Holocaust Education - The Case of Australia




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Jul 16, 2014
by Tanya Yilmaz
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Holocaust Education - The Case of Australia

As the Antipodean nation shows - Holocaust education has value in many more places than just Europe, the US and Israel  Konrad Kwiet at the Salzburg Global session on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention

Australia is not typically associated to the Holocaust; it is geographically far from both where the systematic decimation of European Jewry took place and the two countries now most commonly associated with the commemoration and memorialization of those lost – Israel and the USA. It is also not a member of the International Holocaust Memorial Alliance (IHRA), which is predominantly made up of European and North American countries.

But actually, as the Salzburg Initiative on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention’s publication Global Perspectives on Holocaust Education: Trends, Patterns, and Practices – 2013 outlines, Australia has a surprisingly strong connection with post-Holocaust history.

In 1933, there was a small Jewish community of just 23,000 in Australia, and at the time, the government’s immigration quota restricted the number of immigrants to 5,000 per year during the war – a number which Australia was not keen on increasing at the 1938 Evian Conference, the international consultation meeting devoted to solving the problem of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.

Whilst speaking at the conference, Australian delegate Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas W. White controversially said: “As we [Australia] have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”  

A few months later Australia reassessed its policy to accept 15,000 refugees over three years.

Now, Australia is home to the second largest percentage of Holocaust survivors, and it is estimated that 60,000 pre-war and post-war Holocaust survivors, mostly Jewish refugees, immigrated to the city of Melbourne alone by 1961. Israel is the only country with a larger percentage of Holocaust survivors in their population, currently standing at 150,000.

However despite the significant Jewish population, intolerance of Jewish communities has remained in Australia and the country has seen a recent upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks. In the last year alone there was a rise by 21% and this is the highest level on record, with 657 reports of racist violence against Jewish Australians and Jewish communities between October 2012 and September 2013 compared to 517 reports in 2011 to 2012.

Whilst speaking at the Salzburg Global session on “Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention: Sharing Experience Across Borders,” Sir Andrew Burns, Chair of IHRA, addressed the rise of anti-Semitism, acknowledging how such racist agitation can become more acute in times of economic uncertainty.

“Societies need to either remedy the problems of anti-Semitism or be much more forthright about the dangers of arousing hostility and prejudice against different groups,” Burns said in an interview with Salzburg Global. One way to remedy such problems is to ensure future generations are taught about history’s most extreme example of deeply-ingrained and state-sponsored anti-Semitism – the Holocaust.

In Australia, teaching about the Holocaust was explicitly included in the national curriculum in 2012, and currently, students across the country start to learn about the Holocaust from the age of 14. However, the level of detail regarding the topic can vary immensely from state to state and school to school.

Some schools mention the Holocaust as part of an overview in the world history curricula. A more in-depth study of the Holocaust is also available in the German history course offered in grades 11 and 12, age 16 or 17, but this is an optional component. The varying depth of teaching about the Holocaust raises the question about the willingness of teachers to educate students about the Holocaust to a sufficient level.

Discussing teacher training at the Salzburg Global symposium on Holocaust education and genocide prevention, Yotam Weiner, education manager of the Sydney Jewish Museum said the core issue regarding the lack of Holocaust education lies with teachers – if they are disinterested in the topic, then so too will their students be.

“This is one of the challenges for us, to engage with teachers, even though it [Holocaust education] remains optional in their framework, not to treat it as optional,” Weiner explained.

The other aspect of the debate facing Holocaust education is how educators can or should teach through the Holocaust – rather than just generally about the Holocaust.

With its significant Jewish population, the Australian education system has paid close attention to highlighting such intolerance and prejudice as was present in Nazi Germany.

However, Australian education has questionably disengaged its Holocaust education from highlighting failures within their own cultural history – predominantly with the treatment of Aboriginal Australians.

From the emergence of colonization in Australia in 1778, the country tried to maintain racial purity by not only limiting immigration quotas, but also by imposing land ownership laws which drove Aboriginal people from their homelands – many dying from starvation in the process due to prohibited access of food. Many Aboriginal tribes died out completely and were either killed or beaten or contracted diseases by this economic marginalization. Those who survived were forced into slavery and it is unknown how many Aborigines died before 1909.

The situation declined once more for the remaining Aborigines after this time. Between 1909 and 1969, the Australian government forcibly removed over 100,000 children from their families in what was later described as a “resocialization” process – a rationale to, reportedly, protect children from the high levels of alcoholism and drug addiction found in Aboriginal communities. This was landmarked by the term “the Stolen Generation”. It was only in 2008 when the then-newly-appointed prime minister, Kevin Rudd, publically apologized to Aboriginal Australians for the historical treatment of Aboriginal people.

Today, Aboriginal Australians comprise 3% of the Australian population and remain marginalized.

Weiner believes there are clear educational benefits for students in teaching about other human rights violations through the lens of the Holocaust.

“It has the effect of helping students become reflective rather than reactive when they encounter other people.

“We need to teach students about the failures of societal structures and then equip and inspire them to build structures that don’t fail,” Weiner said.

Konrad Kwiet, Pratt Foundation Professor in Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, at University of Sydney, Resident Historian at the Sydney Jewish Museum, and also a speaker at the Salzburg Initiative on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention symposium, added that despite the valuable insight gained teaching through the Holocaust, precautions must be taken to ensure that the Holocaust is not overly instrumentalized and subsequently diminished by the teaching of other genocides and humanitarian atrocities.

“You reduce the significance of the Holocaust for Jews and you use the Holocaust for all sorts of issues – which are important  – but in doing so more or less the Holocaust becomes totally instrumentalized, and that is a now major concern which I see,” Kwiet explained.

Finding a new audience
Besides these two issues, educators in Australia are also weighing in on the age dispute. To whom should we be teaching Holocaust education and at what age should this teaching start? 

Currently, each country has their own answer. In the UK, Holocaust education is introduced to students at age 14, and this is currently the age from which students in Australia are also taught. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has produced guidelines for teaching Holocaust history from the age of 11, utilizing multimedia tools to introduce children to the topic rather than proceed with an in-depth examination.

In Israel, children learn about the Holocaust in 11th and 12th grades, age 16 and 17, and partake in a class trip to a Nazi concentration camp as part of their history and civics classes. However, educators have controversially proposed to start Holocaust education from the age of five – prompting much debate amongst international scholars. The Israeli Education Ministry and the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem have designed the program, which is aimed to serve as “prepatory” Holocaust education, teaching children about the social dynamics which led up to historical event for the ancestors of much of country’s population.

Weiner argues that children at such a young age may not understand the Holocaust’s complexities, and teaching of the subject should not risk raising a generation which is fearful of the powers of humanity.

“What you risk doing is failing in your endeavor because what you will be doing is reveal to students society’s biggest failure, and a huge chasm of human horror – and then just leaving them there. We need to also help them find a way out of that and help them find a way forward, and inspire and equip them to move forward,” Weiner explained.

Kwiet added that Australia must also consider the social and cultural setting in which Holocaust education is taught – a contributing factor to differing audiences due to the multicultural communities in the country.

“You need to know the schools in which you are offering classes and in Australia there is a diversity of schools – there are Jewish day schools, public and private schools, there are schools located in multi-national areas, particularly in Muslim districts,” Kwiet elaborated.

Action call
Compared to others countries that are also not directly linked to the Holocaust, Australia arguably has the necessary initiatives in place – and its inclusion of the topic into its national curriculum is somewhat more developed than many other non-IHRA countries. But the issue educators now face is to agree on what to do with the topic which is more substantial than mere lip-service.

For example in the state of New South Wales, Holocaust education was mandated in the national curriculum in 2012, but only came into effect in 2014. Like many other schools, the Holocaust is predominantly taught in the world history curricula and teachers have the option of adopting the syllabus in a variety of forms.

But as Weiner argues, this isn't enough: “In New South Wales, you could say it is compulsory but a teacher could get away with just mentioning it [Holocaust] in a sentence, so it isn’t really compulsory,” Weiner said.

Scholars have argued that in order to combat this, Holocaust education in Australia should be interdisciplinary, transcending both cognitive and emotional teaching approaches for an ever-changing – and a disagreed – audience.

Sydney Jewish Museum has sought to aid widespread teaching of the Holocaust by publishing its own training program – Teaching the Holocaust. The curricular source book, written by Sophie Gelski and originally published in 2003, includes an interdisciplinary scope, appropriate for English, geography, history, religious education, society and culture, and visual arts classes.

The materials aim to link the Holocaust to Australian history, noting the “cold and unwelcome” attitudes toward Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe while also making reference to the large proportion of Holocaust survivors in Australia today. In order to cater for all students, several versions have been created, one aimed at final year secondary students while another is devoted to younger teenagers.

Australia has seen, and will continue to see, countless debates regarding Holocaust education. Scholars, historians, teachers and policy makers must now mold these debates into a cohesive Holocaust curriculum – one that can be nationally applied yet locally appropriate, with an understanding of the primary audience as well as a clear judgment on whether to teach through or about the Holocaust.

The session "Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention: Sharing Experiences Across Borders" was developed in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with support from the Austrian Future Fund, the Austrian National Fund, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and the Pratt Foundation. The session was the third symposium in the joint Salzburg Global-USHMM Initiative on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention. For more information and updates from the session, please see the session page: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/535 and on Twitter with the hashtag #SGShol