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The pain of memory

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Inside the gates of Auschwitz — the largest concentration camp employed in the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to extirpate the Jewish people — a member of a right-wing political party gives an interview to the media, declaring, “It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them.” Except the man speaking is not a National Socialist circa 1942, but a part of the Polish Independence movement in 2019.

At the same time that many young, modern Poles are taking care of abandoned Jewish cemeteries and “commemorating the Jewish residents of their towns,” there is a stunning persistence of anti-Semitism and continued denial of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Last year, the ruling Law and Justice Party passed a law criminalizing suggestions of Polish aid to Nazis only to back down several months later in the wake of intense international pressure.

In my column several months ago about political apathy in the face of violence, I argued that “when we forget, we enable. When we ignore, we empower. When we fail to respond, we are complicit. But we can choose to remember, address, and act.” Today, I use the collective memory of the Holocaust in Poland to expand on our obligation to examine painful memories and argue that education is critical in helping students navigate these emotionally charged topics.

Poland continues to heavily rely on a rigid, ethnic conception of nationalism characterized by the Polish language, Slavic ancestry, Roman Catholicism and, perhaps most importantly, a self-image of moral righteousness in the wake of historical suffering. Zdzislaw Mach, a Professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, points out that “admitting Poland bears any guilt would wreck the whole structure on which the ethnic and romantic version of Polish identity rests.”

The implication is that an ethical framework of nationalism — to the extent that such a conception is possible — cannot presume moral righteousness but must rather aspire to it. Otherwise, evidence of wrongdoing will be excluded from collective memory the same way marginalized groups were and are excluded from the body politic.

This suggests that the consequences of selective memory do not confine themselves to the historical past, but are integral components of the contemporary present. When myth cannot be confronted by reality, when stereotypes are solidified in the national psyche and mutually reinforced by that nation’s citizens, then how one remembers — or doesn’t remember — and former atrocities become the lens through one sees — or ignores — current ones.

As the German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt once proclaimed, “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply to think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.” And it is precisely in shifting collective memory, in grappling with questions of mass violence and bureaucratized evil whose implications sear our conscience and burn the moral scaffolding upon which we stand — leaving us with charred pieces to construct some notion of humanity — that education can play an essential role.

Chaim Ginott was a school principal who survived the Holocaust. He wrote a moving letter to the instructors at his school:

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Though the pedagogical goals of the study of history are as broad and varied as the discipline itself, Ginott’s letter suggests that the pedagogical value of any education is inherently tied to the types of people that education produces. The question then becomes, whether learning about the Holocaust and other cases of violence do indeed “serve to make our children more human.”

There are certainly challenges in the study of atrocity: the ineffability of horror often translates into a resignation of inevitability or a dismissal of applicability. Those teaching about the Holocaust or other cases of mass violence must tread a careful line between impressing upon their students the gravity of what happened, without overloading them with materials that rely solely on shock value.

Poland, in particular, faces a “long path which leads from silence and taboo in the past to efforts to recognize and face the trauma of the disappearance of neighbors with whom ethnic Poles shared a homeland for almost 1000 years,” as Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacob, the director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Jagiellonian University recently diagnosed.

But the perhaps unanswerable moral questions mass violence raises — such as how people could commit such acts — opens the door for discussion, that when properly guided, lets students explore the discomfort many of them face when confronted with documentation of past tragedy. The classroom can provide a productive space in which uneasiness inspired by challenges to traditional collective memory is not dismissed — as might happen in the public or digital sphere — but deconstructed and analyzed in ways that feel less threatening.

At the same time, studying violence can provide a concrete understanding of the actions and patterns that thread themselves throughout cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing, including hateful, dehumanizing rhetoric, propaganda that reinforces division and mobilization by state or non-state actors to take extreme actions they claim essential to solving a fabricated threat. An analysis of these warning signs helps students move from the misconception that mass violence is spontaneous and just happens to the reality that it is systematic, organized and identifiable.

The moral question of how individuals and groups are capable of inflicting harm is fundamentally distinct from the historical question of the tools and strategies individuals and groups use to inflict that harm. The former creates room to tackle the distress that studying mass violence often generates, while the latter gives a framework for students to understand the processes at the root of that violence. A curriculum that includes both is therefore crucial to successfully incorporating the reality of history into collective memory.

 

Contact Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’ stanford.edu.