“They dragged them out of their houses, and led them to their deaths, to a pit right outside town, in Zelyonke. Like cattle. They took them like cattle and then shot them. When they finished them off, the earth kept moving for a few days afterwards. Like cattle.”
It was in the winter of last year, in one of the very last conversations I had with my beloved, 95-year-old Grandma Fruma, that she revisited those last moments in the life of her parents, Zeev and Rachel Liond. This experience, like so many others of my grandmother who, at the age of 18, found herself enslaved, starved, and orphaned, came to haunt her for the rest of her life. I heard the story many times: about the aktion, when the elderly Jews and children of the towns surrounding Vilna, lovingly known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were herded like cattle and, like the rest of the Jewish population of the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories, were shot by local murderers, some perhaps their neighbors.
As a young man, I did my best to avoid the subject of the Holocaust. Having three grandparents who were survivors meant that the Holocaust was ever-present in my life, which, perhaps, is why I so desperately wanted to escape it. But the stories that I heard from my Savta Fruma eventually drove me to realize that my calling is to engage in education, to make sure I help study and teach the lessons of this colossal tragedy. I became a Holocaust historian, lecturer and educator.
Starting out, my job was explained to me in very simple terms by my professors and mentors. “Ignorance leads to fear that leads to hate,” I was told, which is why it was my job to try and combat the dangerous trends forgetfulness, racism, and intolerance plaguing our youth by teaching about them Holocaust. The mission, went the consensus in the field of Holocaust education, was ambitious: Reach out to every school, every teacher, and every student by teaching the Holocaust as something like a metaphor, a universal “gold standard for evil.” To properly teach the Holocaust, went this line of thinking, was to use it as a tool in the fight against bigotry and hatred, against bullying on the playground, against hardline policies on immigration, against, really, anything and everything that smacked on any kind of intolerance.
For a number of years, I did the best I could. As students in my, for the most part, ethnically homogenous, Midwestern state—many with last names like Schmidt and Muller—became engaged in the activities of the Holocaust center where I worked, I would do my best to make the Shoah “meaningful” and “relevant,” a universal lesson that anyone and everyone who had ever experienced any kind of wrongdoing, no matter how small in scale, could learn and vow to improve. Eventually, all that universalism began to chafe. Was teaching the Holocaust in this way, I began to wonder, good for the Jews? I also wondered, since the Jewish people, is an integral part of humanity, no doubt, if this one and only lens to teach the Holocaust truly good for humanity.
Slowly, I took another approach to my job. Following the wisdom of the eminent scholar and founding director of the USHMM, Michael Berenbaum—who stated that the Holocaust is not about the murder of six million Jews, but rather about the murder of one Jew multiplied by six million—I encouraged the teachers I worked with to speak not of broad generalizations like man’s inhumanity to man but rather tell specific stories of real people who were murdered by the Nazis and view the Holocaust from the unique perspective of its Jewish victims. As survivors were passing away or became too frail to speak, I took a lead in the recruitment of their children, Jewish men and women in their early 60s through mid-70s. They were all eager to come to classrooms and share their own stories with 8th graders who, like most Americans, knew very little about the Holocaust. That way, my volunteers, colleagues and I made sure that the Holocaust was being taught not as a travesty that happened at some point in the annals of world history, but as a particular assault on one particular people, the Jews, that had to be studied and understood in its own, particular terms.
To be sure, the Shoah, the brutal murder of European Jews and the annihilation of European Jewish civilization by Nazi Germany and its many collaborators, is a complex event, fraught with nuances and contradictions. And, not unlike other major historical events, the lessons learned from it are multiple, complementary and contradictory at the same time. I understand why so many of my colleagues in the field of Holocaust education seek to reflect these complexities. I understand also why many others are eager to make the subject matter accessible to young students by teaching it in simple, general, and approachable ways.
But, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I cannot come to terms with these pedagogical ideas: If the Holocaust is not the specific experience of my family members, my relatives, my neighbors, and my people; if, rather, it becomes, indeed, the one-stop shop to address and remedy all of society’s 21st century ailments, what, then, is the value of the detailed, context-based, and reflective study of the stories we hear from survivors like my grandmother?
The story Grandma Fruma told me, the one about her parents being shot, is a perfect example of just how problematic the universalist approach to Holocaust education truly is. Her parents, my great-grandparents, were dragged from their home and brought to the pit not by the Nazis but rather by their own brothers, members of the Jewish police of Vilna. It’s not the kind of fact that fits easily into any narrative about good versus evil, which is exactly my point: What we need now is not new, more well-researched and sophisticated curricula but a Holocaust education that is steeped in the specific and difficult experiences of Jews and is fiercely conscious of not letting these experiences become flattened, diluted stand-ins that can easily fit into some other political, social, or educational agenda.
The same applies to genocide education as well. The catastrophes experienced by Rwandans, Armenians, Cambodians and others aren’t an invitation to meditate on lofty concepts like cruelty and kindness or hate and compassion. They are each unique, each possessing its own set of faces and names, each inherently resisting any attempts to turn them into a new Never Again campaign, tagline, or panacea for all the ills of the world.
As a Holocaust historian, my obligation is to tell the world about the Shoah because, yes, the world must know. But the story I tell—the story we must all tell—is one of Jewish agency and of Jewish peoplehood, a story that demands that the listener take a moment and, rather than project his or her own worldview, instead learn the intricate realities of our people’s great tragedy. Six million is just a number; instead, we should remind ourselves that we have an obligation to six million individuals, each with their own lives, each—like my great-grandmother Rachel or my great-grandfather Zeev—who demand we show them the respect they deserve by learning not only about how they died but also about how they lived. This is what Holocaust education can and must be, an empathic and grounded approach that studies the Shoah as what it truly was, a catastrophe committed against so many Jewish people simply because they were Jews.
Dr. Shay Pilnik is the founding director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at Yeshiva University.