Thursday, July 12, 2012

July 10, 2012 Treblinka and Jewish Education

July 11, 2012    Jewish Education and Treblinka

We had an experience at Treblinka that I didn’t engage in yesterday's blog because I wanted to keep our experiences separate and sacred.  It’s also contentious, debate-able, and perhaps even political, so I wanted to offer it separately.

I am far from resolved on the question about to be raised and would appreciate your feedback, thoughts, opinions.  If you aren’t registered to comment on the blog, just go to facebook and comment after today’s status update.

When we approached the death camp at Treblinka, we saw a group of Israeli youth from a distance.  We knew they were Israeli because each of them had an Israeli flag draped across their back, like a cape. 

As we got closer, we could hear melodramatic music playing in the background (clearly one of the organizers brought along a battery powered music box).  Even closer and we could hear the group leader speaking in English, retelling the story of the death camp in s…l…o….w… methodical, dramatic, theater-like language and delivery.  Turns out it wasn’t an Israeli group at all but a group of high school students from England and the U.S.

I had such mixed feelings about witnessing this form of Jewish education.  I actually couldn’t stop thinking about it the whole time we were there, as their group leader continued, in that low, slow voice to dramatize his words, with the depressing music still playing in the background, with the Israeli flags waving off their backs. Each wore a matching T-shirt with an imprint of the concentration camp train tracks surrounded by the Hebrew words, “Ani m’amin,” (I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah), a phrase of optimism from Jewish tradition recited by many Jews as they walked into the gas chambers.  This was heavy duty educational planning to deliver their message.

I thought the group leaders were exploiting the Holocaust, or its memory, or were somehow using these sophomoric summer camp tactics (I know because I used to write summer camp educational programming) to create a very contrived experience.  How about just telling them what happened and then give them time to process on their own, then rejoin the group and let the kids talk.  Then, go from there.  Instead, the group leaders simply used Treblinka as their own educational platform, giving them what they needed to get their real goal: intense emotion to foster Jewish identity and support for Zionism.

I, for one, am philosophically opposed to what I call “negative identity.”  I am not a highly-identified Jew because of anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.  I am Jewish because I am POSITIVE about what it offers me, my community, and the world.  As a Jewish educator, I believe we do a disservice to Jewish identity if we build it on fear, hatred, and genocide.  There is so much to love about being Jewish and Zionist.  I don’t need nor want my students coming to either because there have been people who wish us ill, or dead.  Ultimately, positive identity grows and strengthens the Jewish people. Negative identity undermines it through fear.

On the other side, how, on earth, is it possible to over-dramatize the Holocaust?  This was the attempted genocide of the Jews.  Why not hit them with every emotional tool you’ve got to move them, affectively, to a place closer to the reality that was?  Anything less is sheepish-ness.

This is, ultimately, a lesson in Jewish powerlessness.  The anti-dote, as the Israeli flags inferred, is Jewish power (in a State of Israel).  That power is best expressed in the existence of a Jewish military that, had it existed in 1933 when Hitler came to power, would have meant a whole lot of redemption for the Jews of Europe.

One of the most powerful images I use in my modern Jewish history class is one of Israeli jet fighters flying low over Auschwitz.  Talk about a picture telling a thousand words.  That image is the before and after picture of modern Jewish life.  Before: no power, death.  After: power, life.  In that sense, the educational exercise was a way to deliver those messages to youth: you are in Treblinka (powerlessness). You wear the Israeli flag (power).

Marci reminds me (and I agree) that the educational experience these teens had is redemptive. It offers the “after” hope to the horrors of the Holocaust and Treblinka.

That interpretation, though, is full of issues itself.  Many folk link too closely the Holocaust with Zionism.  While the attempted genocide sped up a Jewish state, it wasn’t the reason Israel happened, which goes back to either 1897 and Herzl or to the Bible, if you are a religious Zionist.

Also, as my colleague Kitty Millet explains when she teaches a lesson on the Holocaust to my students at SF State, what is there really isn’t redemption after the Holocaust?  What if it just sucked?  Why do we have a need to insert something hopeful into an event that wasn’t?  Why do we need to construct a happy ending to a story that wasn’t happy?  Isn’t all of this more about our own needs today than about what happened in the 1940s? (And here I myself am guilty with the whole butterfly theme from the blog, offering hope and redemption during our visit to Treblinka).

Ultimately, I suppose, it’s about how each of us approach the subject of the Holocaust.  As an historian, I don’t actually think we can approximate it for our students..and therefore shouldn’t even try.  Extended further, to be all melo-dramatic about it, in my mind, actually reduces it from what it was to an experiment in affective education.

This question animates a debate over the March of the Living teen program, which brings youth to Poland and then to Israel.  Even its critics acknowledge that its techniques (similar to those we saw at Treblinka) are very effective in building consciousness and Jewish identity among its participants.  Yet, the program also reduces the Holocaust to melodrama…and reduces Poland to that moment alone.  (Poland was the center of world Jewish life for centuries prior to WWII while you are now aware of the efforts to build Jewish life again now).   

One former March of the Living group leader told me that one of his colleagues, on the train ride they took in Poland, forced his teens to crowd together into one corner of the rail car so they would have a better sense of what it was like to be in the Holocaust. Really?  Did those kids REALLY know what it was like?  Did that exercise bring them closer to the Holocaust?  I think it trivialized it… I think it disrespected the experiences of those who actually did pile into box cars knowing they were near their own deaths. 

A generation ago, I wrote up an outline for an article I wanted to write on Jewish education.  Titled “Yellow Stars and Jewish Youth,” it would criticize a 1970s-era Jewish summer camp program that actually put yellow stars on campers during a Holocaust-era simulation. Ouch!  While I only heard of one case of a program like this, there are actually a whole set of educational programs that use these sorts of tactics to convince campers that they would somehow know history better.

As I left Treblinka, I remained passionate in my indecision.  This is the Holocaust we’re talking about…do what you need to do to get these kids connected.  On the other hand, the site of 30 teenagers wrapped in Israeli flags walking through a death camp with piped in music and staged theatrics made me a little sick.



  1. I wrote my "Deweyan Deliberation" (How's that for an HUC, Isa Aron-ish term?) Masters Project in 1990 on this very subject and I'll have to see if I can dig it out and recall what exactly I wrote (hard copy only, sorry, no interweb and PC computerz back then).

    I tend to agree that the Holocaust is often misused/overdramatized and abused as a topic to foster positive Jewish identity, especially as the years pass and the connections become diffuse. I think you are spot on in the misuse of the "escape from the Nazis" kind of campy programming that well meaning but misguided staff often use to bring out the point. That and the imposition of Holocaust in the curriculum where it is completely age and pedagogically inappropriate in our religious school (let's spend a semester on the Holocaust in 5th grade because the kids read Anne Frank and Claude Lanzman's "Shoah" (or similar documentaries) are beaten into their heads as a horror movie.)

    I remember similar discussions about the HN "Soviet Simulation" back in the day (which I think was far better thought out pedagogically appropriate than some experiential camp socio-drama type programming. Well meaning but untrained staff use the "let's make 'em cry" method of identity formation/programming.

    Also, let's not forget that this group was not the ONLY ones in Treblinka at the time. Seems kind of rude/selfish to impose their pedagogic methods, such as they are on the experiences of other visitors processing the event and background as well.

  2. and speaking of "interesting" pedagogic methods...