a variety of grades in independent, public, and charter schools in the state.
“Based on my experience, I would imagine that the [Claim Conference study] results would hold true for Minnesota,” Dalbo said, adding that “given the decentralized nature of education in the United States and Minnesota, it would be difficult to get a good sense of Holocaust education practices without a very comprehensive survey.”
Holocaust education on the state level exists in two primary forms: Legislation mandating that the Holocaust be taught in schools, and the inclusion of the Holocaust in state educational standards.
In Minnesota, there is no mandate, and the Holocaust is part of the state standards for social studies, where it is mentioned only twice in 151 pages. The standards are vague and, according to Dalbo, don’t provide schools any guidance on how to teach about the Holocaust.
At the same time, “the standards are not meant to be a curriculum; they are meant to be a guiding set of topics for teachers,” he said. Many schools in Minnesota, with no mention of the Holocaust in language arts state standards, nevertheless teach the subject in language arts classes.
Asked if the standards limit Holocaust education, JaQueline Getty, the Minnetonka Public School District’s executive director of communications, said that “while the Minnesota Social Studies Standards are written broadly, this gives our teachers some flexibility to expand on topics they feel require more significance, such as the Holocaust.”
Minnetonka teaches “extensively about the Holocaust in middle school and high school, focusing on the Holocaust itself, Hitler’s rise to power, human rights, and genocide,” Getty said. “We go well above and beyond the Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards of Social Studies required for teaching on the subject.”
In the case of both state educational standards and legislative mandates, school districts and teachers have a lot of leeway in deciding the specifics of how to teach about the Holocaust in the classroom. According to Dalbo, this leeway contributes to why so many American young adults know so little about the Holocaust.
“Holocaust education has moved away from the history of the Holocaust and moved more towards providing students with lessons about individual moral choices … and lessons around tolerance,” Dalbo said. “While these seem to be compatible with the aims of Holocaust education, such lessons rarely delve deeply into the antecedents, events, or aftermath of the Holocaust.”
Essentially, the Holocaust is taken out of broader historical context to give students a moral compass, leading to less factual knowledge of events.
But teachers are also influenced in their approach by external players. Between the state level and the classroom are a variety of organizations that offer Holocaust education training and curricula to teachers, bring speakers to schools, and take groups to Holocaust museums.
Some focus on individual moral decisions during the Holocaust, while others teach educators about the history of anti-Semitism and concrete knowledge about the Holocaust.
In the latter category is the JCRC, perhaps the most prominent of these organizations in Minnesota, which trains teachers using a curriculum created by Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League, and the USC Shoah Foundation tilted “Echoes and Reflections.” Additionally, the JCRC engaged over 50,000 people in 2018 alone through their signature Holocaust education programming, which includes the photography exhibit Transfer of Memory¸ their annual trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Legacy Through Learning speakers bureau.
Currently, in response to the incidents with Minnetonka students, the Minnetonka school system is working with the JCRC to provide more opportunities for students to learn about the Holocaust.
In a statement, Laura Zelle, the director of Tolerance Minnesota and Holocaust Education for the JCRC, expressed her gratitude to the teachers that partner with the JCRC.
“Teachers demonstrate exemplary efforts in Holocaust education either by designing and teaching semester-long classes or integrating the subject into their already packed curriculum,” she said. “Minnesota is fortunate to have a core group of teachers who are committed to educating future generations about the genocide of European Jewry and other atrocities.”
The JCRC, according to Dalbo, does a “fantastic job in bringing resources to classrooms and students.” But there’s only so much that one organization can do.
“Given the decentralized nature of education, as well as factors such as the high teacher turnover rate, it would be difficult for an organization like the JCRC to adequately reach and train all of the teachers in the state,” Dalbo said.
Zelle recognizes the challenge. “We are not under any illusion that Minnesota and the Dakotas are immune from the lack of knowledge about the Holocaust that is plaguing North America, Europe, and other parts of the globe,” she said.“Studies such as the Claims Conference’s 2018 report further confirm the importance of our work to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to teach its lessons to as many people in our region as possible.”
So, is there a fix? Maybe. Dalbo supports a legislative mandate for Holocaust education in Minnesota that would provide a clear curriculum focused on historical context and funding for resources to better support teachers in educating about the Holocaust.
However, there is still a chance that incidents like those involving Minnetonka students will happen “due to the many other factors at play, such as high teacher turnover,” he said. “I do think this event could lead to productive discussions of what Holocaust education looks like in Minnesota currently and how we might improve it.”
Getty, speaking for the Minnetonka school district, was less enthusiastic. “It makes sense to support a discussion on [state standards],” she said. “It would be jumping to conclusions to say whether a legislative mandate would help.”
In the meantime, the JCRC is already “engaged in exploratory conversations regarding possibly mandating Holocaust education and genocide studies in Minnesota,” Zelle said.
“Our due diligence includes a discussion with local and national experts along with legislative leaders and other stakeholders at the State Capitol and elsewhere.”
Studies Point To Teachers
Contrary to worldwide headlines, the Holocaust isn’t really fading from collective memory. Instead, the studies report something more complicated.
According to the 2018 Claims Conference study, though 66 percent of American millennials can’t identify Auschwitz, 92 percent of the same millennials surveyed know that the Jewish people were victims of the Holocaust. When asked if they think the Holocaust happened, 96 percent said yes. And 95 percent agreed that all students should learn about the Holocaust while in school.
Respondents knew few concrete facts about the Holocaust but overwhelmingly agreed that the Holocaust happened and that it is an important subject to study. A similar Claims Conference study released in early January of 2019 reported nearly identical results in Canada.
For Dalbo, the studies reflect how many teachers use the Holocaust to educate about broad values like tolerance, an issue that extends around the world.
While both Claims Conference surveys analyze Holocaust knowledge in adults 18 years and older, the most recent and comprehensive look at Holocaust education in K-12 schools was done by the University College London (UCL) Center for Holocaust Education in 2015.
The UCL study found a more pronounced version of the American and Canadian trends in equivalent schools in Great Britain, concluding that “arguably, students’ widespread inability to explain why the Jews were persecuted and murdered was one of the most important findings of this research.”
It may not help that half of the teachers surveyed for the study “reported that they struggled to teach this complex subject effectively,” and many couldn’t “articulate the distinct historical significance of the Holocaust.”
As in America and Canada, “the Holocaust was framed by teachers in terms of ‘universal lessons’ often divorced from any historical context.”
In providing recommendations to reverse the trends of Holocaust knowledge and education, the UCL report on the study bluntly stated that “these issues will not be addressed simply through ‘more education.’”
“New approaches to teaching and learning are necessary – approaches which are research-informed, rooted in the historical record and centered on pedagogy,” it said. “Students must be helped in confronting the challenging realities of the Holocaust, not primed in mantras and maxims.”
Dalbo thinks that the conclusions of the UCL study are applicable to America, but without more information there’s no telling how best to educate students about the Holocaust and reverse the trends that worry the Jewish community.
“I don’t have an answer,” he admitted. “One response is to call for more independent academic research into the effectiveness of various approaches. In the end, there is very little understanding of what Holocaust education actually looks like in classrooms across Minnesota or the United States.”