With a Sense of Urgency: Holocaust course brings the past into the present

 Colin Tremblay
In a place like New York City, most students fortunately have no direct experience with the horrors of war.

This article is one of the winning submissions from the New York Post Scholars Contest, presented by Command Education.

In a place like New York City, most students fortunately have no direct experience with the horrors of war.

In fact, the average NYC student probably sees far more fictional violence in video games than the factual violence they hear about in their history classes. Mix in social media algorithms that help blur the line between information and misinformation on all topics, and it’s not really surprising that many students either know little about major tragedies of the past or think those tragedies have no real meaning for them. Limited or inaccurate knowledge of the Holocaust, one of the greatest crimes of history that actually happened within living memory, is a prime example of this situation.

When American troops liberated Nazi concentration camps in 1945, people recognized the importance of fully understanding what occurred so that it would never be repeated. In his memoir “Crusade in Europe”, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote “I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”

However, only 50 years after Eisenhower’s death, NBC journalist Kit Ramgopal conducted a 50-state survey of both Millennials and members of Generation Z and found that 63% of those surveyed didn’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of that group thought the death toll was fewer than two million. If people don’t even know the facts of what happened, it’s impossible for them to learn from it and prevent it from ever happening again.

New York’s Xavier High School is seeking to tackle this problem through their innovative new Holocaust studies program, a voluntary, non-class program spanning an entire semester. It focuses solely on the Holocaust—the event itself, its effects, the brave people who stood up to it and its implications for us today. The program aims to teach students the consequences of this genocide, and stress to the students that a populist, criminal movement like Nazism must never be allowed to gain power again.

The creator and founder is one of Xavier’s alumni, Tom Maher, class of 1980. Mr. Maher was a history major at the College of the Holy Cross, and was horrified to learn about a woman in Boston who woke up to five pieces of purple paper cut into swastikas on her lawn.

Shocked by the fact that antisemitic acts like that were still happening today, and that people still didn’t understand the pure hatred in such an act, he decided to start and fund a program to better educate students about the Holocaust and its repercussions. The goal of the program, as outlined by Maher, is for the Holocaust studies students to be, “well-informed, and able reflect upon what has happened, and be able to pass on this knowledge to future generations of students.”

Brian McCabe, Jack Raslowsky, and other faculty members who are leading the program, are working to impart this message through a variety of tactics, but above all, a focus on the facts. The program will exclusively cover the Holocaust and its aftereffects. This approach will allow students to viscerally reflect on this event, what led up to it and, as a result, be better prepared to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.

Beyond the laser focus on the Holocaust, this program is very different from a normal history class. To start, there are no tests, quizzes or essays for the students to worry about. The program is split into two groups, one domestic and one international. The international group will visit Poland themselves to see in person where this terrible crime took place, and the domestic group will travel more locally, to places like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., to learn about and further reflect on this tragedy. Both groups will attend a variety of workshops, discussing books by survivors and movies about the event itself. The main book the program will focus on is “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a raw, firsthand account of the horrors of the Holocaust. Maher’s hope is that the students will not only internalize the learnings themselves but will pass down the knowledge they gain to everyone they can.

This type of program is particularly important for teenage students. Racism, sexism and antisemitism often spring from seeds planted when students are young, at their most malleable developmental stages, especially with the current social media mixing of information and misinformation.

Xavier’s Holocaust Studies program has the power to help prevent people from developing these hateful and ill-informed views towards other human beings, in part by driving home the pain such groups went through. Specifically, the program shows the students how much discrimination, torture and death the Jewish people were put through during the Holocaust, plus the years both before and after it. This knowledge of victims’ points of view will help students better understand the repercussions over the last 80 years.

Although the program does focus heavily on the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, it also covers the heroic figures in that time period who fought against it. One of these major figures is Johan van Hulst, a teacher who risked his life arranging the transport of “very special cargo” being hidden in sacks and baskets and moved out of Amsterdam. This transport of “special cargo” actually involved hundreds of Jewish children, moving them beyond the grasp of the Nazi regime. These heroic stories support one of the important goals of the special Xavier Holocaust program, which is to inspire the students of today to be ready to fight against any tyranny they encounter during their lives.

The entire reason history is taught is so students can learn from the past to forge a better future. Becoming detached from history is dangerous, as it leads people to dismiss the past, thinking it could never happen again. Most students agree that the Holocaust was a horrible event, but believe that it could never happen again, because they think that their generation is not evil like the Nazis in World War II. They have morals. However, many people don’t understand that the people that enabled the Holocaust were not only the hardcore Nazis, they were the average German citizens who did not stand up against the regime and its crimes. The Nazi regime was built on the complacency and cooperation of ordinary people, as without this cooperation, the efficiency at which they slaughtered the Jews would have been impossible. Today’s students need to learn that they cannot stay out of conflict with their heads down. They have a responsibility to stand up to the hate that starts these regimes, before they can form.

On this topic, in our current digital age it is incredibly easy for radical movements to form and get popular momentum or support, as algorithms on social media sites put users into echo-chambers, where they are unable to see the full picture. In this way it is easy for content to become viral, and hateful messages and ideologies can spread almost instantaneously. The algorithms behind these social media sites have one goal: to keep the user’s attention. They succeed by filling the user’s entire feed with the things that entertain or interest them.

This practice makes it easy for teenagers to be pulled down a rabbit hole where they only see ideas or opinions that may seem provocative, edgy or somehow push normal boundaries. In doing so, social media can help warp young users’ world views into something far outside the mainstream, often by targeting people not like one’s self for jokes, mockery or attacks. This is often the start of radicalization and even conspiracy theories about other groups of people, which is not very different from the type of “us versus them” ideas that the Nazis pushed and used to fuel their rise to power in Germany before World War II.

This situation is the core of what Xavier’s new Holocaust studies program aims to address. First, students need to know the important facts about what occurred leading up to, during and after the Holocaust. Second, they need to better understand how the Nazis manipulated prejudices and insecurities to eventually get normal people to do horrible things, including how today’s social media echo chambers with jokes and attacks aimed at certain groups in some ways are very similar to the earliest steps that the Nazis used in their rise to power. Third, students need to understand the role they can play in preventing this type of thing from ever happening again, in part by recognizing that big things always start small—those jokes about other people might seem funny, but it’s not a long way from hurtful jokes to bullying and beyond.

So while on the surface this new Holocaust studies program targets things like the misinformation that leads to Holocaust denial, deeper down it aims to reinforce Xavier’s mission of service to others so that every student does their part to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

An 11th-grader at Xavier High School in Manhattan, Tremblay wants to pursue computer science, especially in artificial intelligence.