Engaging a new generation of students in Holocaust education
22 August 2022
The Holocaust is one of the darkest chapters in human history. Learning about the Holocaust can evoke empathy for minority groups persecuted worldwide, and can also help students better understand pertinent problems in our contemporary society, bigotry among them. Yad Vashem, the main Israeli Holocaust research and education institution, views Holocaust education as a ‘long-term and perhaps [the] most profound tool in our battle against modern-day antisemitism’ (Goldstein, 2020; Yad Vashem). However, as we move towards the eightieth anniversary of the liberation of the last concentration camps, a new generation of Australians are rightly asking about the relevance of events that happened in another time and space, far removed from Australian shores. We, as educators, need to face this challenge.
It is further aggravated by the now looming post-survivor era. In the early decades of the twenty-first century we are inevitably reaching the milestone when Holocaust educators will no longer be able to rely in their classes and during visits to museums on those who ‘were there’ (Foster, 2020: 8). Last survivors are well into their eighties and even they have only vague memories of the war, which they survived as small children. We also live at a time of rising populism, which often employs tropes that build upon bigotry in the world. At the same time, there is a general recognition, including from the federal and state governments, that Holocaust courses should be taught at all levels of education in Australia. But how shall we do that in 2022?
The question and some of the outlined challenges can be addressed by linking the history of the Holocaust to our local Australian historical and societal context in both research and teaching practices. For example, in my UNSW Sydney course on the history of the Holocaust, students write a critical reflection that proposes a case study (including an image) which could, in their opinion, persuade the public to continue with Holocaust education in Australia. The key task is to consider the question of how they would bring the history of the Holocaust closer to a new generation of Australians. The reflection encourages deep learning, which is crucial for a critical engagement with the subject (Moseley, 2005: 41).
I provide students with detailed instructions and prompts for the case study, but they are not bound by them:
- It could be a specific example from the history of the Holocaust that connects the Australian population to the events in Europe before, during or after the war.
- It could be an example from Australian history, not directly related to the Holocaust (from the colonial settler society, or from modern Indigenous history). They could argue that the study and commemoration of the Holocaust offers avenues to understand our own history.
- It could be an example from contemporary society in Australia or worldwide, which can be better understood when related to the history of the Holocaust (such as the rise of antisemitism and other prejudices, the refugee crisis, or gross human rights violations anywhere in the world).
- Last, I do not want to restrict students’ imagination, or force them to agree with my interpretation of the need to relate the history of the Holocaust to the Australian context. They could argue that the Holocaust is such a universal symbol of suffering and human rights abuses that there is no need to highlight its importance and relevance by relating it to our local context or to contemporary events.
During the three years I have been using this assessment task, students have analysed a large variety of topics. These have included the story of William Cooper, the Aboriginal leader who protested against the Kristallnacht in December 1938 (Attwood, 2020), and the Evian Conference on refugees in July 1938, where the Australian government famously rejected accepting any large number of refugees (Bartrop, 2018). The persecution of the First Nations peoples in Australia, and the history of the Stolen Generation (Gigliotti, 2003), is also a popular topic. In these reflections students argue that the study of the Holocaust can help us come to terms with our own history. As one student aptly commented:
Our shame can be turned around to being Australia’s triumph by linking these acts to our history, educating the perpetrators, connecting past and present events like Elder William Cooper’s protest, purposefully, so one can find meaning, relevance, understanding and solidarity among Australians regarding antisemitism and right-wing activism leading to social justice. This can be a teachable moment, with a deeper understanding and therefore Holocaust education is still relevant in Australia today. The power is in our hands. (Anonymised quote from an assessment)
A significant number of students selected case studies that originate from our contemporary society. In their opinion, Holocaust education can help address prejudices and bigotry – against Jews and other groups – in Australia. Holocaust education can empower new generations to fight systemic racism: ‘it opens discussions about the value of cultural identity and pushes individuals to honour and celebrate others’ persistence’ (Anonymised quote from an assessment). Another student went as far as arguing that Holocaust education should not be used only to fight prejudices, but in fact push us to cherish and celebrate the multicultural society that exists in Australia:
In order for Australians to become more tolerant towards one another, and in order to celebrate multiculturalism as a tool of unity, Holocaust education allows Australians to recognise that themes of the Holocaust, which may seem distant, correlate with contemporary Australia. Holocaust education and commemoration would relevantly draw similarities between modern-day Islamophobia, with the aim of removing stigma, prompting conversation and spurring Australians to intervene if acts of persecution occur. Such study of the Holocaust would encourage Australia to celebrate its multiculturalism and diversity. (Anonymised quote from an assessment)
There were also students who pointed to more recent cases of antisemitic incidents in Australia, such as antisemitic graffiti in Australian streets, allegedly antisemitic cartoons in the Australian press, or cases of bullying with antisemitic undertones in Australian schools. These incidents, according to the students, confirmed the need for further Holocaust education to combat such prejudices. This argument has also been used by Australian politicians, for example, the former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (The Guardian, 2019; Zlatkis, 2020). One student reflected:
The occurrence of Anti-Semitic bullying against schoolchildren in Australia, demonstrates that our modern society is not as accepting toward other cultures as it is commonly thought. I am not arguing that Australian society is widely Anti-Semitic. However, I would stress that the presence of Anti-Semitic sentiment in a modern nation (particularly from the youth of said nation) must be acknowledged as a pressing issue. In order to keep Australian society listening and learning from our history, we must strive to highlight our current and historical connections to the tragedies of the Holocaust. (Anonymised quote from an assessment)
Another student also suggested:
New generations need to be educated about the suffering faced by the Jews at the hands of the Nazi Regime, also being reminded that the Jewish people are not ‘less-than’ other humans – rather that was antisemitic ideology spread by the Nazis. This education should lead to the suppression of antisemitic bullying in schools (and all areas of society) by showcasing that antisemitism is not an accepted part of society or way to be ‘cool’ in school, but stems from an atrocious history and is racist behaviour. (Anonymised quote from an assessment)
Students clearly benefited from this opportunity to apply their knowledge of the Holocaust, gained during the course, to our geographic and societal context. It challenged them ‘to forge connections between the Holocaust and aspects of Australian history which [they] would have previously considered unrelated (such as the history of Aboriginal Australia)’ (anonymised student comment). The reflections demonstrated their strong belief that continued Holocaust education offers an avenue to combat bigotry and prejudices in our society. Students praised the new perspective, as ‘it gave [them] the ability to reflect on the impact of the Holocaust in a way that is completely different to any other courses I’ve studied before’ (anonymised student comment). This may be crucial for keeping Holocaust education relevant: ‘It taught me how in our Australian context, study of the Holocaust is ever important as we challenge our own history and recognise the multitude of stories of those living in Australia (anonymised student comment).
As University lecturers we need to educate a new generation of teachers and students (Hilton and Patt, 2020), but we also need to design new methods to engage them with the topic, and inspire them to think about its relevance at a time when humanities courses, including those on the Holocaust and other genocides, have become much more expensive than courses in other areas, such as science (after the adoption of the so-called Job Ready Graduate Package in 2020). Exercises that allow students to articulate their personal perspectives on the topic, and where they actively argue for its contemporary relevance offer such opportunities. The hope is that they will continue to do so as engaged citizens also outside of the classroom.
Attwood, Bain Munro, ‘William Cooper: the Indigenous leader who petitioned the king, demanding a Voice to Parliament in the 1930s’, The Conversation, 13 August 2020. https://theconversation.com/william-cooper-the-indigenous-leader-who-petitioned-the-king-demanding-a-voice-to-parliament-in-the-1930s-140056
Bartrop, 2018, The Evian Conference of 1938 and the Jewish Refugee Crisis (Basingstoke: Palgrave).
Foster, Stuart J., Andy Pearce, Alice Pettigrew (eds.) (2020), Holocaust Education Contemporary challenges and controversies (London: UCL Press).
Gigliotti, Simone (2003), ‘Unspeakable Pasts as Limit Events: The Holocaust, Genocide, and the Stolen Generations’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, Vol. 49:2, June 2003, pp. 164-181.
Goldstein, Leah (2020), ‘Tackling Antisemitism Through Holocaust Education’, Yad Vashem Magazine, Vol. 91, February 2020, pp. 8-9. https://www.yadvashem.org/magazine-featured/tackling-antisemitism-through-holocaust-education.html
The Guardian (2019), ‘Josh Frydenberg urges more Holocaust education after antisemitic bullying attacks’, the Guardian, 4 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/oct/04/josh-frydenberg-urges-more-holocaust-education-after-antisemitic-bullying-cases
Hilton, Laura and Avinoam Patt (eds.) (2020), Understanding and Teaching the Holocaust (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
Moseley, David et al., Frameworks for Thinking A Handbook for Teaching and Learning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Zlatkis, Evan (2020), ‘Financial Review slammed over 'antisemitic' cartoon’, Australian Jewish News, 7 June 2020. https://ajn.timesofisrael.com/financial-review-slammed-overantisemitic-c...
About the author
Jan Láníček is a Czech historian who studies Czechoslovak Jewish history in the twentieth century and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. He graduated from Palacký University Olomouc and received his doctorate from the University of Southampton. Jan is the 2022 HRC/Freilich Project Distinguished Fellow.
Jan will present this year's HRC/Freilich Project Distinguished Annual Lecture: The Holocaust as an Australian Story: Family networks between Australia and Europe during the Holocaust. Click here to find out more.