Teaching the Holocaust in Germany as a resurgent far right questions it

Visitors enter Sachsenhausen through a gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (works sets you free).
Visitors enter Sachsenhausen through a gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” (“Works sets you free”).MARKUS SCHREIBER / AP

 BY EMILY SCHULTHEIS, The Atlantic, April 10, 2019.  Click for full report.

ORANIENBURG, Germany—Pulling their scarves and jackets tighter against the chill of a gray winter morning, 38 high-school students walked the grounds of the Sachsenhausen Memorial, a former Nazi concentration camp just outside Berlin.

They had come here to learn about the horrors and crimes committed at Sachsenhausen, where tens of thousands of people were murdered: the prisoners’ cramped quarters in the extreme heat or cold, their starvation after crushing hours of hard labor, the brutal treatment at the hands of their guards.

Even as the students’ tour focused on helping them understand the history of this place, however, the politics of the day inevitably crept in.


At one point, the students’ teacher, Matthias Angelike, interjected to ask their guide about a recent incident involving lawmakers from the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and a group of their constituents. While on a tour here last summer, several members of the group interrupted their host to cast doubt on the existence of Sachsenhausen’s gas chambers and diminish the crimes committed in Nazi death camps. “They questioned whether people were actually killed here,” Angelike said to his students. “They questioned the Holocaust.”


Institutions of memory such as Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland play an important, and unique, role in educating people about the horrors of the Holocaust and of the Nazi regime. For millions of visitors annually, these institutions bear witness to the unthinkable crimes that took place on their grounds and expose people to the visceral discomfort associated with being in a former concentration camp.

But although Sachsenhausen and other such sites seek to stay above the fray politically, in recent years they have been confronted with politics—as the AfD incident here showed, sometimes even within their own walls. The rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, coupled with growing anti-Semitism, puts places such as Sachsenhausen in a new and difficult position. These places teach about the horrors of the Nazi era with a message of “Never again,” even as some in the AfD, the first far-right party since the Nazis to sit in Germany’s Parliament, downplay or question the very history of the Holocaust.


What’s more, groups such as the AfD are debating the experiences of Holocaust survivors and minimizing the crimes they lived through just as the last of these survivors, who have been an integral part of preserving the experiences of this era, are dying out.


How, then, can Holocaust memorials balance their role as apolitical sites of memory with the responsibility to defend the values they represent? And how, in a broader sense, can they adapt their work as the events they chronicle recede further and further into the past?

“We’re not politicians,” Axel Drecoll, the director of the Sachsenhausen Memorial, told me recently in his office. “But the way we talk about history is massively affected by these movements. And I’m deeply convinced that our consensus for a peaceful and rule-based existence is strongly based on the fact that we keep our critical reckoning with the past alive.”


For Drecoll and others in his position, the problem isn’t just that right-wing-populist rhetoric and actions at times echo the very rhetoric their institutions warn against. It’s also that reinterpreting history as a way to create a new nationalist narrative is a rhetorical hallmark of parties such as Germany’s AfD and Poland’s ruling right-wing-populist Law and Justice Party (PiS). For those who see protecting the integrity of history as their primary task, far-right rhetoric feels like a direct assault.


Here in Germany, AfD leaders have sought to diminish the importance of the Nazi era to produce an argument for renewed national pride: The party’s co-leader Alexander Gauland referred to it as a “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s otherwise admirable history, while Björn Höcke, who leads the party’s most extreme wing, called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” and has defended Holocaust deniers. (Höcke’s rhetoric led administrators at Buchenwald, a former concentration camp and memorial based in his home state of Thuringia, to ban AfD politicians from its commemorative events.)


In Poland, attempts to shift the national historical narrative have even been enshrined in law. The government last year spearheaded its so-called memory law, which made it a criminal offense—carrying hefty fines or even jail time—to suggest that Poland was culpable for the crimes of the Holocaust. (After international backlash, Poland’s government amended the law to remove the possible imprisonment.)

Piotr Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, told me that institutions such as his have a responsibility to speak out about unacceptable political discourse and rising anti-Semitism—but must strike a balance to avoid being dragged into the partisan fray.


“It depends on the situation,” Cywiński said, before adding, “Sometimes our mission means that we cannot be silent.”


The role of an institution such as Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz-Birkenau “is not to be a political tool—it is to in some way show the history of that site in a way that is a fair description, a fair understanding of what happened there,” says Robert Jan van Pelt, a history professor and Holocaust scholar at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, who has curated a series of recent Holocaust exhibits. Leaders of such organizations, he told me, “are facing constant pressures—and the pressures are not only of different governments that come into power in Poland.”


Visiting the site of a former concentration camp comes with a whole range of emotions, as the students I met, a 12th-grade class from the small western-German town of Brüggen, discovered. Though those who come here have surely learned at least an overview of the history of the site, and others like it, before arriving, being confronted with physical reminders of the scale of extermination—the mountains of human hair at Auschwitz, for example, or the mass graves at Sachsenhausen—puts that knowledge in an entirely new context.


“It’s important that we get confronted with situations like this so it will never happen again,” Ada, 18, one of the students, told me as we left the memorial. “I always imagine [the victims’] feelings and their thoughts … I’m just happy that we aren’t living in a time like this.”


Whether because of increased tourism more generally or particular interest in the memorials specifically, these institutions are receiving unprecedented numbers of visitors. In 2018, 2.2 million people visited Auschwitz; five years ago, that number was 1.5 million. And more than 700,000 people came to Sachsenhausen in 2017, double the number that visited a decade prior.


What makes Holocaust education, especially with a rising far-right, more difficult is that memorials must grapple with the dying-out of Holocaust survivors. Where a tour of Auschwitz or a memorial event at Sachsenhausen might have featured a speech by someone who survived that respective concentration camp, precious few survivors remain (or are at an age at which they’re able to continue such work).

The fact that ever more time is passing between the events of the Holocaust and the present day has led some in German politics to call for an entirely new approach to memory culture.


“Our culture of remembrance is crumbling,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote in January in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. “Right-wing populist provocateurs diminish the Holocaust, knowing that such a breach of taboo will garner maximum attention.”


While Drecoll acknowledged the new challenges that memory institutions face in keeping history engaging for their visitors, he said places such as Sachsenhausen still have “a whole arsenal” of tools to keep history alive for new generations. “We would be bad historians if we could only share history and truth through eyewitnesses,” he said. Cywiński, the museum director at Auschwitz-Birkenau, told me that memorial sites will have to shift from educating people solely about history to helping them understand connections to contemporary politics and society.


Cywiński’s point was on display with the students from Brüggen, who piped up with questions. Why is it illegal to deny the Holocaust? one asked. What other remnants of Germany’s past are similarly guarded?

“Simply said, [these restrictions] are a result of our past,” Angelike told them, as he and the guide took turns explaining that it is also illegal to display Nazi symbols, for example, and to give the Hitler salute. “Anyone who denies the Holocaust positions himself on the side of the perpetrators, which means it could happen again.”

April 9: Number the Stars

Danny Goldsmith, a Holocaust survivor from Belgium, will share his experience after the performance.
Number the Stars.png


Although Lois Lowry’s classic novel, Number The Stars, is a work of historical fiction, it presents many very important truths about the Holocaust in a way that is accessible to young audience members. Now more than ever, it is vital that we bear witness to the atrocities committed during The Holocaust and tell the stories of the survivors to future generations.

Join Haddonfield Plays & Players as we observe the 20th anniversary of our groundbreaking Number the Stars program in raising Holocaust awareness in schools through theater.


Tuesday, April 9, 6:45 to 8:15 p.m.,

Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel,

8339 Old York Road, Elkins Park, PA.  

Free and Open to the Public.  All ages welcome.  

Questions: lisemarlowe326@gmail.com

Holocaust education bill advances in North Caroline legislature


By T. Keung Hui, Charlotte Observer, April 2, 2019.  Click for full report including text of bill and photographs.

North Carolina public school students could be required to learn about the Holocaust, when millions of Jews, Roma and other people considered to be undesirable by the Nazis were killed.

The state House Education Committee backed a bill Tuesday that requires the State Board of Education to include instruction of the Holocaust and genocide into the English and social studies standards used in middle schools and high schools. Backers of House Bill 437 say that learning about the Holocaust is essential, especially now that the remaining survivors are dying off.

“The survivors are leaving us and along with their departures, we need to make sure that we live up to the mantra of ‘Never again,’” said Richard Schwartz, vice chairman of the N.C. Council on the Holocaust.

“This bill would help us do that in North Carolina by requiring the teaching of not only the Holocaust, but other genocides and make sure our students are not repeating the most horrible times of our history. We’re doomed to repeat history if we don’t teach it.”

Schwartz told the committee that it’s possible for some students to complete their schooling in North Carolina’s public schools without being taught about the Holocaust because it’s not tested.

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsorship, now goes to the House Rules Committee. It comes at a time when some people still deny that the Holocaust happened.

Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro handed to lawmakers copies of a photo showing the shoes of people who were killed at a concentration camp in Poland. Guttman, a former high school principal who has taught Holocaust studies since 1979, said the Holocaust was “the most organized and systematic factory-like destruction of people in the planet.”

Guttman said 20 other states require teaching of the Holocaust, so North Carolina wouldn’t be alone in making it a requirement for students.

The legislation is called the “Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act.” Abramson was a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who relocated to Raleigh. She died in 2011 at the age of 85.

A teenage Abramson worked with the resistance movement in Poland before being captured and sent to several concentration camps, most notably the death camp of Majdanek, according to a 2011 News & Observer article. The article quoted her family saying she was twice pulled out of line at the gas chamber to translate for Germans who didn’t speak Polish.

After her weight dwindled to 42 pounds, Abramson was left for dead by the Germans. She was found by Russians and turned over to Americans in Germany.

Abramson would go on to share her experiences with students at schools around the state.

Her son, Michael Abramson, is chairman of the N.C. Council on the Holocaust.

“It is my belief that when students learn of the hatred and atrocities of the Nazi regime, they will learn the lessons of the Holocaust which we will teach in public schools,” Abramson told the committee. “Those lessons are the value of tolerance, plurality, compassion, inclusion and democracy.”

Yad Vashem: Voices from the Inferno

Fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto

What happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans fled twice from the ghetto. One of our companies held its position for forty minutes, while the other one lasted – upwards of six hours… I cannot describe to you the conditions in which the Jews are living. Only a handful will survive. All the rest will succumb, sooner or later. Their fate has been sealed. In almost all of the bunkers in which our friends are hiding one cannot even light a candle at night, for lack of air. Goodbye my friend. Perhaps we will see each other again. The main thing is this: My life’s dream has become a reality. I have seen the Jewish defense of the ghetto in all its strength and glory.
23 [21] April 1943Mordechai Anielewicz

On the 19th of April 1943, Passover eve, the Germans entered the ghetto. The remaining Jews knew that the Germans would murder them and they decided to resist to the last man.

The invading German forces were surprised by the ferocity of the resistance of the armed groups, and by the perseverance of the ghetto inhabitants, who had fortified themselves in bunkers and hiding places. The fighting outposts of the Jewish Fighting Organization, under the command of Mordechai Anielewicz, were spread out far and wide across the ghetto. The Jewish Military Union fought side by side with the Jewish Fighting Organization; the former concentrated their efforts on the Moranowski square in the north part of the ghetto, and in the industrial area of the brush workshops. After three days of fighting, the Germans understood they would be unable to make the Jews report for deportation as planned. They began systematically setting fire to the ghetto, turning it into a giant firetrap. The blaze was documented by German propaganda photographers, at the initiative of Jürgen Stroop, commander of the S.S. unit that suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

After the first few days of fighting had elapsed, the Jewish combatants took refuge in bunkers from which they would launch attacks and raids on German units. Most of the Jewish fighters did not view their actions as an effective measure by which to save themselves, but rather as a battle for the honor of the Jewish people, and a protest against the world’s silence. Those who succeeded in escaping the burning ghetto continued their struggle on the Aryan side of the city or in the ranks of the partisans. Many of the Jewish fighters were killed in action, among them Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization, who was killed in the bunker on 18 Mila Street, and Paweł Frenkel, commander of the Jewish Military Union, who was killed on the Aryan side of Warsaw.

Click for full text and photographs.