In 2018, the International Claims Conference, an organization dedicated to supporting Holocaust survivors and funding Holocaust research and education, commissioned a study to gauge what Americans aged 18 and older know about the Holocaust. The survey found that over one-fifth of Millennials were unsure if they had ever heard of the Holocaust, and 70% of Americans believe that fewer people care about the Holocaust today than in the past (Schoen Consulting, 2018). These findings garnered considerable press attention and generated much alarm among Holocaust educators.
These data-driven studies suggest that Holocaust education remains an area with much room for growth and improvement. Contemporary Holocaust education centers on several critical discussions: when to teach about the Holocaust, at what age, how much time to devote to its study in otherwise packed school days, and how best to tackle this difficult subject with primary (ages 5–11) and secondary (ages 11–17) students. The four books considered here all contribute to a growing literature on Holocaust education and make significant interventions in these central debates. Two books, Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education and Holocaust Education in Primary Schools in the Twenty-First Century, focus specifically on Holocaust education in the primary grades. Michael Gray’s slim volume, Contemporary Debates in Holocaust Education, neatly sums up the most significant discussions in the field of Holocaust education, and makes a compelling case that academic research needs to be communicated to less-scholarly audiences. Finally, Samuel Totten and Stephen Feinberg’s Essential Issues of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches is a classic American volume that focuses on Holocaust education across settings. Originally published in 2000, its authors have updated a volume that serves as a good jumping-off point for educators interested in the topic.
The books considered in this essay point to some key themes and overarching tenets of early Holocaust education that might be adopted by teachers, curriculum developers, museum educators, and academics. Holocaust education in the primary grades is a field ripe with opportunity for academic and practitioner inquiry. The debate of “when” to begin seems to be drawing closer to a conclusion, with the books in this collection arguing that primary grades are a reasonable place to begin, a major shift in the debate. It is also clear that some of the best teaching about the Holocaust is interdisciplinary, and takes the prior knowledge of students into account.
It is difficult to teach the Holocaust, and it is reasonable for teachers to feel trepidation around complex and messy history. This is not a reason, however, to avoid teaching it or to avoid striving for excellence when teaching. The four books discussed here are excellent resources for teachers when thinking about how to get started with a study of the Holocaust, or how to reimagine what they are already doing.
Schoen Consulting. (2018). Holocaust knowledge and awareness study. The Claims Conference. Retrieved from http://www.claimscon.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Holocaust-Knowledge-... [Google Scholar]