‘Auschwitz? What’s That?’
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The View From CampusDickinson College

‘Auschwitz? What’s That?’

The growing need for comprehensive Holocaust education.

Dickinson College history Professor Karl Qualls, teaches a class to help students understand “how atrocities can happen very quickly.” Courtesy of Karl Qualls
Dickinson College history Professor Karl Qualls, teaches a class to help students understand “how atrocities can happen very quickly.” Courtesy of Karl Qualls

‘What I’m going to tell you, I don’t believe it myself.” These were the beginning words of Holocaust survivor David Tuck’s presentation last fall at Dickinson College. There was perhaps no statement more profound for Tuck to use as he began his story of survival. As I sat in the audience, I couldn’t help being transfixed by Tuck’s story, including his experience living in a ghetto and being transferred from one concentration camp to another.

Through it all, however, Tuck affirmed that he doesn’t live with hate. Rather, he has chosen to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive by traveling around the country to tell his story. I was also moved by the sheer number of people who came to hear Tuck, especially all of the students who were there. After all, it’s up to the younger generation to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

Unfortunately, it seems that young people are not taking Holocaust education as seriously as they should be. A recent CNN poll revealed that 66 percent of millennials said that they didn’t know what Auschwitz is. That’s two-thirds of a generation claiming to have never heard of the most infamous concentration camp built and utilized by the Nazis to systematically murder over a million people. Further, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany’s most recent survey showed that around one-third of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, do not believe that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, instead holding that the real total amounts to two million fewer people. Again, levels of ignorance about the Holocaust seem to be much higher for those between the ages of 22 and 37.

David Tuck, a Holocaust survivor, presented to a group of Dickinson students about his experience. Courtesy of The Dickinsonian

A major reason for these disparities is the lack of comprehensive Holocaust education in U.S. schools. As can be seen by the data mentioned above, young people nowadays are receiving less critical information about the Holocaust at school. If these troubling statistics describe people who are no longer in school anymore, it is concerning to think about what the numbers might be for those who are. Sadly, this trend provides an opportunity for skeptical attitudes to flourish, thereby aiding those who seek to erase all memory of the Holocaust. We cannot always rely on Holocaust survivors to keep educating future generations, especially as their numbers dwindle over time. Of course, it’s vital for Holocaust survivors to keep sharing their stories for as long as they can, but at some point we’ll need to use alternative means of Holocaust education.

A pertinent example of such education at work is the course on the Holocaust taught at Dickinson College by Professor Karl Qualls. A history professor specializing in Eastern European history, Qualls initially developed the course in order to try to, in his words, “understand how something of that scale [the Holocaust] works.” Looking at an event like the Holocaust from a historian’s perspective, Qualls wants others to better understand “how atrocities can happen very quickly and people can be sucked into them both knowingly and unknowingly.” Further, with the reality that anti-Semitism remains a huge problem in the world today and the fact that non-Jewish schools’ curriculums are seemingly void of any comprehensive Holocaust studies, this course serves to combat the rise of conditions that could allow another Holocaust to occur. As Geoffrey Cole ’20, a history major at Dickinson, put it to me, “The biggest lesson we have learned from history is that events like the Holocaust can happen to anyone, at any time and in any situation,” making Qualls’ class all the more vital.

An important issue that arises when crafting such a curriculum, however, is finding a balance between, as Qualls explained, the “humanization of the Holocaust and a complicated understanding of how the Holocaust unfolded.” Many schools across the country only focus on individuals like Anne Frank or Adolf Hitler without bringing in broader narratives and information. A comprehensive Holocaust curriculum cannot, therefore, rely on just these stories. Professor Qualls put it simply to me that “individual stories are just that,” individual. On the other hand, we cannot go to the other extreme and only show graphic details because that generates sympathy alone. After all, Qualls told me, when we only utilize sympathy, rather than empathy, any intellectual analysis “will be very weak.”

Qualls’ insights on Holocaust education all lead back to the course he developed and teaches at Dickinson. Instead of having students write a historiography paper as per usual, Qualls decided last spring to charge students with creating a script for educational videos that would be shown to other students. In this way, the education provided in the Dickinson course could be made public and accessible to all. Importantly, then, as Qualls stated, the “work of the class itself can be educational beyond the classroom.” Although this is just one class at one American college, the effects are already showing. Two of Qualls’ former students are pursuing careers in education with a focus on genocide studies; one local teacher is now including supplemental material on the Holocaust in her class’ curriculum beyond what is traditionally ascribed in school textbooks. If the country’s Holocaust education is to improve, other schools need to take Professor Qualls’ lead. In his own words: “All of us have some part to play in the next tragedy. It’s all about choices.” When the stakes are this high, what choice will American schools make?

Mychal Herber is a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program. 

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