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The futility of Holocaust education
Rationality will not transcend emotion
Today is Holocaust remembrance day, יום השואה, observed on the 27th of the Jewish month of Nisan (this year on April 28), and commemorating the six million Jewssystematically and ruthlessly tortured and murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. It is also the yahrzeit of my beloved grandmother, the toughest Holocaust survivor I have ever known, who never spoke fully of her war experiences to me. Though there have been and continue to be many massacres throughout history, the Holocaust stands alone in the scope, efficiency, and eagerness with which modern man successfully exterminated his neighbor.
During World War II, the systematic murder of Jews was largely met with denial and disbelief that a deeply cultured nation like Germany could commit atrocities on such a scale. After the war, the emerging concept of Never Again was buttressed by a push toward Holocaust education. The implied assumption was that genocide is a result of ignorance, of humanity failing to recognize and understand the grave and widespread risk of malign behavior. The solution to ignorance was education: a population acutely aware of its history of atrocity will be ever-vigilant and briskly arrest future potential inhumanity.
Today, there are Holocaust memorials throughout the world, most notably in the US and Israel, including various research centers. Many, many universities (UCLA, UMN, Drew, …) offer programs on Holocaust studies of various sorts. One could comfortably conclude that Holocaust education is widespread throughout the world … and yet the genocides have not abated: Cambodia (1970’s), Iraq (1980’s), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995), Darfur (2003), China (2014), and possibly Ukraine (2022).
At the start of the pandemic, Ruth Wisse penned an excellent article attempting to highlight some of the structural failures of modern Holocaust education. However, she may not have had the benefit of two years of worldwide COVID mitigations within which to viscerally frame the more physiological and psychological human responses to fear.
As social engineers know all too well, the human body reacts to fear by effectively shutting down many rational processes in favor of “fight-or-flight” instincts associated with the amygdala. Echoing this struggle to accept the absurd, Nazi Dr. Fritz Fischer said at the Nuremberg doctors’ trials after the war, in defense of his sadistic medical experiments,
… the whole position in 1942 had become that of a life or death struggle ... We could only do our duty as responsible people by our compliance with instructions.
Likewise, in our modern environment, we saw pallid hints of such a Nurembergian struggle in the worldwide reaction to the COVID pandemic of the last couple years.
To be absolutely clear, I am most emphatically not equating COVID measures to the singular devastation of the Holocaust! The damage caused by the former, though widespread and deep, was patently dwarfed by the malicious and systematic torture and murder of millions of innocents during the Holocaust. However, just as I understand the malevolent banality of reducing all struggles to the Holocaust (i.e., Godwin’s law), I just as clearly reject the apparent corollary that no modern lessons can or should be learned from the singular greatest modern failing of humanity.
The world-wide reaction to the COVID pandemic represents the greatest in vivo experiment ever run in history. Its scope and scale was enabled by technologies that our ancestors could not even imagine:
social engineering of public opinion was enabled through mass control of social media (while restricting physical gathering);
electronic mail, messaging, and modern media (like the Internet) enabled blazingly fast communication of mitigation measures throughout the world
From within, the mitigations made perfect sense, and even seemed reasonable in combating a deadly and unknown threat. With the benefit of a more detached perspective, however, these same mitigations seemed absolutely apoplectic in their scope and damage, running roughshod over the medical ethics systems carefully enshrined at Nuremberg not even 80 years ago.
They started with the censoring of off-narrative messaging, initially related to COVID (raw data, masks, lockdowns, and vaccines) but then spreading into politics (elections, partisan points, and social media) and the professions (software engineers and medical providers).
Censorship then yielded to social opprobrium, with the great mobs enforcing segregation of the unvaccinated to outright jailing of dissidents. In many Western countries (e.g., Austria, Australia, Germany), citizens were legally coerced to ingest poorly understood COVID vaccines, in stark contradiction to the principles of informed consent that had been forged out of the malign and sadistic Nazi experiments of the Holocaust.
It cannot be understated that prominent bio-ethicists, like Arthur Caplan and Vardit Ravitsky, capably led this social stampede (or remained uncomfortably silent), with the blessings of many rabbis throughout the the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist communities and even the state of Israel. The unvaccinated faced merciless scapegoating and incitement for inevitable public health failures, resulting in termination of jobs, withholding of education, and refusal of medical care (even for a life-saving kidney transplant) - all with the enthusiastic support of medical professionals (although, perhaps, that is not new).
The long and short of it is that neither history, nor education, nor religious upbringing protected the vast majority of the human population from abhorrent communal behavior when faced with their own mortality. The behavior was incomparable to the horrors of the Holocaust, but it was also unblunted by the many lessons we should have learned.
Indeed, perhaps the only lesson that we do seem to learn, time and time again, is that humanity cannot be entrusted to learn its way to safety.
אם אין תורה – אין דרך ארץ. אם אין דרך ארץ – אין תורה
אבות ג:י׳ז .
יום השועה is specifically targeted toward remembrance of the murders of Jews, which were the plurality among the dead, although millions of others were also murdered by the same regime, including gypsies, gays, blacks, prisoners of war, and others. The larger group of victims are typically commemorated on International Holocaust Remembrance day.
Occasionally, I would get dribs and drabs of information from her, especially as she got older …. but she never opened up to me entirely about her experiences.
Thanks to Felicia Trachtenberg and one other anonymous reviewer for early feedback.