By Avinoam Patt / Special To The Washington Post
On June 15, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., paid a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, then held a news conference at the Capitol, where she said that she had made a mistake when she compared mask mandates to the Holocaust. Ostensibly contrite, Greene acknowledged that “there’s nothing comparable to it. It happened and, you know, over 6 million Jewish people were murdered.”
By any reasonable standard, one shouldn’t have to visit a museum to understand the horrifying scope of the Holocaust. Nor should one have to do so to understand that it is ridiculous to conflate vaccination passports and “gold stars,” as Greene did. But while Greene’s comparison of mask mandates to Nazi Germany is, indeed, a failure of Holocaust education, the problem isn’t simply her ignorance of the facts. To the contrary, Greene’s glib simile is indicative of a far more sweeping problem with the way we teach people about the Holocaust.
When I worked at USHMM as an applied research scholar from 2004-07, it was not uncommon to see someone standing outside the facility with a placard, manipulating the memory of the Holocaust for different political goals. Sometimes they’d be protesting abortion, sometimes the consumption of animal meat or the fur trade. And sometimes, even in those pre-covid days, vaccinations were the object of their ire. None of these comparisons would stand up to minimal inspection, but the fact that protesters felt comfortable making them was revealing. According to their syllogistic reasoning, the Holocaust is the worst thing; therefore, anything they consider bad can be equated to the Holocaust. The effect of widespread Holocaust education, in other words, has been to teach people just enough to let them make fatuous comparisons, to treat it as a frame of reference for all subsequent events.
In recent years, the rise in hate speech, antisemitism, racism and xenophobia has provided renewed momentum to legislative efforts, bringing the number of states requiring some form of Holocaust and genocide education to 19, as of this month. Even so, state boards of education rarely provide the additional resources necessary to gain specialized training on the topic. Holocaust education is often folded into state social studies standards, incorporated into history classes, typically accompanied by supplemental readings in the language arts. Exceptional teachers, dedicated to pursuing the study of the topic with their students, are often forced to seek out professional development opportunities on their own. With too many topics to teach and not enough days to do so, teachers often have time for only a brief tour through the symbols of the Holocaust within the broader context of American or European history: swastikas on uniformed arms and flags, photos of concentration camps, and, yes, the yellow stars upon which Greene seized.
Greene’s brief visit to the Museum probably did not include a tour of the exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust,” which is closed due to covid-related restrictions. This exhibit provides information about just how much average Americans knew about Nazi persecution of Jews, and how little this knowledge did to encourage protest, interventions to stop it, or changes in political behavior. Just weeks after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, while 94 percent of Americans polled disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany, over 70 percent still did not want more Jewish refugees to immigrate to the United States. Those numbers barely shifted in postwar surveys, even after GIs shared stories about the horrors of the camps and newsreel footage became widely available.
Americans have always maintained an emotional distance from the Holocaust, treating it as an event that happened far away on European soil, and that mostly served to confirm the ultimate triumph of democracy over fascism. As Jewish studies scholar Alvin Rosenfeld argues, “The very success of the Holocaust’s wide dissemination in the public sphere can work to undermine its gravity and render it a more familiar thing.” We recognize the Holocaust as a symbol of ultimate horror, but typically decline to let that horror inspire us to action, preferring instead to treat it as a free-floating signifier of evil. Conventional Holocaust education — which offers a service-level, brief survey of the topic — fails to help students understand the underlying causes and complicated context that made the Holocaust possible. It stands as an anomaly, rather than an extension of antisemitic beliefs and policies to their worst possible conclusion, genocide. The memory of the Holocaust thus becomes trivialized, often used in the service of “relevance” to teach simplistic moral lessons, meet mandated learning outcomes, or score political points.
Holocaust survivors who came to the United States tried to break through the apathy and indifference of their new neighbors, but found language inadequate to convey the terror of what they endured or the anger they felt at the world’s silence in the face of it. Elie Wiesel, among the most prominent of the survivors to advocate for the creation of a memorial museum on the National Mall, argued that the presence of the museum must serve not as an answer, but as a question. Speaking to President Bill Clinton and others gathered at the museum’s opening on April 22, 1993, Wiesel encouraged the museum’s visitors, as they walked through the exhibits, to “ask yourselves how could murderers do what they did and go on living? Why was Berlin encouraged in its belief that it could decree with impunity the humiliation, persecution, extermination of an entire people?”
Wiesel did not believe such questions had answers. Instead, he wanted us to sit with the uncomfortable fact of what apathy and indifference for the plight of others might lead to. “What have we learned?” he asked. “We have learned some lessons, minor lessons, perhaps, that we are all responsible, and indifference is a sin and a punishment. And we have learned that when people suffer we cannot remain indifferent.”
Despite Wiesel’s challenge, we now live in a moment when someone like Greene can pay a short, symbolic visit to the Holocaust museum and leave potentially better equipped to twist the tragedy of the Holocaust to her own ends. Indeed, after her visit, she renewed her comparison of the Democratic Party to the Nazis, calling them both National Socialists. Museums and memorials can easily become props, facilitating public pieties that rarely lead us to change our behavior. As James Young has argued, this may be in the nature of institutions that “do our memory work for us,” a process that is almost inevitably bound to make us more passive and forgetful in our own lives.
The Holocaust can seem like an overwhelming topic, beyond comprehension or understanding. The permanent exhibition at the Holocaust museum occupies 36,000 square feet of gallery space, far more than can be absorbed in a brief visit. The museum’s “Encyclopedia of Ghettos and Concentration Camps” documents that “the Nazis and their allies ran more than 44,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor and murder during the Holocaust.” This enormous topic should not merely be another box to check off on a list of graduation requirements, with facts and pieces of information that can be easily measured. Yes, the historical facts matter, especially in our age of denial and disinformation, when history can be so easily distorted. But shouldn’t we also, as Wiesel proposed, strive to leave those we teach with more questions, concerned about the human condition and the suffering of others?
We live in an age where complexity is discouraged, when tangled and thorny problems can be reduced to simplistic explanations. What if studying the Holocaust challenged our preexisting world views, forcing us to engage in difficult conversations about our collective past, present and future?
These educational goals have their limits, of course. It is easy to say that education can confront hatred, denial and discrimination, that state mandates requiring Holocaust education or visits to Holocaust museums are the key to building a better democracy; to ensure that when tyranny rises, it does not prevail. However, we cannot use the memory of the Holocaust as a substitute for actual learning or as the answer to every difficult question.
We have an obligation to those who were once abandoned and ignored, to ensure that even in death, their memories not be minimized, their lives treated again as less than human.
Avinoam Patt is the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Connecticut, where he serves as Director of the Center for Judaic Studies. He is the co-editor (with Laura Hilton) of “Understanding and Teaching the Holocaust” and author of “The Jewish Heroes of Warsaw: The Afterlife of the Revolt.”