This blog originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
When a school administrator in Southlake implied there exists an “opposing” perspective on the Holocaust that teachers are obligated to present, it set off a firestorm and broached some fundamental questions about the nature and necessity of Holocaust education in America.
The controversy sets the stage for important reflection on inclusivity and multiple perspectives in today’s classrooms. While there are not multiple perspectives about whether the Holocaust happened, as the school district later acknowledged with an apology, there are varying points of entry for understanding what happened, why it happened, and what the ongoing impact is. The more angles and perspectives we add to our educational and societal approach, and the more modes of engagement we have, the better equipped we are to learn the lessons of the past.
As an educator and historian, I must state unequivocally that there is no opposing view as it pertains to the facts of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews. This is indisputable and is supported by a mountain of primary and secondary source evidence. The “opposing” view of the fact of the Holocaust is Holocaust denial. From a historical perspective, this is not presenting multiple sides of an argument, it is countering fact with conspiracy theories and lies. We cannot lose sight of that. Responsible Holocaust education helps prevent us from losing sight of that.
We have evidence that Holocaust education is essential in helping young people understand the past as well as develop an ability to engage with and respect multiple perspectives. A recent study by Echoes & Reflections found that Holocaust education in high school increased historical knowledge and cultivated more empathetic, tolerant and engaged students. The study also found that learning from Holocaust survivor testimony is strongly associated with numerous positive outcomes in early adulthood, including superior critical thinking skills and a greater sense of social responsibility. Our archive at USC Shoah Foundation house 51,000 accounts from Holocaust survivors. These individual perspectives help us learn and grow. The foundation’s entire Visual History Archive includes accounts of Jewish Holocaust survivors as well as liberators, political prisoners, LGBTQ, Sinti and Roma survivors and other witnesses. Together, these testimonies illuminate the lived experiences of the Holocaust. We all learn more when afforded the opportunity to hear from powerful voices that can connect diverse populations and transcend generations. Our brains are hard-wired to learn from storytelling, something that independent research affirms time and time again.
Adopting a multi-perspective view of history also means including voices that we may not always feel comfortable listening to. Our friend and colleague, the late Luke Holland, had a vision of documenting the voices of former Nazi perpetrators and bystanders for the recent documentary, Final Account. Cognizant of this powerful, age-old teaching tool, USC Shoah Foundation partnered with Participant and Focus Features to include these perspectives in teaching materials designed to help students understand the power and persistence of pernicious thinking, even decades after the fact.
Simultaneously, as recently reported by The New York Times, many Holocaust museums and organizations are updating their content and including voices from other genocides and social justice movements to reinforce the messages of “never again” that have echoed since World War II. The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, in Orlando, recently opened an exhibit exploring the indelible link between white supremacy and antisemitism, through the perspective of acclaimed blues musician Daryl Davis. This year, Holocaust Museum Houston’s first juried exhibition in its new building was “Withstand: Latinx Art in Times of Conflict,” exploring “themes of social justice and human rights through 100 artworks by Houston Latinx artists.” This inclusive vision of teaching about the past brings Holocaust education into dialogue with contemporary issues that still plague society.
These educational institutions, and many others, understand that the study and memorialization of the Holocaust are enriched when we add diverse points of entry for people to understand both the historical reality of the genocide and consider the contemporary impact on their thinking and actions. We can and should use all responsible avenues of open inquiry, creative approaches, and engagement with even the most challenging material as we grapple with the horrors of the past.
There is no “opposing” view of the Holocaust, but there is value in drawing on multiple perspectives in understanding the experience and impact of it. The perspectives of eyewitnesses can provide students with the tools needed to recognize the continuing relevance and importance of one of the world’s greatest crimes and equip them to build a better future.
About the author: Dr. Kori Street is the incoming interim executive director and senior director of programs and operations of USC Shoah Foundation.