Now that Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, has passed for another year, we need to take stock of the state of Holocaust education in Canada and ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust go beyond commemoration one day a year.
The Holocaust has become a global reference point for education in areas beyond Jewish, European and world history – for example, in human rights, international law, responsible citizenship, and the role of the state in societies.
The very premise of a recently published UNESCO report on Holocaust education is that its importance lies not only in learning about the systematic murder of more than six million men, women and children in the heart of Europe’s most civilized and modern societies, but also in the universality of its lessons and their relevance to present-day issues. Holocaust education has a critical role to play in building tolerance, instilling respect for human dignity and promoting appreciation for diversity.
A recently published study by Université de Montréal researchers Sivane Hirsch and Marie McAndrew illuminates the near absence of the Holocaust from Quebec textbooks and classrooms and raises much concern. With such inadequate treatment, Quebec students cannot fully grasp the impact of this historical event on contemporary society.
The situation in Quebec is in keeping with current standards across Canada: Holocaust and genocide studies are not mandated by any provincial education authority. While it is often a suggested topic in the curriculum, it is left to local decision-makers and individual teachers to grapple with how to teach the topic.
Many teachers do include the Holocaust in their curricula and do an excellent job, addressing the subject not only in history classes but integrating it into other subject areas. But the gaps are wide: it is possible to finish a secondary school diploma in this country with only superficial exposure to the Holocaust.
Working within the structural and cultural complexities of Canada’s diverse education systems – which means that legally mandated Holocaust education is highly unlikely – does not mean that we must accept low or no standards of training for the educators who are on the front lines of teaching the Holocaust. And it does not mean that the best possible resources should not be made widely available.
The best way to tackle this issue is to focus on teacher training and the provision of educational resources – teach the teachers and give them good materials. All accredited teacher training programs in Canada, for example, should be required to include methods and pedagogy on teaching the Holocaust and genocide.
Moreover, every school board should survey the local resources available to teachers and encourage their use. Holocaust centres across Canada offer materials and guidance and undertake educational outreach throughout their provinces.
Excellent resources and support are also available from a number of non-profit organizations throughout the country – the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, the Asper Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves come to mind. The Azrieli Foundation publishes, and makes available to educators free-of-charge, powerful first-person stories of Canadian survivors – to allow students to grasp what happened, one story at a time. The personal connection that is created between a reader and the survivor is often the catalyst for students who might not otherwise be inclined to delve deeper into the history of the Holocaust and related themes.
We stand today on a bridge between memory and history. Very soon, there will be no first-person witnesses to the Shoah left. As we learn from Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers): “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” We challenge Canadian teachers and educational authorities to plug the curriculum gaps, provide in-depth learning about the Holocaust, and ensure that this genocide, which was unprecedented in history and set the precedent for all genocides to come, is taught to our children – our future leaders.
Dr. Naomi Azrieli is Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation and Publisher of the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs. The program collects, edits and publishes the written memoirs of Canadian Holocaust Survivors and promotes high quality, innovative approaches to Holocaust education. For more information, see www.azrielifoundation.org.