The Pain Of Knowledge

Yair Auron; Ruth Ruz­ga, trans.
  • Review
By – July 16, 2012

The Holo­caust occu­pies a sem­i­nal role in both Jew­ish and world his­to­ry. His­to­ri­ans, psy­chol­o­gists and edu­ca­tors wres­tle with how best to present this peri­od of his­to­ry to young peo­ple in such a way that they may know what hap­pened with­out their being trau­ma­tized with graph­ic evi­dence or desen­si­tized by mere expo­sure to his­tor­i­cal records. For Jew­ish stu­dents, invest­ed in pain, this is a par­tic­u­lar­ly del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act. 

Yair Auron, in his thought­ful, schol­ar­ly book, The Pain of Knowl­edge, exam­ines how the Holo­caust is taught to chil­dren and ado­les­cents, both in Israel and in oth­er parts of the world. Trans­lat­ed from Hebrew, the book describes and hon­ors the efforts to cre­ate his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness in those too young to have encoun­tered this tragedy, personally. 

As any par­ent knows, chil­dren do not absorb feel­ings by osmo­sis, but must devel­op indi­vid­ual con­structs if they are to inter­nal­ize under­stand­ing. Auron dis­tin­guish­es between the lan­guage of the mem­o­ry” and the lan­guage of the class­room,” or those expe­ri­ences that cre­ate emo­tion­al con­tact to devel­op a per­son­al belief, and those activ­i­ties that focus on details and estab­lish an his­tor­i­cal record. For under­stand­able rea­sons, edu­ca­tion in Israel takes spe­cial pains to help its young acquire col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, not a view of the Jew as vic­tim or ghet­to dweller, but instead as sur­vivor, fight­er and hero­ic fig­ure. From its start, edu­ca­tion in Israel tried to influ­ence the affec­tive and the cog­ni­tive posi­tions of young Israelis towards the Holo­caust, and to do so in accor­dance with a Zion­ist world­view, main­ly to empha­size the con­nec­tion between Holo­caust and Hero­ism and Holo­caust and Rebirth…” But as this design matured, the def­i­n­i­tion of hero­ism broad­ened to include main­tain­ing reli­gious faith and sanc­ti­fy­ing human life. 

Auron exam­ines how Israeli-Arabs, who use the term naq­ba, or cat­a­stro­phe,” to refer to their post-War for Inde­pen­dence fate, react to the moral impli­ca­tions of Holo­caust lessons. At best, there appears to be indif­fer­ence, at worst nega­tion. Prox­im­i­ty breeds antipa­thy when each regards the oth­er and his his­to­ry as unim­por­tant or dis­pos­able. A com­pli­cat­ing polit­i­cal real­i­ty is the knowl­edge that out of the ash­es of the Holo­caust arose the State of Israel. Aca­d­e­m­ic debate is thus insep­a­ra­ble from diver­gent ide­ol­o­gy and polit­i­cal dis­course and advocacy. 

Auron address­es what soci­ety wish­es to know about his­tor­i­cal truth. He describes var­i­ous past and cur­rent efforts to dehu­man­ize and anni­hi­late nations and their cul­tures, seek­ing to go beyond the Holo­caust to exam­ine geno­cide as a denial of the uni­ver­sal val­ue of human life.” But as recent events demon­strate, it is debat­able whether preser­va­tion of human rights is accept­ed as a uni­ver­sal belief. Such knowl­edge does, indeed, beget pain. 

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

Discussion Questions