The Holocaust - A Distinct History, a Universal Message




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Jul 16, 2012
by Louise Hallman
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The Holocaust - A Distinct History, a Universal Message

The varying prisms of Holocaust education Rwandan genocide survivor, Aloys Mahwa, at Obersalzberg

Aloys Mahwa wasn’t in Rwanda when the genocide happened. He and his family were just 10 minutes over the border in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

“From Congo we could watch and see what was happening...we were touched because we had relatives in Rwanda,” says the now executive director and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsi Rwandans were killed by their Hutu compatriots.

Whilst Mahwa and his immediate family might have escaped the 100 days of killing, when they returned to their country as soon as it was deemed safe, his extended family had not been so lucky.

“My father lost almost 80 per cent of his brothers and sisters. It was a very huge family of ten children. And also I lost aunts, nephews and cousins,” explains Mahwa.

Knowing the exact times and places his family were slaughtered is difficult. “There is work to do in terms of document[ing] the members of our family – their ages, when they were killed, the circumstances. Sometimes it’s not easy because you don’t really identify perpetrators; you don’t find [the victims’] bodies, and so on. It’s a very frustrating history,” he adds.

But with its own genocidal past, which it is still struggling to come to terms with, especially with regards to educating future generations about the atrocities that took place in the central African country, why is it important for Rwanda to learn about the Holocaust, which is widely considered a primarily European and Jewish experience?

More than just a Jewish experience

“First of all we want to understand our own genocide...It’s only 18 years ago that the genocide happened... and up until now, people are facing some realities like...victims living with perpetrators, orphans, survivors from genocide now are [having] children.

“So that’s why we’re trying to be open and that’s why we’re learning about the Holocaust. We expect support from them [teachers of the Holocaust] because they have a huge experience and a long history, materials, personal engagement, and that’s very, very meaningful for us,” says Mahwa.

For three days, at Schloss Leopoldskron – once home to the local Gauleiter (leader of the regional Nazi party), now the headquarters of Salzburg Global Seminar – 31 experts from across the globe considered the value of Holocaust education in a global context, in an international symposium held as part of an initiative co-sponsored by the Salzburg Global Seminar and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) with support of the Austrian Future Fund and the National Fund of the Republic of Austria.

Rwanda is not the only country not traditionally associated with the Holocaust to recognize this value of educating future generations. 

This symposium is focusing on the work that is currently being undertaken by educators in countries that are not members of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research (ITF). 

Participants have come from countries as diverse as Mexico and South Korea, as well as countries that have suffered their own ethnic violence and genocides, such as Cambodia, South Africa and Armenia, together with countries more commonly associated with Holocaust education, research and commemoration, like Germany, Austria, and the USA, all of which are members of the ITF.

These participants are here not only to learn about how they can better teach about the Holocaust and the connected issues of human rights, shared history, prejudice, state and citizen responsibility and the role of democracy, but also what they can learn from this teaching to better understand and learn about and from their own countries’ violent pasts.

For teachers in South Africa, a country ravaged by years of racial segregation and violence, the Holocaust can provide a theoretical framework that can be used to help understand the Apartheid regime, which might otherwise prove to personal and “painful”, explains Tracey Peterson, education director of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.

“The history of the Holocaust ... illuminates our history in quite direct ways,” explains the former high school history teacher.

“The most obvious connection is the fact that in order to understand what happens in the Holocaust you need to understand the construction of the state under Nazi rule and in many ways what the Nazi government does is what happens in South Africa under the Apartheid government; segregation had existed in South Africa before Apartheid but what the Apartheid government does it consolidates rules, introduces new laws and really concerted all other efforts to divide people according to made-up categories. So South Africans find a lot of resonance in that part of the history of the Holocaust.

“But I think more than that, I think what it also does it reminds South Africans that there are in some ways other histories of suffering, but also other histories of moving beyond that trauma, and so I think it can be instructive on that level.”

Cambodia, too, is using the Holocaust to illustrate that it was not only its own country that has a troubled past.

“In Cambodia I think it is very good to introduce learning about the Holocaust because the majority, they don’t know what happened in World War Two or the Holocaust. So there is an effort from [the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam)] in trying to show the Cambodians that genocide does not happen only in their country but it has also happened in other places,” says Sayana Ser, Team Leader, Student Outreach and Cham Oral History Project, at the DC-Cam.

Since its establishment in 1995, DC-Cam has aimed to “help Cambodians heal the wounds of the past by documenting, researching, and sharing the history of the Khmer Rouge period”.

Facts, not emotions

Firm in the belief that “a society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history,”DC-Cam has been working towards “reconstructing” Cambodia’s modern history.

To this end, Ser and her colleagues use the Holocaust as a case study through which to teach critical and comparative thinking about the Khmer Rouge-led genocide of 1975-1979, during which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (over a fifth of the country’s then-population).

“[We use] the Holocaust as a case study and then they must study their own history so that they can compare, especially the concept that the survivors have suffering in common with a dark regime like this. When they learn about the Holocaust it can help them [to know] that it has not only happened in their own country,” says Ser.

In the spirit of a thorough exchange of global knowledge and experience, not only have the Rwandan and Cambodian participants learnt from their international colleagues who have been teaching about the Holocaust, but they have also been sharing their own teaching experiences with each other.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide did not appear in school history books until the 1990s, and even then, this was limited to a small number of paragraphs before being removed completely for political reasons in 1998.

The DC-Cam has been working with both local and international experts in law, anthropology, and political science to design a new curriculum for genocide studies and human rights in the country.

A text book was published in 2007 and in 2009 the teachers’ manual was also published.

Through these new teaching materials, Ser hopes not only can Cambodians receive a fuller teaching of their nations history, but also move beyond the typically vengeful and retributive history that had previously been taught in schools.

“We stick to the facts, not emotions,” says Ser. It is this example that the Rwandans now also hope to incorporate into the teaching of their own Holocaust.

“We are not going to invent history when we are teaching genocide in a class,” says Mahwa.

“We are afraid to talk about genocide because the wounds are very fresh. Not only because of that, but also there is an idea of protecting children. We don’t teach atrocity to children – we prefer protecting them, instead of exposing them...

“But it is my perception that we should... We’re not choosing the same materials...but adopt[ing] textbooks. For example, picture books – these can help. In the post-Cambodia [situation] they’re trying to use this textbook for teachers and students.”

Beyond countries that have faced their own genocides and ethnic conflict, the Holocaust is also being taught elsewhere, primarily through the prism of human rights, democracy and peace education, and also in the effort to prevent such atrocities from happening again – something Mahwa wishes had existed in Rwanda, pre-1994.

“I was touched by the countries that [have] not experience genocide and who are engaged to understand Holocaust, in a perspective of preventing it,” says Mahwa, “...They can prevent genocide by teaching their students about Holocaust. So that touched me in the way that if we had profited from that experience before, maybe the genocide would not have happened in our context, in Rwanda.”

Yael Siman Druker is the founder and director of Mexican civic association Nenemi Paxia that seeks to deepen the work of Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) in Mexico and to strengthen democracy by building a civic culture of prevention.

Through her work as a Holocaust researcher and educator she has helped develop the Holocaust exhibit at the Memory and Tolerance Museum Project in Mexico and also coordinate three “Facing History” seminars for Mexican high school teachers and, together with colleagues, introduced FHAO in the curriculum of a Jesuit high school in the country.

Siman herself is Jewish, but she thinks Holocaust education in Mexico has a much greater resonance beyond that of her own religious heritage.

“Some themes resonate to Mexicans. One of them is democracy, the fragility of democracy; we look at the Weimar period, for example where we see a new democracy taking shape with certain characteristics, with strengths and weaknesses, and then we can connect this period with not only Mexico during the same period – because at that same time there was also a new democracy taking shape, a new constitution being written – but also with today, because we can think of how we can strengthen our democracy, what weakens it, why is it fragile, how can we advance our democratization process?” explains Siman. Holocaust education also has resonance for modern Mexican society, adds Siman.

“Then you have all these themes about ‘otherness’, ‘prejudice’, ‘discrimination’, ‘exclusion’...We haven’t had genocide in Mexico but we’ve had past experience with mass violence, and today we have terrible human rights abuses such as feminicide, violation of human rights of migrants who come from Central America, go through Mexico trying to get to the north, then they get kidnapped and killed...

“There is also one theme: transitional justice. In contrast to countries that have had genocide and afterwards dealt with how to do justice, in Mexico mass violence has not been followed by transitional justice processes. So instead of having equal processes, we have contrasting ones, but you can still learn from those positive examples to work on it so that you can improve conditions in your country.”

Another country not traditionally associated with the Holocaust which is taking its first tentative steps into Holocaust education is Turkey, which has held observer status to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, since 2008. 

So far, the only Muslim-majority country to do so, it is currently considering applying for membership beyond this observer status, which requires an applicant country to open up its national archives to Holocaust researchers, establish a Holocaust memorial and develop a national curriculum of Holocaust education. 

Deconstructing the myths

It is against this backdrop that the first pilot project on Holocaust education led by the Netherlands-based Anne Frank House and the USHMM has been recently launched in the country, and representatives of the project have joined their peers at Salzburg Global Seminar to share their approach to the subject.

The results of the pilot project will be presented upon completion to the Turkish government, in the hope of later gaining official backing.

However in contrast to those from some of the countries taking part in the seminar at Schloss Leopoldskron, which also have their own painful national pasts, the education initiative in Turkey is focusing solely on the Holocaust, and not introducing links to the country’s own still very controversial history over the treatment of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire. 

The death of between 300,000 to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-16 is recognized as genocide by Armenia and now more than 20 other countries, including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay. 

However, the Turkish government heavily disputes this, denying that this was a systemic effort by the old imperial Ottoman authorities to exterminate the Turkish-Armenian population.

Although there are no plans to use the Holocaust to approach this strained period of Turkish history, Cihan Tekeli, a Dutch Muslim of Turkish-born parents, working with the International Department of the Netherlands-based Anne Frank House, believes his organization’s education programs are still extremely worthwhile, in the predominantly Muslim country.

“There is a link with the Holocaust [in Turkey].  It’s not as big a link as with, for example, the Netherlands [the home of the well-known Holocaust diarist and victim Anne Frank], but it is there. On one hand for the Turks it is important that they need to focus on this, their own history relating to the Holocaust and the war.  There are a lot of myths around it.

“I see our task [at the Anne Frank House],” explains Tekeli, “of demythifying [sic] and deconstructing the myths and looking at a more neutral, more realistic picture of what did really happen at that time; what was Turkey’s role, what were Turkish Jews going through?  Both the positive – as well as the not-so-nice – stories, because they are also there. 

“Some Turkish officials abroad helped [hide and save Jews], endangering their own lives... so this definitely needs recognition I think. It’s extremely important.  But, there were also other incidents where Turkey could have done other things, such as the Struma incident [Turkish officials turned away a boat of hundreds of European Jewish refugees, which was then bombed a Soviet warship and sank in the Black Sea], which is rather unknown, also for Turks... That’s history that needs to get more attention.”

Whilst the Anne Frank House-USHMM Holocaust education projects do not plan to address the contentious Turkish-Armenian issue, part of their projects in the country have focussed on human rights, encouraging teenagers and young people to make videos debating certain aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – written in the wake of the Holocaust – and applying these values to modern Turkey.

One area of the world where Holocaust education is not being viewed through the prism of human rights education, however, is China.

Like many of his Holocaust education peers at the Salzburg Global Seminar, Glenn Timmermans is rather lonely in the field in his region.

As part of his teaching in the Department of English at the University of Macau, China, Timmermans has launched courses on the Holocaust at the university, despite some reservations from fellow faculty as to the relevance of the course for their students.

Many of his students – primarily from Macau and mainland China – only have a passing knowledge of the Holocaust, mostly gleaned from Hollywood movies such as Schindler’s List. But this has not deterred the British professor.

“I think the Holocaust is a subject that really is universal,” says Timmermans, who is also greatly involved in Holocaust education in the other special administrative region of China, Hong Kong, as well as being the co-ordinator of the annual Chinese Educators’ Seminar at Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, Education, Documentation and Commemoration in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Even though it is a European Jewish experience, it is an earthquake in Western conscientiousness and I think that if people want to learn about all the glories of the West, the need to know about some of the negative aspects of the West,” he explains.

“...As a literature professor, I think it is very important that my students know that if they want to know about Western culture, Western literature, they must know about this event...

“But we have to be wary of using terms like ‘human rights’... As soon as you try and teach, as discussed at this conference, ‘how do we link it to human rights?’ – it’s potentially problematic. If we can introduce it through straight history, straight literature, then get people to cover the issues and perhaps draw their own conclusions without us having to prompt them, would be the most effective way,” concludes Timmermans.

But whether taught through the prism of human rights, democracy and peace education, or in order to help a society recover from its own trauma, or through “straight history, straight literature” leading students to make their own conclusions, ultimately the Salzburg Global Seminar session on Learning from the Past: Global Perspectives on Holocaust Education could be summarized by the late night fire-side chat statement made by Ghanaian professor, Edward Kissi, a specialist in African perspectives on the Holocaust and associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, USA.

“The holocaust may have a distinct history, but it has a universal message: dreadful things happen when human rights are not respected.”