For the Jewish community, the Holocaust is very much alive in our personal and collective memory. We talk about it, think about it, and are constantly in search of “the Jewish connection” to things, which usually drives us to reflect on this tragedy. International Holocaust Remembrance Day gives Jews worldwide a chance to contemplate in a different manner on the Holocaust and its lessons as seen through eyes other than their own.
Holocaust history is a key subject being taught in Jewish schools in Canada and Israel. The question as to why we should teach and learn about the Holocaust is continually discussed by education professionals and historians. Two common answers usually arise, both concerning our present more than the past. Some would say we should teach the Holocaust in order to learn universal insights such as the fragile nature of democracy and the notion that in every one of us lays a hidden, numb and banal element of evil, which under specific conditions can burst. The other answer stems from a tradition commonly engaged in by Jews. According to this approach, we must study the Holocaust in order to remember it and pass its teachings to future generations in order to prevent the possibility of it being repeated. The historian and Holocaust survivor Yehuda Elkana distinguished between the two answers by saying that “Two nations, metaphorically speaking, emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz: a minority who assert, “this must never happen again,” and a frightened and haunted majority who assert, “this must never happen to us again.”
Recently, Justin Trudeau made an official statement of apology to the Jewish community regarding Canada’s shameful episode concerning its part in the case of the MS St. Louis. The MS St. Louis was a ship leaving Hamburg on May 13, 1939 heading to Cuba carrying 904 Jewish passengers seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, which just half a year prior launched Kristallnacht. After being denied entry to Cuba, Jewish organizations turned to the United States and Canada for help. Both countries refused to grant the ship entry, leaving its passengers forced to return to Europe. The passengers were dispersed across Europe eventually becoming victims of the Nazi regime as it viciously spread across the continent, applying its anti-Semitic laws wherever it set foot. Researchers estimate that 254 of those passengers were murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
The MS St. Louis is a harsh reminder that echoes contemporary concerns that we, as a Jewish community, must reflect on given our tragic collective story. As a Jewish history teacher in Canada and Israel, I argue that the approach of teaching the Holocaust, which solely concentrates on the Jewish story and its effect on Jews today, results in students’ lack of understanding of the Holocaust in a historically humanistic manner, and instead, connecting it to the current wave of identity politics. This may cause a loss of empathy towards different persecuted minorities, and lack of awareness to xenophobia. Specifically, this outcome was evident in my own teaching experience while instructing on the MS St. Louis in a high school in Montreal. Students reacted to the story with a certain degree of understanding towards the Canadian policy which denied entry to the persecuted Jews, saying that “in times of war, Canada had no choice but to refuse refugees in order to prevent unwanted people getting into the country.” This statement was not made by a single student, but one who was supported by a silent majority, the most dangerous majority, if we were to learn another lesson from the Holocaust.
At a time when questions of identity and borders are polarizing the global community, it is crucial that we re-think the way we teach history. We must move toward a more universal approach which transcends discussing the Holocaust as an event that solely impacts the Jewish community. Making these connections between our history and others’ can ensure that we instil in our children values of empathy and “tikun olam” that are at the heart of Judaism.
We might argue about Trudeau’s apology, its meaning to Canada, the Jewish community and Israel, but, by apologizing, Trudeau gave the Jewish community an opportunity to engage in “bedek bait” (self-examination) and think what we want to remember, why and how.