Tia Sacks is a research assistant at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of Jewish federations across Canada, and a master of journalism student at the University of British Columbia.
The school year has begun, marking the first year of mandatory Holocaust education for all sixth-grade classes across Ontario. This is a remarkable and precedent-setting achievement for the province, which I hope will lead the way for others.
However, simply adding the Holocaust into lesson plans is not enough. Care must be taken to ensure that the Holocaust is taught properly – not as an event only of historic interest, but one that, amid the rising levels of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia that plague the globe, is relevant today. Not something merely about dead Jews, but about the lived experiences of modern-day Jews. We need to understand the magnitude of the loss, who the Jews were – and who we are today – must also be taught.
In Dara Horn’s Atlantic article “Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse?,” she describes the striking gap between Holocaust education curricula and education about Jewish life today, which leaves students with a minimal understanding of Jewish identity and modern-day antisemitism. The gap lies between Jews in Nazi-era Europe from 1933 to 1945 and the Jews living today in 2023. To put it bluntly, most non-Jewish students learning about the Holocaust have no idea what a Jew is, aside from being victims of genocide.
Given that Jews account for just 1 per cent of our population, many Canadians have never even met one. Holocaust education may be their introduction to the concept of Jewish people.
And while I applaud the schools, school boards and provinces where the Holocaust has historically been included in their social-studies curricula, courses have often fallen short in teaching about this missing piece: the Jews among us, today.
I’ve experienced this in introductory conversations with university classmates: “You’re Jewish? I know all about Jewish people! They brought Holocaust survivors to my high school!” Some also assured me that they knew about the Holocaust because they had watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which Ms. Horn describes as “an exceedingly popular work of ahistorical Christian-saviour schlock.”
These conversations with my peers did not surprise me. When I was in Grade 12, my Jewish high school hosted a Holocaust survivor symposium at our neighbouring synagogue, where several secular schools from the Greater Vancouver area came to hear survivors tell their stories and answer questions. Although a great initiative with an exceptional turnout, the questions posed – “What would’ve happened if Hitler had stuck to his dream of becoming a painter?” “Was there anything good that came out of the Holocaust?” – made it clear that many non-Jewish students could not comprehend the loss and harm we experienced as a people or how antisemitism continues to affect us today.
Such tone-deaf questions demonstrated the gaping chasm in their understanding of what was important. They didn’t grasp the correlation between the survivors on the stage and my classmates and me next to them in the audience. They didn’t understand that, had Hitler “stuck to his dream of becoming a painter,” we might well have had many more branches on our family trees. They didn’t understand that the antisemitism that motivated the Holocaust did not end with the Holocaust, and that no good has come from it.
To close this gap, teachers must ensure that students understand the Jewish community not just as a people who endured a genocide, but as a people who led vibrant lives before the rise of Nazism, who exhibited resistance and bravery during the darkest of times, and as a people who have, over millennia, shown immeasurable resilience preserving a long, rich history of culture, tradition and community that endures today.
To ensure a meaningful and effective Holocaust education program that can be a model for other parts of Canada, we must fill that gap. Just last month, neo-Nazi propaganda flyers were widely distributed in both Langley, B.C., and Peterborough, Ont. Teachers must make clear that, while the Holocaust may be in the past, its roots and its repercussions endure.