Wiesenthal Education Weekly
For Educators, Parents & Students
July 30, 2020
How Early Should Holocaust Education Begin?
At its core, our work as Holocaust educators relies on the careful balance between our need to sensitize children to the crimes of history in a way that fosters empathy and inclusivity while also ensuring that we are not going beyond a child’s intellectual or emotional capacity in the way this information is revealed; that we are not merely sowing seeds of fear and anger, or generating new opportunities for trauma in the ways we approach introductory conversations about war and genocide. Some of the key questions that naturally arise from this tension are, what age is it appropriate to start learning about the Holocaust? How do we foster empathy in children as young as 6 years old? What building blocks do young children need to understand abstract concepts like racism and antisemitism?
At FSWC, we believe that broader conversations around prejudice can begin in primary school, with children as young as 5 or 6 years old. These conversations lay the foundation to an eventual introduction to Holocaust education. Some would argue that this is too young. We understand the pressure and scrutiny that educators are under and why many elementary school teachers hesitate to integrate information about the Holocaust or other “loaded” topics into their lessons. We also know that during the Covid-19 pandemic and general atmosphere of uncertainty of the future, for many teachers, human rights lessons have fallen by the wayside.
Despite the very real challenges that educators face when addressing these topics, we believe that human rights education for younger students is vitally important, particularly right now. FSWC works with thousands of students a year and as a result, we have unique insight into ways that young people are exposed to antisemitism and other forms of prejudice.
Even with children in grades 4-5, we observe that the majority of children have heard of Adolf Hitler before they have participated in our workshops - but their knowledge is often skewed and incomplete. As the years progress and we move further away from the Holocaust, ignorance of the basic facts around Jewish victims and our cultural propensity to mythologize and turn the Holocaust into a caricature of itself is deeply troubling. Kids are being exposed to false information about Hitler and seeing swastikas in the communities and even schools without the tools to recognize these symbols for what they are. We need to equip them with the ability to recognize hatred for what it is.
Hate crimes are a rising threat in our communities and we are seeing open identification with Nazism across North America on an unprecedented scale. We see the way Nazism and other ideologies of white supremacy have flourished on social media and the number of people that openly identify with these ideologies across North America is at an all-time high. Platforms like YouTube contain a disturbing amount of antisemitic propaganda and Holocaust denial, material that children are inevitably exposed to as they explore the virtual world.
The chaotic times we are living in should be a sharp reminder that as Canadians who strive towards a more just and equitable future, we must foster active civic participation in the children who represent this future. Kids need to know how to navigate a rapidly-evolving universe of (mis)information online; they need to know how to consume media critically and practice compassion towards their peers.
How to Approach Primary Education on Holocaust and other Difficult Subjects:
- The power of the personal story- starting small to introduce complexity and tragedy. Children’s literature is one of our best tools for introducing difficult subjects like the Holocaust through individual stories.
- Introduction to basic concepts with real-world connections (how can we teach the concept of racism if children don’t know what “race” means? How can we understand the Holocaust if we don’t know what it means to be Jewish?).
- Build empathetic connections by relating different forms of prejudice (this must be done carefully but it is important to help children understand how different forms of prejudice are both unique and part of a long-standing history of human behaviour that we must all watch for.)
- End on a positive note by illuminating stories of people who experienced hatred and injustice and decided to take action to make the world a better place because of these experiences- people like Simon Wiesenthal.
Children are stronger than we give them credit for and we need to guide them through the difficult realities of intolerance from a very young age, lest they fall prey to disinformation or hateful propaganda that they are more than likely to encounter. In preparing them for the world they will inherit, we do them no favours by pretending that our leaders always do the right thing, that respect between different kinds of people is a given and unshakable reality that they can take for granted. As Simon Wiesenthal said, “Freedom is not a gift from heaven. You must fight for it every day of your life.” The ultimate message of these words is that the quest for justice, equity and inclusion is a never-ending, but endlessly rewarding process. The earlier we equip students with the tools they need to understand the history and consequences of hatred, the more adept they will be at identifying and confronting injustice that persists today.
4 Questions With..
Hannah Freedberg | Environmental Activist
Hi! My name is Hannah and I am an environmental activist from Toronto. I recently completed my Bachelors degree at University of Toronto and graduated with a double major in Forest Biomaterials and Forest Conservation with a minor in Environmental Studies. I have been actively doing environmental activism in Toronto since 2018. I spent all my summers as a kid up north at cottages, summer camp, and on canoe trips and have been passionate about the environment as long as I can remember. When I started my university career I chose to study engineering and kept my love for the environment as more of a hobby than my main path, however after 2 years of engineering I realized I would be much happier devoting my life, education, and career to teaching about and advocating for the environment in any ways that I can. I have been working with the Toronto chapter of a youth led organization called Fridays For Future started by youth climate activist Greta Thunberg for a little over a year. I hope to continue my advocacy efforts for the rest of my life and can't wait to see what the future holds.
1. How has your Jewish upbringing influenced your educational decisions and advocacy efforts?
My Jewish upbringing has influenced my educational decisions and advocacy efforts in many different ways. It taught me the importance of tradition, of giving and caring for others, and of community. The community foundation that I had growing up in Toronto’s Jewish community was a privilege, and I learned through it the importance of having a strong community foundation. When I entered the environmental field and started working in activism I found an amazing community of people that were supportive and welcoming and all working towards the same the goal. I feel so grateful to have found another community in addition to my Jewish one.
2. How did you become passionate in environmental studies?
I have always loved the outdoors and being in nature. Having spent so much of my childhood in nature, on canoe trips, and at overnight camp, I was always passionate about the environment. When I started university I chose to study engineering. It took me two years of studying engineering to realize how important it was to me to pursue education and a career in something I was truly passionate about. As I got older I spent a lot of my time reading and educating myself on the climate crisis, conservation, and environmental racism and inequities that exist around the world. I became involved in environmental justice and grew my passion for the environment to a point where I was actively fighting for environmental justice in my daily life.
3. How do you think COVID-19 has shaped or changed the way that people have thought about environmental sustainability?
I think COVID-19 has shaped and changed the way people have thought about everything. I think we have all been forced to take a step back and re-evaluate what is really important in our lives and environmental sustainability is a part of that as well. I myself have re-evaluated my outlook on the accessibility of sustainable living and have made an effort to support local sustainability efforts. I think COVID-19 has shown the importance of shopping sustainably and supporting small and local businesses. I think this is incredibly important for moving towards a sustainable future and I hope that after the pandemic has passed we continue to focus on supporting local and sustainable businesses.
4. What strategies or advice would you give to educators who are looking to teach more about the environment?
The advice I would give to educators looking to teach more about the environment would be to make sure not to dwell on the negative and focus on the positive impacts that students can make in their daily lives. It is so important to remain positive and hopeful when teaching about the environment. Making sure students know that the changes and choices they make each day can make a real impact is crucial in how we move forward to a more sustainable future. I would also say if you are feeling lost about where to start or how to approach the subject then reach out! There are so many amazing non-profits and environmental organizations that can provide guidance and resources to help you get started!
Looking Back On… The 1936 Olympics
As many of our readers will know, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan have been postponed to 2021 due to the ongoing global pandemic of COVID-19. What people may not know, however, was that Japan was also the intended host country the last time the Olympic Games were cancelled in 1940. The games preceding the 1940 Olympics were almost canceled as well due to an international anti-fascist boycott. They were ultimately carried out, with the launch of Games taking place August 1, 1936—exactly 84 years this Saturday. The 1936 Olympics Games, the last before the start of the Second World War, were hosted in Berlin under Nazi leadership.
The decision for the international community to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics remains to this day a controversial and often criticized choice. Historians of the Second World War and Holocaust history have linked the proliferation of pro-Nazi propaganda, fascist ideology, and apologists for German re-armament to this event. The positive coverage broadcast by the international press in residence at the Olympics went a long way in entrenching pro-German sentiments for years to come. When stories of unbelievable horror and atrocities came out of occupied Poland, many global citizens had a difficult time reconciling these war crimes with the nation who had held such spectacular games a mere five years prior. Hitler was able to draw upon the political goodwill produced by the Olympic Games to bend and break conditions set by the Treaty of Versailles and win over nations who wanted Germany back in the European community.
Even today, historians will highlight the masterful use of propaganda by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, during the Berlin Olympics. Hitler and his followers used this global platform to promote what they heralded as “German superiority,” echoing the relentless Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy that had become pervasive after Hitler’s election three years prior. A suspension of anti-Jewish and anti-gypsy regulations was implemented during this period in order to disguise the level of discrimination that was taking place behind the scenes. The German Olympic team even went so far as to include a small number of Jewish athletes to maintain appearances of neutrality.
However, the plan to highlight the success of so-called “Aryan” athletes backfired in quite spectacular fashion in a number of cases. Most famous is the heroic story of Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field star athlete who succeeded in winning four gold medals, eventually becoming a story that has been retold by Hollywood on a number of occasions. There was also the case of an Indian field hockey team winning first place against the German team in what was regarded as a very unlikely turn of events. Finally, while many Jewish athletes ultimately decided to boycott the games, a number of those who did attend also brought home hardware: ten medals were awarded to Jewish athletes from 6 different countries over the course of the Games.
Today, it is understood that the Olympics often offer the host country the opportunity to put their “best face forward” and present an idealized version of who they want the world to see. In this regard, some countries are more successful than others. In the age of social media, countries perceived to be intentionally hiding misdeeds or misleading the public often face outrage, criticism, and public backlash from voices across the world. While the propaganda of the Olympics is still powerful, the democratization of the internet has balanced the scales for individuals looking for the deeper story behind the renowned linked ring flag.
Who were the SS?
The SS is an abbreviation of Schutzstaffel (German: “Protective Echelon”). They were described as “political soldiers” of the Nazi Party. Beginning in 1925 with just one personal bodyguard, the SS grew with the success of the Nazi movement throughout the 1920s, 1930s, until its dissolution in 1945. The SS was headed by Heinrich Himmler who successfully built the SS to over 50,000 by the time that Hitler took power in 1933. The purpose of the SS as stated by Himmler was for “internal security and guardianship over racial purity.” Applicants were screened for physical perfection and racial purity, but he recruited members from different ranks of society. Men who belonged to the SS were educated in racial hatred and forced to become indifferent to human suffering which allowed them to carry out killing campaigns of political opponents, Roma, Jewish people, Polish people, and more.
In the mid-1930s, subdivisions of the SS were formed to oversee specific operations into the wartime period. For example, the “Waffen-SS” specialized in brutalizing and murdering people in territories occupied by the Nazis and were involved in the operations of death camps. The “Geheime Staatspolizei” (Gestapo) was established to track down and arrest any political enemies of the Nazis.
By 1945, the SS began to disintegrate, as individual officers hoped to exploit tensions between the Allies and the Soviet Union. As Soviet troops began moving west, the SS continued to murder the enemies of the regime through starvation, exposure, disease, hangings, and death marches. Himmler asserted that prisoners were not to “fall alive into enemy hands.”
After the war, the SS was declared a criminal organization by the Allied Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1946. Many previous SS officers, including Himmler, committed suicide before they could be captured. Others, such as Adolf Eichmann, emigrated to other countries under false papers. While the Allied powers were able to successfully prosecute hundreds of SS officials, the majority of them were never called into account or tried for their crimes.
Although the Holocaust ended over 75 years ago, many people and communities still suffer from the horrors of the events that took place. On July 23, 2020, a German court convicted a 93 year old man, Bruno Dey, who was found guilty for 5,230 counts of accessory to murder. Dey served as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp from August 1944 to April 1945. While Dey’s verdict may be the last, it serves as symbolic justice for the millions of victims who suffered at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators.
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