Education International
Education International

An honest look at the facts is needed to improve the way we teach about the Holocaust

published 28 January 2015 updated 6 February 2015

Renowned historian and Yale professor Timothy Snyder captivated educators in Krakow, instantly converting them into admiring students eager to learn, as he untangled the complex and often misunderstood history of the Holocaust.

The highly anticipated keynote speaker of Education International’s (EI) Holocaust Remembrance Event transformed the conference into a university master class that delved into the numerous hard truths surrounding the darkest period of the 20th century.

“Our reliance on memory is going to dry up,” warned Snyder, referring to the falling number of remaining Holocaust survivors. “We cannot give up on history.”

The one-day programme that brought together 66 participants from teacher unions in 20 countries, followed yesterday’s 70th anniversary marking the liberation of the concentration and elimination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Panel discussions featuring educators tackled the challenge of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and discussed best ways to teach future generations about it.

Snyder, whose book “Bloodlands” closely examines how both Hitler and Stalin used much of Eastern Europe to carry out many of their atrocities, clearly mapped out what he called the “five roads to Auschwitz:” the Auschwitz of ideology based on Hitler’s book Mein Kampf; the German concentration camp system; what he called the Polish road, which revealed how Hitler set out to essentially destroy the Polish state; the Soviet road to Auschwitz, outlining Germany’s ambition of installing a colony in the Soviet Union through the use of slave labour; and finally, the European road to Auschwitz.

The five roads provide a map of history that not only debunk many stereotypes of Germany and Germans at the time, but they also make clear, especially in Snyder’s “fifth road,” how countries across Europe played a direct role in seeing Jews removed of their rights of citizenship, which led to their deportation to Auschwitz and other camps, or what he referred to as “death factories.”

In his remarks, EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen looked to the past to draw a connection to present day Europe.  “If there was ever a moment in our recent history that we needed to be reminded of the Holocaust and the war, it is today,” said van Leeuwen, referencing the recent attacks in Paris and growing radicalism and anti-Semitism around the world. “Education is the most powerful tool to combat hate, prejudice, and ignorance, which makes it an enduring threat to those who wish to oppress… We must not abandon our principles.”

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), echoed the words of van Leeuwen in her statement, saying that “without voices calling out marginalization and debunking stereotyping, extremists prevail. The recent genocides in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia, and the atrocities in Nigeria by Boko Haram, show that the lessons of the Holocaust are going unheeded, and that is tragic.”

The event, which ran from the 26-28 January, and also included visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Oscar Schindler Museum, was hosted by the Polish teachers’ unions ZNP and NSZZ-Solidarnosc, and organised along with the teachers’ unions GEW and VBE from Germany, GOD of Austria, and ITU and ASSTI of Israel.