My Holocaust education began in fifth grade at The Rashi School. We read “Hana’s Suitcase“ as an introduction to the hardships of the Holocaust and how Jews were discriminated against during that period in history. That was when I was formally introduced to the disturbing yet important topic and history of Jewish struggle and peoplehood. I had always been aware of the Holocaust due to prayer books at temple, sermons from our rabbis and having older siblings who were studying it in school and processing it at the dinner table with our parents.
Then, in eighth grade at Rashi, the history course was focused primarily around World War ll and the Holocaust. My teacher was very passionate about the subject and therefore was able to convey the importance of Holocaust education to us in a passionate and meaningful way. Before this job, he had worked at multiple Holocaust museums as a guide and had become very knowledgable about the events of the Holocaust. Additionally, we learned about the specifics of Nazi Germany before the war, including the Nuremberg laws, and how, slowly but surely, the Nazis were able to cultivate an unsafe environment for the Jewish people one law at a time. I am now a ninth grader at Gann Academy and continue to focus on and believe in the importance of Holocaust education universally.
For my eighth grade capstone, I created a project called “Remembrance After the Final Witness.” The goal of this project was to have a platform where people could learn information about Holocaust education. My hope was that people would see how important the memories and witnesses to the Shoah are to future generations. Over the course of two weeks, I did intensive research on the topic of Holocaust education. I started by exploring how two children of survivors first learned about the Holocaust. I did this by interviewing two people: Saul Natansohn and Ellie Deaner.
I asked them the same questions and they both reported very different experiences. Saul’s parents both survived Nazi Germany. Saul’s mother survived Auschwitz and had the tattoo on her arm as a forever reminder. Saul grew up in his early years in Brooklyn. His family was very religious. He remembers going to see his father’s family in Brooklyn. They would talk in Yiddish about what it was like back in Europe. Ellie’s parents left in 1938 and 1939, respectfully. Even though they did not have to go through the atrocities, they both lost people. Ellie’s father did not tell his story for many years until he was interviewed by the USC Shoah Foundation. I learned a lot from these stories. They showed two ends of the spectrum of remembering. In Saul’s case, he was taught from an early age about the importance of memory. But Ellie may not have ever heard her father’s story if it were not for the Shoah Foundation.
After exploring this second generation, I moved on to the third generation. I have been lucky enough to be able to meet Holocaust survivors. But most people my age have never met a survivor before. The Claims Conference recently did the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge of American millennials and Generation Z. The Claims Conference was the key organization that fought Germany in court and won over $80 billion in compensation for the Holocaust. In their survey, they found some very surprising information. For example, 56% of the survey respondents were unable to correctly name or identify Auschwitz. In Nazi-occupied Europe, there were more than 40,000 ghettos and camps; 48% percent of the young people in our country could not name a single one. Also troubling is the percentage of millennial and Gen Z that have witnessed Holocaust denial or distortion on social media. Approximately half of U.S. citizens questioned have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.
I thought these facts were horrifying, so I continued my research. I looked into what states have a Holocaust education law or mandate. I found out a ton of information about the Never Again Education Act. This was a federal bill that was passed in 2020. It requires and gives fund to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) to supply accurate and effective resources for states to use if they’re interested. But all education decisions are state to state, so they can make their own decisions. I found out only 16 states have laws or mandates. That is 24.2% of all of the United States.
The USC Shoah Foundation was founded by Stephen Spielberg in 1994. He created the organization while filming “Schindler’s List.” In fall of 2020, I applied to be a junior intern at the USC Shoah Foundation. I learned so much from that experience. Our group of interns was involved in the eyewitness program, which is a learning platform that allows people to interact with testimony from the Holocaust, as well as countless other genocides. I was able to think deeply about these stories and how important memory is. Specifically, this experience was the first time I was able to step back from my Judaism to learn about the impact that other genocides have had on other cultures and countries throughout the world. I was so moved by this internship because of the amount of effort the USC Shoah Foundation puts into genocide education in order to further teach so many communities about the horrors of genocide and hate. It was very meaningful watching testimony and discussing it with kids from all cultures and all over the country.
In 1994, Steven Spielberg was making a movie called “Schindler’s List.” While at the gates of Auschwitz, he realized how important memory is. I have recently come to understand this importance. With all the ignorance and antisemitism, we have to look to history. I believe we can learn so much from history. Most importantly, we can learn about these actions to never repeat them. But we have to use our knowledge to combat antisemitism and hatred. I think that now more than ever states have to make legislation to start teaching about the Holocaust. Especially now, while it’s still a recent event and there are still some survivors. In 10 years, we are not going to have any Holocaust survivors left. We are going to have to rely on the oral testimony we have collected, the stories we have heard from family and friends. We have to start teaching everyone about the Holocaust. Learning the Holocaust helps build empathy. It gives a warning to humanity about the extreme of hatred. It will show people how small acts of prejudice led to one of the largest genocides in history.
Teddy Friedman is a freshman at Gann Academy. Teddy enjoys playing and listening to music, is the bassist in Air Society and enjoys playing and watching sports. His favorite sport is baseball but he will happily talk about any sports. Teddy is a JTI Peer Leadership Fellow, member of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley and spent last summer in Israel.
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