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The Responsibility of Knowledge: Developing Holocaust Education for the Third Generation



In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action’s educational programs from 1997 to 2010. 

Forty years later, Holocaust education remains essential not only to combat another genocide, but also to provide students with a consciousness of human rights.

In a radio address in 1966, Theodor Adorno declared his dissatisfaction with the state of Holocaust consciousness. He claimed that ignorance of the barbarity of the Holocaust is “itself a symptom of the continuing potential for its recurrence as far as peoples’ conscious and unconscious is concerned” (Adorno, Education After Auschwitz]. He envisioned education as the institution that bears greatest responsibility for instilling values in the masses to equip them with agency to oppose barbarism. Adorno not only wished to educate children, but also hoped for “general enlightenment that provides an intellectual, cultural, and social climate in which a recurrence would no longer be possible.” Forty years later, Holocaust education remains essential not only to combat another genocide, but also to provide students with a consciousness of human rights.

The controversial link between the Holocaust and contemporary issues became clear during the Kosovo crisis when foreign minister Joschka Fischer compared the situation in the former Yugoslavia to “Auschwitz”, and justified NATO’s intervention. Fischer brought the Holocaust back into the political dialogue. For the first time, the Holocaust was openly discussed in relative terms, creating space within the public sphere to debate the political aspects of this memory and the related moral taboos. Claudia Lohrenscheit, the director of Human Rights education at the German Institute of Human Rights, notes that Holocaust education ultimately has two goals. To some, they appear to conflict. First, the goal of Holocaust education is to instruct the public “never to forget.” Second, the education is necessary to“develop competencies so that it never happens again.” Thus, Holocaust education, she believes, can be a tool for teaching democracy. As for the status quo, however, she laments that currently, Holocaust education only “imbues a sense of history, while human rights education gives the power to act.” Ideally, the two should not be mutually exclusive.

Holocaust education, she believes, can be a tool for teaching democracy.

German Holocaust education is in a state of constant evolution. As survivors die and the third generation slowly drifts out of the Holocaust’s shadow, education must be buttressed with an understanding of the applicable lessons and principles that derived from the Holocaust.

The responsibility that the Holocaust instills is far greater than simply learning the facts.

The German word for education, “bildung,” is a concept or theory of development that empowers youth with all the characteristics necessary to succeed in life. Traditionally linked to the concept of emancipation, it is assumed that with knowledge comes freedom. The responsibility that the Holocaust instills is far greater than simply learning the facts. The current state of immigration has changed the social landscape of Germany, requiring an education that gives students the requisite tools to live in a pluralistic society complicated by a history of discrimination. In this context it is crucial to evaluate Holocaust education as well as the taboos that have been created in the evolution of German memory. Ultimately, Holocaust education faces the dual challenge of embedding history within the collective memory, while teaching the mechanisms that brought about monstrous acts. Holocaust education must avoid desensitization and ind ways to empower youth with the tools of human rights.

Holocaust Education Today

Immediately after the Second World War,the Allies imposed a new educational program aimed at creating and sustaining a democratic Germany. The post-war “denazification” program presented gruesome pictures and captions to combat the feigned ignorance of the German population. This program, however, only abetted a culture of silence that was not broken in West Germany until the 1960’s. In the East, an emphasis on creating a Socialist government and emphasizing the perception of Communism under siege, pushed the history of the Holocaust to the side. In 1968, a clash broke out in West Germany, when students, frustrated by their relatives’ inability to talk about World War II, demanded dialogue with their parents about what had happened during the War and their participation in the Holocaust.

Although the ’68 movement was large in size, it was only successful within the realm of the private sphere. However, it laid the groundwork for future public discussion. It was not until “Holocaust,” an American TV mini-series premiered in 1979, that the history of the Holocaust fully entered the public sphere. It was only at that moment, when re-configuring the collective memory and acknowledging this dark time in history, that Holocaust education began.

Challenges: Holocaust and Human Rights Education

The connection between the Holocaust and human rights presents a dilemma in the classroom. Assuming that Holocaust education may serve as a platform to demonstrate the necessity for individual decision-making and thus “teach democracy”, one has to draw connections with great care. “A concentration camp is not the right place for teaching democracy in my eyes,” says Matthias Heyl, curator of the former concentration camp Ravensbrück, since choices were limited for both victims and perpetrators. Heyl would rather teach the importance of individual decision-making in sites where they might have a positive influence, in order to encourage students to engage in democracy.

“By telling immigrants that they are the Jews of today…you basically tell them Auschwitz is their future.”

The danger of counterproductive effects is inherent in each connection and demands particular sensitivity on the part of educators. Simplified comparisons bear the risk of communicating the wrong message. For example, Matthias Heyl sometimes hears, “Back then it was the Jews, now it is the refugees,” – a statement made with the intention of raising awareness among pupils concerning current problems of discrimination. “But by telling immigrants that they are the Jews of today,” he remarks, “you basically tell them Auschwitz is their future.” Confronting students with such visions of the future strains them, especially during a time when Germany is struggling to accept itself as an immigration country.

At the Wannsee Conference Center, Elke Gryglewski recognized similar pedagogical mistakes. Her experience shows another danger: when teachers compare the situation of immigrants today with that of the Jews under the Nurnberg laws, students often react dismissively. It is extremely dificult for teachers to teach the Holocaust without implanting feelings of guilt. While still making them aware of actual problems such as xenophobia and racism, “students feel as if they are responsible and that learning about history carries a huge bag of morals and doctrine.”

There is a fine line between imbuing students with the facts of history, self-consciousness, and the ability to be critical of one’s milieu without creating a feeling of guilt and defensiveness.

There is not a single project in German schools that addresses the perpetrators’ point of view, even though children are extremely interested in the motivation of perpetrators. Dealing with these issues is crucial to understanding the mechanisms behind the genocide that are difficult to grasp for the third generation. There is a fine line between imbuing students with the facts of history, self-consciousness, and the ability to be critical of one’s milieu without creating a feeling of guilt and defensiveness. Germany needs to develop new ways of teaching and understanding the Holocaust now that the generation of survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders is passing away and new challenges, such as immigration, confront German society.

Pragmatic Obstacles

In addition to conceptual obstacles surrounding Holocaust education, pragmatic issues also need to be considered. The real problem that emerges is the inconsistency of Holocaust education for teachers and students. This can be seen in the divisive structure of German education, the absence of a standardized or specific Holocaust education requirement, regional differences in the understanding of German history, and the absence of educational training for teachers to teach the Holocaust. Even beyond these obstacles of inconsistencies, cultural divisions exist in the classroom that prompt uneasiness surrounding the implications of the Holocaust and its impact on the understanding of current national attitudes.

While the majority of educators cover the Holocaust, the education is often left solely up to the responsibility of the teacher.

While there are several programs dedicated to Holocaust education, many teachers are not trained or equipped to deal with the subject. Holocaust education is not a required ield of study for prospective teachers, nor can teachers simply rely on a set curriculum or textbooks. Claudia Lohrensheit lamented: “I researched the  textbooks,  and  I  have  not  found  enough.”  Yet Lohrensheit  points  to  certain  indicators  that  signify that teachers are in fact interested in topics of discrimination and human rights. For instance, over 30 percent of German schoolteachers are members of Amnesty International. Thus, one might   conclude that while the tools and literature exist, a disconnect remains between programs developed to help teachers and the implementation of their methodology in the classroom.

An explanation for this disconnect is quite possibly linked to the structural inconsistency in the German educational system. While the majority of educators cover the Holocaust, the education is often left solely up to the responsibility of the teacher. German schools divide students according to their abilities: high achievers attend the academically oriented Gymnasium, while lower achievers attend vocational secondary schools Hauptschule and Realschule. The Department of Interior of Berlin published a statistic claiming that only four percent of those who committed rightist crimes went to Gymnasium (high school], while sixty percent attended Hauptschule. It is due to a deeper social structure that students from Hauptschule are left unemployed, less educated, and, ultimately, more susceptible to propaganda. With this division of schools, it would be hard to regulate any sort of standard Holocaust education even if one did exist. In addition, German students are taught to learn in homogenous groups.

Many East Germans feel like three-time victims: first because of World War II; second, as the victims of the GDR; and third, as victims of German reunification.

Many experts in this field address the difference between the way Holocaust education is implemented in the East and West. Andrej Goetze noted different preconditions because the teachers and students might relate to the current Federal Republic differently. Many East Germans feel like three-time victims: first because of World War II; second, as the victims of the GDR; and third, as victims of German reunification. The idea that the Nazis were only in Western Germany is a prevalent theme in Holocaust education in the East, along with the emphasis on the political victims in the war. In contrast, West Germans learned less about the political victims and more about the Jewish victims, causing a hypersensitivity and sacredness about the Holocaust. Many teachers in East Germany still refer to the“Jewish Problem” in their classrooms due to their lack of exposure to more politically correct terms used by Western German educators.

Another obstacle to teaching the Holocaust is the absence of Jews and Jewish culture in German education. Since many German students may never encounter a Jewish person in their lifetime, more focus in placed on the role of Jew as victim of the Holocaust rather than as a living, vital community in present and past times.

Educators have to be very careful when teaching a multicultural classroom about the history of the Holocaust and its relevance to German society today in order not to alienate the descendants of its victims and perpetrators. Viola Georgi created a study about minorities’ historical knowledge and association with the Holocaust. From this study she created a model with four different types of minority reactions. The first type of reaction strongly identifies with the victims, critically observes and evaluates the event and how it relates to their own future. The second type includes those who, after having seen the concentration camps and learning the history of the Holocaust, feel closer to German culture. Often this type even goes so far as to accept “historical myths” frequently propagated by older generations who do not want to confront the responsibility of the Holocaust. The third type features minorities who reject the history of the Holocaust and of Germany and are more concerned with their own background and the histories of their native land. Finally, the fourth type consists of those who feel alienated because  of their neutral background and their undeined role in society. This type is often referred to as the post-national ethnic perspective, in which they do not see the Holocaust as German Nazis killing Jews, communists, homosexuals, or Poles, but as humanity killing humanity. Most of these model identities emerge from relating and comparing the history of the Holocaust to current German society. Her study shows that despite problems with teaching the Holocaust in diverse classrooms, various opportunities arise for minority students to connect to German history.

Developing Holocaust Education for the Future

Holocaust education remains inconsistent in Germany. Several methods exist to ease the burden on teachers as well as help avoid conceptual problems.

Students will automatically draw parallels to either their personal history or the present.

The collage method, developed by the Wannsee Conference Center, is the first solution to a problem Viola Georgi points out. She asserts that children do not enter the classroom with a tabula rasa; instead children come to the classroom with histories and biases of their own. They gain knowledge from their families and also the media, an important and powerful source. Teaching must be adjusted for each class, yet it is often difficult to determine the needs of the individual class. The Wannsee Conference uses a collage of historic events and asks students to pick one that has meaning for them and to share its significance. Students will automatically draw parallels to either their personal history or the present. Though this is often a problem for the public, students do not have the social consciousness about the taboos of society. This method not only helps teachers understand individual backgrounds, but also sensitizes the teacher to notions of guilt. It also allows them to collect information about previous exposure as well as address historical myth.

The collage method is not a teaching tool. Rather, it is a diagnostic tool for teachers, one that is particularly helpful for teachers of multi-cultural classrooms. Students are enthusiastic about sharing their own stories, and the collage method gives them an outlet to do so.

The personalization method is one way of involving children within the story of the Holocaust, and often triggers their interest in the larger context.

One approach that may follow the collage method is called personalization, which offers the students an opportunity to learn about the life and decisions of someone of their age or sex. Jan Krebs, director of the Anne Frank Zentrum, claims that the center is successful because “people know Anne Frank’s face.” The center tells the story of one person and, by revealing her life, demonstrates that individual choices or lack thereof can indeed make a difference. The method allows students to follow the story of one person, and limits the perspective of the war. The personalization method is one way of involving children within the story of the Holocaust, and often triggers their interest in the larger context. It often becomes the impetus for questions about what their role would be and forces questions about their own decisions.

The method favored in the US, called “Facing History and Ourselves,” was developed in Boston as a method of personalization to use in the classroom. Researcher Dr. Viola Georgi states that, “as US programs usually do, ‘Facing history’ concentrates on the individual, by allowing people to make their very own experiences with history.” This approach has now also been adapted within Germany by the Fritz Baur Institute, called “Konfrontationen.” The method focuses first on the individual and then on the larger context. It emphasizes the idea of choice among the individual and is an important form of empowerment. The question “who is responsible?” is extra sensitive and allows students to evaluate the choices that individuals make. In “Konfrontationen,” small scripts are handed out to students who create a role for this character. This is clearly important for the German version: as students take a new identity, it helps to avoid feelings of guilt that may lead to escapism.

The“Konfrontationen” approach is extremely important to create a direct link to the present, but often, to avoid escapism, it does not focus on the true identities of students and does not expose their own biases. Claudia Lohrenscheit favors a method developed in the United States known as Anti-Bias education. This method was adopted by South Africa to “re-educate” after the system of Apartheid (as developed through the book “Shifting Paradigms” Early Resource Learning Unit). The deconstruction of identity not only makes children aware of their own identities, but also the gray area in between. Taking the model from South Africa, which has created curriculum to come to terms with a society inhabited by both victims and perpetrators, the curriculum of anti-bias education is designed to make children aware of how they think. It is an important tool because it utilizes methods from Facing History, such as role-playing, but also clearly involves the participant. It allows students to share their own backgrounds and makes them aware of discrimination in today’s society.

Children are not confronted with their own past – the German past, that is the history of the perpetrators.

Yet Matthias Heyl worries that German educators and students shy away from any form of education that makes them think too critically about their own history. Children are not confronted with their own past – the German past, that is the history of the perpetrators. Germans have appropriated a history of the victim, or more fairly, of trying to understand the Holocaust through empathy. Instead, he advocates showing complicity in the Holocaust, the mechanisms by which ordinary people committed such atrocities. Heyl’s method demonstrates an important parallel with the anti-bias approach. “Shifting Paradigms” uses a flower diagram to pull out forms of identity, ultimately to make a child conscious of the differences that create bias. Heyl uses venn diagrams to show the different players and the complexity of acting within the Holocaust. Concentric circles show that as a bystander one might play many roles – slowly breaking down the rigid construction of victim and perpetrator. The method teaches children that their identity, their feelings, and their actions, cannot be assigned easily to a single domain; children aren’t merely white or black, Jewish or Christian, young or old. Nor were people victims or perpetrators. Even bystanders have been broken down into different categories. In these exercises, Jan Krebs points out, pupils learn something about the “process of discrimination,” a key part that was missing in education.

“the Holocaust happened so it can happen again.” 

Heyl demonstrates that this multiplicity of educational approaches makes it hard for regular teachers to teach the Holocaust effectively or to link it with human rights responsibly. Through evaluating choices and identity, and through

finding the gray areas in between what seem to be opposing constructs, the connection between the past and the present can be made very organically. For if it is not, the words of Primo Levy will become a self-fulfilled prophesy, that if “the Holocaust happened so it can happen again.” Perhaps an amalgamation of these teaching methods would be the most powerful program, but Viola Georgi sees another way. She argues that students will profit most if they are not taught about the Holocaust with only one focus. Instead, the Holocaust and human rights should be part of all lessons. If these different methods are all used and consider problems of simplification, guilt, and historical myth, Holocaust education can become a tool for empowerment.

Holocaust Education as a Base for a Democratic Future

While it is clear that the memory of the Holocaust is important in public dialogue, the connection between the past and the future is not explicit. Therefore an awareness of the Holocaust is being perpetuated to support educational initiatives. In May 2005, the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened. Situated in the heart of Berlin, between the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the United States Embassy, the location provides visibility to this monument and access for visitors and German citizens. It serves an important symbolic purpose, says Professor Sibylle Quack, the former director of the organization that built the monument. Even though the monument and the information center do not directly link current human rights and the Holocaust, its constant presence, between government institutions, tourist attractions, and residential spaces promotes “remembering the past for the future,” she explains.

To promote the benefits of Holocaust education, the third generation requires a new form of education with a more explicit link. In general, as Germany evolves – as it reunites the East and West and absorbs new immigrant populations- it is important that Germany acknowledges its history and the role of democracy. Democracy demands citizenship of its subjects. Participation and knowledge are essential. Holocaust education and human rights education play an important role in teaching citizenship and the uses of democracy. Thus, the question of integrating these two domains is pertinent to the political future of Germany and to ending discrimination.


Bunch, Kelly, Matthew Canfield, and Birte Schöler. “The Responsibility of Knowledge: Developing Holocaust Education for the Third Generation.” In Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Julia Zarankin, 69-79. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.


  • Friday, June 25, 2005, 11:00, ANDREJ GOETZE, museum pedagogue at the “Deutsches Historisches Museum”
  • Friday, June 25, 2005, DR. CLAUDIA LOHRENSCHEIT, director of human rights education at the German Institute of Human Rights.
  • Saturday, June 26, 2005, JAN KREBS, head of the Anne Frank Zentrum Berlin e.V.
  • Monday, June 28, 2005, PROF. DR. SIBYLLE QUACK, founding director of the Memorial to the Mudered Jews of Europe.
  • Tuesday, June 29, 2005, DR. MATTHIAS HEYL, director of pedagogical service at the memorial site of the former concentration camp Ravensbruck.
  • Tuesday, June 19, 2005, DR. VIOLA B. GEORGI, researcher.
  • Wednesday, June 30th, 10:00, ELKE GRYGLEWSKI, researcher at the “Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz”.
  • THEODOR ADORNO: Education After Auschwitz < auschwitz/AdornoEducation.pdf>.
  • PAUL JOHNSON: “The Anti-Semitic Disease” in: The Commentary Magazine, June 2005, Vol. 119 Issue 6.
  • IDO ABRAM, MATTHIAS HEYL: “Thema Holocaust. Ein Buch fur die Schule,” Reinbek bei Hamburg 1996.
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