By Yael Friedman, 2013 AJC Fellow
One of my aims as a Holocaust educator is to teach the complexity of Holocaust history by focusing on individual countries’ narratives. The Fellows program raised many of these complexities and offered the opportunity for our group, as scholars, to discuss and debate the intersection of difficult histories. Throughout the program I returned to the question of how to integrate various narratives about the Holocaust and the broader history of the time period. I believe the Holocaust should be taught within the Jewish narrative as well as the general context of the time period rather than as a separate historical event. Salo Baron, a prominent 20th century Jewish history scholar, studied the Holocaust as separate from the Jewish historical narrative. I worry that if we remove such a tragedy from the cohesive story of Jewish history, then we risk losing an accurate understanding of the history from a holistic perspective and the impact of such a catastrophe. Additionally, by divorcing the Holocaust from the Jewish narrative, it makes the Holocaust more incomprehensible and further detached from attempts to understand how such an event could have occurred.
Throughout the program, we were confronted with the challenges of how to present a cohesive, accurate history. Certain questions in particular sparked lively discussion: From the Jewish narrative perspective, to what extent do we include others? How exclusive can the Jewish narrative remain? At what point does the narrative begin? Is there a division between general Holocaust education and Holocaust education for Jewish students? Why can it not be the same? When focusing on Holocaust education, these are the questions, informed by the Fellows program, that I ask.
Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands emphasizes the challenge of creating an inclusive narrative of this time period. As a Jewish Studies scholar, I recognize that the Holocaust carries an additional dimension for Jews. The collective memory that exists for the Jewish people about the loss and the threat of extermination has shaped the way the majority of Jews understand the importance of the Holocaust and Jewish identity in general. For several decades, Jewish and Israeli educators have used the Holocaust as a tool for developing Jewish identity. Snyder’s book highlights the intersection of difficult histories, namely the dual occupation of Poland by two totalitarian regimes. He examines the role of Poles during the Holocaust and what Poland’s narrative can teach us about memory. Additionally, he complicates our understanding and categorization of victim and perpetrator in this particular context.
In education, arguably in Jewish education especially, it is essential to teach the complexity of Polish history in order to avoid associating the actions that took place on Polish territory primarily with the Polish people.
Some Jews today will not visit Poland because of their beliefs about the role of Poles in the atrocities of the Holocaust. This approach illustrates a lack of depth in understanding the nuances of Holocaust history. It is necessary to have a complete picture of the reality that existed in order to better understand how such an event could have occurred. Our group discussion of Snyder’s book provided a helpful framework in which to place and explore our own experiences in Poland.
Adding another layer to this complex history, our meeting with Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw highlighted the challenges of representing a Jewish narrative in particular. A challenge exists between presenting the lives of Polish Jews within a separate history compared to a contextual analysis of the development of the Jews of Poland. Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett described this difference as an integral history versus a contextual approach, respectively. The Museum, set to open this fall, takes the approach of the former, focusing primarily on the Jewish lived experience without deviating too much into the experiences of other groups at the same time. The exhibition will show the integration of Jews into their surrounding environment, but does not focus on other groups. This discussion helped me create a framework in which to understand the different approaches to teaching about and representing Jewish history.
Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explained: The Holocaust is typically situated in a history of hate, which ends with a discussion of genocide. When the Holocaust is situated within a history of Jewish life, it doesn’t end with genocide.
Her comment summarizes the difficult task that exists in educating for different audiences and for different purposes. Our discussion with Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett challenged my impressions from our discussion in Snyder’s book about integrating difficult histories in order to get a full picture of the history. I found it extremely helpful to learn about the process of presenting a specifically Jewish narrative and how that compares to portraying a narrative that includes multiple historical perspectives; this includes humanizing perpetrators in order to address the importance of making moral and ethical choices.
In the exhibit People of Kraków in Times of Terror 1939-1945-1956, I appreciated that the exhibition designers included biographies of individuals with a variety of perspectives: victims, informers, and Polish police. The inclusion of all types of people offers a more nuanced picture of life during this time period. It doesn’t make it easier for us to swallow the reality, but it allows us to examine the circumstances more humanely.
On the other hand, there are cases of including multiple perspectives that are jarring and verge on inappropriate, in my opinion. A relatively new addition to the Treblinka memorial now stands on the periphery of the cemetery of stones ranging in size, shape, and color. There are four photographs of Nazi guards, Nazi accommodations, and the process of creating large pits in which to burn the bodies. The images provide a stark contrast between the memorial to the victims and the Nazi role in such inhumane actions. This was an extremely unsettling addition to the site and calls into question the nature of the site. Is it a memorial? To whom? For what? Is there an educational element to including these images? As a memorial site to nameless victims, this doesn’t appear to be the appropriate location for these historical photographs. It is unclear what the purpose of these photographs is and what it contributes to the experience of visiting Treblinka. Instead, there should be a dedicated place to learn about the Nazi mentality and the relationship between the Nazis and their victims, though this does not seem to be the right place or an appropriate means to bring these considerations into the discussion. This juxtaposition underscores the challenge of bridging together multiple narratives in one location. Perhaps a more extensive museum would be able to more adequately address the integration of narratives without marring the experience of the memorial site.
I am still exploring the answers to many of my questions, yet I feel comfortable with that. I feel most inspired when I constantly question why I am interested in the Holocaust and how much I can learn. It is evident that I still have contradictory perspectives on how and when to include different difficult histories, but I firmly believe that the intersection of narratives will help us improve education today. We must continue to question how to present multiple histories and integrate them. I am extremely appreciative for the many tools, examples, and resources I acquired during my Fellowship in order to delve into these issues more deeply throughout my career.
Yael Friedman is currently the Gallery Education Coordinator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. She graduated with a Dual Master’s in Education and Jewish Studies and Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University as a Jim Joseph Fellow, with a concentration in Holocaust Education. She holds a B.A. in Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies from Washington University in St. Louis where she received the Steven S. Schwarzschild Prize for Overall Excellence in Jewish Studies. Yael has worked in various capacities at several Holocaust museums and educational non-profit organizations as well as at the U.S. Department of State for the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. She focuses on curriculum and professional development for Holocaust Studies.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Spring 2014 newsletter articles are found here.