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.