“Let’s not be bystanders – Lessons from the Holocaust“ seventy years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
To commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the German extermination camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27th 1945 – a date celebrated as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day since 2005 –Education International organised a conference in Cracow, having joined forces with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The event was attended by trade union representatives of the Israeli Histadrut Hamorim, the Polish “Solidarity” and Teachers’ Unions, the Austrian GÖD, and the German VEB and GEW. Since 2008, these unions have been co-operating with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in organising seminars to debate the process of teaching about the Holocaust. This year’s edition was also attended by teachers’ trade union delegations from around the world – the United States, France, Hungary, Great Britain, Slovakia, Sweden, Greece, and Cyprus.
Cracow . On January 27th 2015, all delegations attended official on-site ceremonies at the former extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. A debate focusing on the process of teaching about the Holocaust was organised on the following day in Cracow. Unimaginable – such leitmotiv and backdrop word was chosen for approximately eighty trade unionists discussing challenges faced by teachers and students alike seventy years after camp liberation.
In opening the conference, Fred van Leeuwen, Secretary General of the Education International, emphasised the importance of the Holocaust in the context of contemporary challenges faced by democratic societies. He pointed out that democratic freedoms are not self-evident. And he continued: “The question is not if we have responsibility as educators. We have. We ought to be asking questions about how to form and shape professional performance frameworks allowing teachers to conform in the field.” Van Leeuwen critically declared that “The education debate is solely fixated on hard and soft skills to keep our economies on steam. To keep our societies on steam, however, has become secondary.”
, Secretary of State at the Polish Ministry of National Education, also highlighted the importance of the Holocaust in the context of democratic and civic
freedoms. She emphasised the point of every human being’s entitlement to life, liberty, and inviolability – such is the foundation of any society based on
pluralism and respect for human rights. Furthermore, Dudek noted that constant challenges serve the purpose of bringing these values to life in today’s
reality, and of handing them over to future generations, schools being a vital link in the process.
Ewa Dudek was followed by Joseph Wasserman, Secretary General of Histadrut Hamorim, who told the story of co-operation among Israeli, Polish, Austrian, and German teachers’ trade unions in the area of teaching about the Holocaust. He declared that the experience of the Holocaust is key to Israel’s contemporary national identity. “We are representatives of a nation who experienced mass-scale extermination. At the same time, we live in the small country of Israel, which until this day is at war with its immediate neighbours. Thus, as teachers we face the challenge of bequeathing such values as peace, solidarity, and love to our students,” Wasserman remarked. He further added that such was the message of those who survived – a message which remains vibrant and vivid in light of contemporary challenges.
Chairpersons of teachers’ trade unions – Histadrut Hamorim (Israel), “Solidarity” and the Polish Teachers’ Union (Poland), GÖD (Austria), and VEB and GEW (Germany) proceeded to present their joint project entitled “Teaching about the Holocaust”. Marlis Tepe, Chairperson of GEW, emphasised that the memory of the Holocaust cannot ebb upon the death of the victims and perpetrators. “We have to continue taking advantage of the project to communicate with Israelis and Poles about what can be done to prevent the history of Auschwitz from repeating itself” , she said.
“Auschwitz was not the beginning of the Holocaust – it was its end.”
Timothy Snyder , history professor at the Yale University, US, emphasised in his intervention that understanding the phenomenon of the Holocaust is a fundamental prerequisite to understanding what happened in Auschwitz. “Auschwitz is part of a whole. We are speaking of it as a part of a larger event, the Holocaust. Auschwitz is not at the beginning of the Holocaust. It’s actually at the end,” Snyder explained. ” He highlighted the five roads which led to the creation of an extermination camp. “They prove that in analysing the Holocaust, we should consider the people related as well as the historical context,” the professor declared. Snyder believes that the first road to Auschwitz led along the racist worldview laid out by Hitler in Mein Kampf. According to the ideology described therein, nature is nothing but a constant battle of the races. Nonetheless, Jews were perceived as something supernatural rather than a race in the context – by daring to have introduced the concept of ethics, Jews caused turbulence to the natural course of affairs. Such an approach allowed Hitler to concoct an ideology which blended in seemingly contradictory phenomena: Christianity, communism and capitalism, jointly interpreted as misfortune brought to the world by Jews. According to Hitler, the three phenomena were intertwined for the simple reason of neglecting the category of race – and they thus opposed nature. In consequence, the extermination of Jews was the only solution guaranteeing the restoration of true nature and its battle of races.
The second road to Auschwitz as outlined by Timothy Snyder involved the entire system of German concentration camps, Auschwitz initially forming an integral part thereof. As opposed to Treblinka, killing facility in its very design, Auschwitz had been originally planned as a labour camp for opponents of the regime. Therefore, Auschwitz was not constructed along extermination lines; nor was the intake of Jewish inmates its original purpose. In the wake of the German invasion of Poland, Auschwitz became a penitentiary camp for Poles engaging in the resistance and opposition movement; once Germany attacked the Soviet Union, it was further turned into a camp for Soviet prisoners of war.
This changed at the turn of the years 1941 and 1942, when Auschwitz-Birkenau was established. In a simile to other German camps forming part of a concentration camp system, early Auschwitz was one of a number of outlaw institutions, where lawlessness morphed into an elaborate experiment.
Snyder believes that the third road to Auschwitz runs across a territory of particular involvement with Polish experience. Stammlager Auschwitz I was established in former Polish army barracks. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st 1939, Polish barracks were transformed into a German concentration camp, originally a model penitentiary unit for Poles engaging in the resistance and opposition movement. In this context, the professor emphasised that the war waged by Germans against Poland was “not a conventional war but a war of destruction.” Synder emphasised that warfare targeted total annihilation of the Polish state as well as the extermination of any force capable of reconstructing the country.
When commenting on the fourth road to Auschwitz, Timothy Snyder listed the specific experience of the Soviet Union. During World War Two, more than three million Soviet prisoners of war perished, thousands of whom in Auschwitz. They were actually among the first victims gassed to death in 1941 with the Cyclone B insecticide. This concurred with the ravaging German offensive of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the ultimate purpose was to permanently destroy the capacity of the Soviet society to restore its statehood, activities of German “operational groups” (Einsatzgruppen) focusing on Jewish nationals in particular. The professor believes those two aspects are a key component in comprehending the Holocaust. “ There was an idea of getting rid of all the Jews but there was no plan to do that and then there was a technique which was found to work out,” he remarked. According to Snyder, by 1941 the Germans had found out that exterminating the entire Jewish population is a feasible task. Ultimately, this became possible as a result of operational groups co-operating extensively with the German police, the Wehrmacht, and local communities on German-occupied territory. Snyder believes this to have been the “crucial moment” of Germans deciding to implement the so-called “final solution of the Jewish question” plan by slaughtering every Jew alive.
Finally, Timothy Snyder outlined the fifth – European – road to Auschwitz. He remarked that to date, Holocaust-related historiography had primarily been written and formed by West European historians, with the phenomenon rooted in two fundamental reasons. Firstly, in cold war times it was easier for Western than Eastern Europe to dwell on the Holocaust. Secondly, Western Europe had many more Holocaust survivors living on its territory, and these people could actually describe their experience to historians. Snyder pointed out that as a rule, the Jewish chance of survival was a direct derivative of the country Jews inhabited, and of their citizenship. Denmark, for example, saved a major part of its own citizens of Jewish origin, while denouncing Jews with citizenship other than Danish. Before Jews from all over Europe were murdered in the Holocaust, they had been deprived of citizenship to “separate them from their state”. The chance of survival was therefore frequently dependent on the extent of sovereignty a given country could retain in Nazi-occupied Europe, thus gaining the ability to protect a considerable part of its Jewish citizens.
In closing, Snyder emphasised that there is also a road leading from Auschwitz into the future, the Holocaust experience becoming fertile ground for practical conclusions. The historian said that once we read in »Mein Kampf« that normal people are not prone to ethical behaviour, we ourselves learn to attach greater value to the importance of ethics. He also offered a warning in the context of circumstances of different countries creating ”zones of lawlessness”, with Guantanamo as one example and Donbas as another. Since the Holocaust tied in with a breakdown of the European state system, such experience – according to Snyder – allows us to realise how meaningful the role of state institutions is. Some countries took the first step and denounced their Jewish citizens, often as not sentencing them to certain death. These countries were followed by others. This is how a process was set in motion, a process unstoppable after a point. The professor warned that it goes without saying that the foundation system of contemporary states is better, but it is not immune to downfall. This is why we have to be aware that whatever seems unimaginable remains possible.
Teaching about the Holocaust in Schools
The first discussion panel focused on the question of how one should teach about the Holocaust in schools today, seventy years after the liberation of the Auschwitz camp. Marzanna Pogorzelska of the Opole University, the panel’s moderator, expressed particular interest in challenges faced by teachers from different countries when raising the Holocaust topic in class.
Kerstin Rutherschröer , federal spokesperson for the VBE, emphasised the importance of introducing young children to the subject of the Holocaust. “We could well imagine discussing these things as early as primary school. Primary schoolchildren are usually unbiased, which makes it rather easy to kindle and encourage empathy,” she declared. She brought the argument up in support of the reasoning behind persuading teachers to talk about the Holocaust and its victims in class. Katharina Kaminski of the GEW emphasised that she is in huge favour of reaching immigrant children with the subject. “This is where paying homage to remembrance requires particular cultural sensitivity. Only once pupils comprehend their own history will they be able to respect the history of others,” she claimed. Maria Rönn of the Swedish teachers’ trade union (Lärarförbundet) agreed with previous speakers in declaring that when debating the Holocaust in class, one has to connect with student emotions and prove how all issues raised tie in with values fundamental to any society. “It is important for the teacher to make students understand the connection between history and what is happening here and now,” she said. Rönn further emphasised that the Web allows students vast access to an entire spectrum of Holocaust-related information, including sources which discredit or even question the phenomenon itself. The panellist believes that a critical approach to information found on the Web ought to be practised with schoolchildren. Moreover, Rönn mentioned the need to make students sensitive to the dangers of extreme right-wing anti-Semitic propaganda. Adam Musiał, teacher at the Juliusz Słowacki junior high school in Cracow, proceeded to describe a variety of ways of bringing children closer to the Holocaust topic as such. He suggested that young people be told life stories of European Jews, and confronted with the extermination of Jews against the historical backdrop of their own towns and cities. “We have to use every opportunity allowing young people to comprehend their personal connection to past events,” he said. With regard to Poland, Adam Musiał highlighted the need to restore the proper place of Polish Jews in the country’s history, as after World War Two they were exposed to a process of homogenisation, with definitions of Polishness limited to ethnic origin and Roman Catholic faith.
Memory and Responsibility have to Remain Eternal
The second conference panel focused on a debate concerning conclusions to be drawn today, seventy years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Moderator Roland Feicht, director of the Polish representation of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, highlighted the diversity of Holocaust perspectives, arising primarily from personal experience. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, explained how her Jewish origin and the loss of many relatives during the Holocaust made her focus on the topic very early in life. “In my youth, I read anything on the subject I could get my hands on. And yet nothing succeeded in preparing me for my visit to Auschwitz. Yesterday I realised yet again that eternal remembrance of past events requires a global struggle with anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia,” she declared. Andrzej Kacorzyk, resident of the Auschwitz region and director of the International Centre for Education on Auschwitz and the Holocaust, considers Auschwitz “one of the most meaningful locations in Europe, if not the world.” The speaker pointed out that he owes his Holocaust attitudes mainly to former camp prisoners who are part of the Museum’s works.“It is chiefly to their credit that our contemporary knowledge of Auschwitz is so detailed,” he explained. Avraham Rocheli of the Histadrut Hamorim trade union offered a different take on the Holocaust altogether – as a young Hebrew teacher in Israeli kibbutzim, he taught youngsters of families who left Europe for Israel in the wake of the Holocaust. What he said was,“Local children were not always friendly to new arrivals. Over the years, this made me an advocate for the immigrant community.” Dietmar Nietan, member of the Bundestag and co-chairman of the International Youth Meeting House in Auschwitz, considers the Holocaust issue a crucial component of his own political socialisation. “By kneeling before the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Willy Brandt taught me that we all have to shoulder responsibility for our history. Such is the legacy I want to bequeath to future generations. Our memory of the Shoah and responsibility for what happened have to remain with us forever,” he explained.
During the second round of questions, Roland Feicht asked debate participants to comment on changes in Holocaust-related attitudes over the past decades. When telling the story of Israeli experience, Avraham Rocheli criticised the fact that the term “Holocaust”, its narrow historical context apart, is used with increasing frequency to describe other phenomena. He believes that this is how the concept is gradually being deprived of two aspects which ought to retain their fundamental importance. “The Holocaust was, after all, an extraordinary event of universal meaning,” he explained. Randi Weingarten remarked on challenges concerning Holocaust-related classes as forming part of school curricula, especially in the context of the ever-changing objectives set for education. “Today, so-called skill building is everything people ever pay attention to. Other objectives of education – such as the teaching of respect, pluralism, or fundamental democratic values – have all been pushed into the background. The effect is daily observable on community networks, all seeped through with a lack of respect and dialogue culture,” she explained. In the German context, Dietmar Nietan further remarked that contemporary attitudes to Germany’s own history are based on reason and frankness, though it does happen that they are no obstacle for isolated incidents. Nietan believes that today’s challenge is all about better integration of immigrant communities. Nietan emphasised that this also translates into a joint effort of shouldering responsibility for German history. “We have to teach our children that the Holocaust requires all German citizens to accept responsibility for past events,” he declared. Other panellists agreed with Dietmar Nietan that accepting responsibility has to become a basic education component. “We have to teach our children that the role of a bystander is out of the question,” Randi Weingarten added.
In closing the conference, Sławomir Broniarz, chairman of the Polish Teachers’ Union, yet again highlighted activities engaged in since 2008 by teachers’ trade unions from Israel, Poland, and Germany in Auschwitz and Cracow. “We obviously want to continue debating differences in education systems and forms of remembrance – differences between countries and generations alike,” he remarked. The trade unionist believes such readiness to engage in continuous history-related dialogue to be absolutely fundamental to any form of co-operation. “We convene with Jews and Germans to prevent ceremonies from replacing history. Such is the true sense of the project,” he explained.