Why Auschwitz survivor frowns at Israeli plan to teach Holocaust to 1st graders

Israeli education Minister Shai Piron has promised that the new Holocaust curriculum will be 'age-appropriate,' but it has drawn significant criticism.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Visitors look at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust in the Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, April 7, 2013. Israel is planning to introduce a new curriculum, designed in coordination with Yad Vashem, to teach the Holocaust to all students, beginning in first grade, Israeli education Minister Shai Piron announced last month.

For Auschwitz survivor Nahman Kahana, memories of the trains, the bodies, and the hunger were too much to bear once he arrived, “euphorically,” to Israel in 1948, he says. Plus, it wasn't a popular topic in the new state, where Jews were trying to carve out a new identity as strong and independent. (Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Kahana's name.)

Holocaust survivors were known here by the derogatory moniker, “sabon,” or soap, in reference to the rumors that Nazis made soap from the skin of Jews in the camps. Mr. Kahana preferred to forget the shameful memory of being “sheep led to the slaughter.”

So only recently has he found the fortitude to remember the “day-to-day hell” of an adolescence spent in German Nazi death camps, so he winces at a new Israeli plan to start teaching the Holocaust as early as first grade.

“This story is even difficult for an adult,” he tells me over tea in his modest Jerusalem apartment. “How can a child understand it?”

But in recent years interest in the Holocaust has grown, and has increasingly been used by Israel as a siren call to warn new generations – and the world – of the dangers of not acting against existential threats facing the state of Israel. 

Israeli schools formally teach the Holocaust beginning in the 11th  grade, which is often followed by a class trip to the sites of former German Nazi camps in present-day Poland, and it is not uncommon for Israeli soldiers to tour Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem, as they prepare to defend the country against its enemies.

Now, however, Israel is planning to introduce a new curriculum, designed in coordination with Yad Vashem, to teach the Holocaust to all students, beginning in first grade, Education Minister Shai Piron announced last month.

Supporters say the plan will provide a platform through which young Israelis can understand their people’s history, and Mr. Piron has promised it will be age-appropriate, but Kahana and others say it will scar children unnecessarily. Many are also calling the plan a political ploy meant to guilt and traumatize children into a certain kind of patriotism.

“In the first grade you learn how to read and write, not about Treblinka,” wrote columnist Uri Misgav in a blog for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. “As it is, the kids in the education system are being frightened by numerous memorial ceremonies and endless drills to prepare them for catastrophes…. Enough with this psychosis.”

A profusion of psychologists and teachers have also come out in the Israeli press, backing parents' fears that their 6-year-olds may simply be too young for such a demanding subject.

“Even if they only hear stories of the persecution and annihilation of Jews, they may think that others want to do similar acts to them. This could raise fears that young children are less able to manage,” Anat Zohar, an education professor at Hebrew University, told Channel 2 news.

Indeed, focus on the Holocaust is often linked to fear of enemies. Only in 1982, after successive wars with neighboring Arab countries had fostered the fear of an “existential threat,” to the state, did Israel mandate Holocaust education in high schools. And today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently invokes the Holocaust in urging the international community to crack down on Iran's nuclear program.

Kahana says Netanyahu's comparison may be an exaggeration, but admits that they resonate with mainstream Israeli mentality. And while he is ambivalent about the sense of survivalism as a reality of Israeli identity, he also hopes that "young children will not be brought into that war just yet, raised in that stress – the Holocaust."  

“I see my children and they don’t feel safe in their country,” Kahana says.  “When we’re at war, our fighters may think, my parents and grandparents fought here, we need to [do] everything in order not to be victimized.”

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