HOLOCAUST EDUCATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Today is Tisha B’Av — a good day on which to talk about The Holocaust. Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning which commemorates the many tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. It began yesterday evening and continues through today.


The Holocaust was a big deal in my house when I was growing up. I was born in 1949, just a few years after WWII ended. The Holocaust was fresh in Jewish people’s minds. Friends and relatives were still searching for people dislocated and lost in the chaos of the war. My grandmother still had hopes of finding a nephew who was at college in Moscow while the rest of the family was wiped out by the Nazis back home in Minsk.

Survivors of the camps were still being relocated and were just acclimating to normal life again. The State of Israel had just been created in 1948, which was a needed refuge for displaced Jews from all over the world.

I was lucky. Most of my family from Russia (on both sides) had already moved to the States when the war broke out. My grandmother’s sister and her family were the only ones in the immediate family who stayed in the old country. They, and all the other Jews that the Nazis could round-up, were locked in the local synagogue. It was set on fire. Anyone who ran out, was shot.

None of my immediate family were in concentration camps. But we knew people who were. Every Jew knew someone who knew someone. Two twin friends of the family, Irena and Elena, were from Czechoslovakia. They were fifteen when they entered Auschwitz and seventeen when they were liberated. Auschwitz was known for its inhuman medical experiments and tests on twins were one of their specialties. A camp guard saved our friends. He took pity on them because his wife was a twin. When they were being checked into the camp, he whispered to them to lie and say that they were a year apart in age. That spared them from a certain and gruesome death in the camp ‘laboratory.’

My mother and grandmother believed in “There but for the Grace of God go I”. They brought me up to feel that it was sheer luck that it was my grandmother who left Russia when she did. It could easily have been my branch of the family in that burning synagogue or in a concentration camp.

Armband Jews had to wear in Nazi occupied territory

Many Jews, even in America, didn’t feel totally safe, even after the war. Antisemitism was still rampant, all over the world. America had refused Jewish refugees during the war. America had also waited to enter the war after they learned about the extermination programs and the camps and refused to bomb the camps when they could have done so early in the war.

So my mother exposed me to Holocaust stories from an early age. When I was eleven, she considered me old enough to handle a graphic book on life in the concentration camps. So I knew all about families being separated. I knew about the cattle cars that transported people to the camps. I knew about the initial selection process – camp or gas chamber. I knew about the medical experiments and other forms of torture used on inmates on a daily basis. I knew about the daily possibility of random death that could come in many different forms. I knew about the starvation, the disease, the beatings. All this before I was twelve.

Concentration camp uniform with identification number

I used to lie in bed and plan what I would take with me if the knock came at the door in the middle of the night, to cart me away. I wondered if I would be the type of inmate who shared my food and tried to help others, or the selfish kind bent only on self-preservation.

I think my mother should have waited until I was older to burden me with the reality of man’s inhumanity to man. I think all this exacerbated my existing anxieties. I think it made me more fearful and left some serious scars to my psyche. I don’t recommend exposing young children to real life brutality. I didn’t let my young children watch horror movies or any kind of graphic violence. I didn’t even let them watch Bambi since I was traumatized when I saw that movie.

Concentration Camp

But I did become a passionate advocate of “Never Again!” I made sure my kids, when they were older, understood what the Holocaust meant in human terms. They will tell their children about the atrocities perpetrated in WWII. I talk to my non-Jewish friends about it and make sure that they understand it on a visceral level. I live the saying, “Never Forget!” That is the first step towards “Never Again!”

There just may have been a better way to mold me – when I was old enough to handle it. If we are ever old enough to wrap our heads around the horror of the Holocaust.

26 thoughts on “HOLOCAUST EDUCATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. Thank you for this. It’s upsetting to hear such stories, but immensely important that they are told so that history cannot repeat itself – unfortunately, the world is a real nasty place and some STILL haven’t got the message that oppression, murder, and all the other ugly associated misdeeds are totally wrong.

    There is always a better way. X

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    • The sad thing for me in talking about the Holocaust, is that things haven’t changed in the world that much since then. People are still killing each other and brutalizing each other in the name of race, religion or politics. One would have hoped that the world would have learned from the horrors of WWII. “Never Again” is still a slogan, not a reality.

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      • Ellin, it is VERY sad that the killing continues. If you know history, It’s ALWAYS been this way. We’re just more aware because of media saturation. I guess it’s the way of mankind.

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  2. I agree about exposing a child to the horrors of Nazi Germany and the camps should be done at an older age. I can barely get my head around it as an adult. Years ago I visited patients in a local hospital, many old, many survivors. All they wanted to talk about was their experiences during the war. After hearing many stories I wondered how they ever went on to lead productive lives, which they did. How they slept at night- It haunted me and I had just heard stories- not lived it. I am glad schools (at least the ones where I live) have Holocaust studies programs, an awful piece of history that needs never to be forgotten.

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    • One very encouraging fact – German schools teach the Holocaust and make sure German children understand the full story. They are trying to raise new generations where this could never happen again. I applaud the Germans! I wish more schools had Holocaust Study Programs like where you live. I think many textbooks barely mention the Concentration and Extermination Camps.Or any of the other Nazi horrors.

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  3. Like you, I was raised on this material. My mother never let me miss a TV show about the Holocaust. I had — still have — nightmares. I read the books and of course, living in Israel, I met a lot of survivors and spent ONE day at Yad V’Shem. After that, when someone wanted to see the museum, I would take them there, but I’d wait in the garden until they were done. One viewing of Yad V’Shem is enough for any human. Talk about haunting.

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    • I try to shield myself now from things that will haunt me and give me nightmares. I’ve already spent a lot of time agonizing over what some people had to live through. I taught my kids to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust. So I am giving myself a pass now from reading more about it.I understand only wanting to go to Yad V’Shem once!

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  4. I don’t know how anyone, at any age, can wrap their head around the Holocaust. I’m deeply sadden that this isn’t taught in our schools because it can happen again. Ignorance is what plays into this.
    Leslie

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    • My mother’s generation was so sure that after the Holocaust, everyone would be so horrified, that nothing similar would ever happen again. They believed “Never forget” and “Never again”. Unfortunately they were wrong. It’s unthinkable that it has become such a footnote in many schools these days.How can something so horrible be forgotten so soon? We will be doomed to repeat this history if we don’t teach it and actively fight against it.

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  5. Ellin, I can only imagine what it must have been like for you as a child to learn about the Holocaust. I think your Mom could’ve waited a bit longer. I didn’t have to wait long to learn about racism and slavery. My folks also felt it was important we knew about the holocaust as kids. They didn’t want their kids sheltered from reality, filtered history or bigots. So, I knew about the nasty stuff before history classes in grade school. Those classes didn’t seem to touch much on the information absorbed from my parents and the big books in our home library. “Lest we forget” was a familiar refrain in family gatherings.

    Nowadays, I smile at Marilyn when young actiivist comics rant about antisemitism and racism. How little we know.

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    • I think it’s probably more important for minority kids to learn about the horrors in their respective histories. Because we have to be constantly vigilant about our rights and liberties. They’ve been taken away before, we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again on our watch. Americans are sadly ignorant about our own history of racism and brutality to minorities. ANd even more ignorant about things that happened elsewhere in the world, like th Holocaust. I wish I believed that it can’t happen again. But if we don’t learn from history, we will repeat it!

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  6. I’m sorry you were exposed at an early age to such atrocities, it could have waited, the impact would have been the same, but perhaps not as scarring to the psyche as at a tender age. Whatever the horror we are exposed to, it makes an impact that can take a lifetime to absorb. I had my demons which were no less horrific so I realize the potential for harm. Having said that, I’m (if possible) even more horrified at the constant endeavour by some at rewriting history by those that would erase the incidents from the record books as if they had never occurred. Although I’ve always hated that saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” on occasion I find myself agreeing. And I have to ask, have we become stronger, do we fight atrocities with vigilance? Or have we succumbed, laden by debt, our own personal problems, an apathetic climate to ignore the ongoing atrocities of our day? Man’s history is rife with self-destruction. For, in reality, it’s hatred against all humankind and it’s growing. Is it a case of one step forward and one step back? I watch, I read, always attempting to understand that which I am unable to wrap my head around. I’m glad you wrote this piece. It’s important. Hopefully, it will serve as a constant reminder and we will more forward and beyond. Hopefully sooner than later! There was a show on Star Trek that addressed this issue and Jean Luke Picard had to fight the powers that be and asked, “When is genocide acceptable? Is it when one five ten 1000 10000, how many have to die before it is not ok?” I’ve always loved Star Trek because it always addressed current issues with foresight, deep thought and forced everyone watching to consider the whole not just the immediate ramifications of decisions made by those in power.

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    • Interesting that you mention Star Trek. My husband always says he loves the show because it postulates a peaceful, non-violent cooperative life on earth. The only problems are in the far reaches of the galaxy. But the show also dealt with problems like racism and hatred and found an entertaining way to make moral points. Maybe our TV shows and movies are the place where we can educate younger generations about the evils of predjudice and intolerance and violence. I don’t think most schools are doing a good job of creating moral, socially conscious kids who are aware of the horrors that were committed in the past. Maybe our entertainment media have to take up the mantle to teach morals and educate about man’s inhumanity to man. Someone does.

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        • You make a good point. Even if kids are exposed to the information about the Holocaust, are they receptive to the message? I would hope that most of them are.

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        • Covert, you touch on another unfortunate subject. The trashy, insensitive, shows, music and styles that are put out there in the name of “honesty”. Lots of young people buy into this stuff without understanding the larger ramafications. They tune us out because we “don’t get it”. Yes, it’s a familiar cycle.

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          • Thank you Garry. I wished the 35 – 40 year old group could see it for what it is. Teens are simply taken in by the ridiculous and the stupidity of shows. The rest should know better… to my way of thinking.

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        • Everyone these days is being dumbed down! Not just kids. I’m less concerned about reality TV than the right wing news media. They are spewing disinformation and conspiracy theories that people just digest without thinking. They discourage any thought or rationality. That’s the real problem. People who no longer know how to think about or analyze an issue or evaluate ‘facts” that are presented.

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  7. It worries me that history is not taught much in schools now. We need to remember things like the Holocaust especially these days when the politics of hate seem to be dominant. I don’t like it when a particular segment of society is pointed out and blamed for the problems of the majority whether it be Moslems, Jews or people of any particular race, “Greenies” or poor people. Ignorant people quickly latch on the the idea that if you eliminate these people everything will be fine.
    When I was in my twenties I knew a man who insisted that the Holocause did not happen and it was all propaganda. I couldn’t then and still can’t imagine how he thought the survivors could make that up.

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    • There are still Holocaust deniers. And in America, there are people who deny that there is any racism here anymore. Some people still wish the South had won the Civil War, which means that we’d still have slavery. And they seem okay with that! It boggles the mind what some people will believe. And how much some people will twist themselves in knots to justify their predjudices and hatreds.

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