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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Address by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate

Sixth International Conference on Holocaust Education; Yad Vashem, Jerusalem; July 10, 2008


Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner ShalevChairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev

Shalom. I am truly moved as we approach the conclusion of our conference. After listening to what has been said here this morning, I have decided to put aside the text that I had prepared and share some observations with you.

The reason that I am so excited about talking with you at the conclusion of this session is the fact that at least one major goal that we had dreamed of eventually achieving when we originally commenced our educational efforts at Yad Vashem, has now come to fruition.

Gathered here are more than seven hundred educators, many of you senior professionals. I think that almost all of the significant institutions that are involved in Holocaust education worldwide are represented. We have actually established something here, a faculty of educators, or in Hebrew – a Beit Midrash.

When I originally realized that we have to reshape our educational priorities, the implications were indeed far-reaching. I refer to assuming the responsibility to maintain Holocaust documentation and research activity while simultaneously keeping Holocaust remembrance relevant and meaningful. I understood that we could do this only by doing much more in the field of education. Without active educational processes we could never achieve these goals. That was why I thought we had to adjust our priorities and place education at the center of our activity, and for this sake I sought to establish a school.

At the time it was considered a rather curious notion because, you know, Yad Vashem was then termed a “museum”. It was called a “memorial”, and still is – by some. A kind of virtual cemetery.

I started talking with the survivors about change, and I must confess that some politicians told me, “They [the survivors] will never allow you to do it.” And there was something to that. For when I first came to Yad Vashem, I found it full of memorials, and plans for more memorials, all kinds of stones, which were very important because people yearned for something tangible, something concrete that would last forever.

And then I came and tried to convince them that the most important thing would be to build a school. “Build a school in a memorial?” they asked, “What do you mean by ‘school’?”

For me, the very idea of a school was a major statement, implying, A, That we would be making education our first priority; and B, that we would have to nurture a group of professional educators who would eventually represent an academic and pedagogic discipline, and that would involve a lengthy process.

And I wanted – and I don’t mean to offend any of us who are historians by profession, and many here are historians, who teach at colleges and universities – I envisaged the end of teaching the Shoah as a mere history lesson, and the beginning of actually educating about the Holocaust, including by recounting the stories of individuals within the Holocaust.

As Hannah [Jablonka] has indicated, this process started in Israel during the early 1960’s. However, completing the process has taken more than thirty years. In fact, that process continues to this very day.

A brief chronological review is in order: The first binding decision to teach the history of the Holocaust was made in Israel at the beginning of the 1980s. The first textbook was written by Gutman and Shatzker in the 1980s, as I recall. And of course no one can say that Professor Gutman doesn’t know Holocaust history. He was and remains one of the world’s leading scholars in this field and he is a survivor himself and, by the way, one of my own mentors.

Nevertheless, in the textbook he wrote, I don’t remember that any heroes are mentioned by name. They are referred to collectively as symbolizing a phenomenon. They do not stand on their own as human beings. Similarly, in Yad Vashem’s museum at the beginning of the ‘90s, a comparable approach held sway. So it took many years to move the process along. We wanted to change this approach, and to develop a group of professionals who would both be totally dedicated to this subject matter and nurture a new approach based on what had been learned over the years. We felt deeply, and understood, that this was a change that we had to make. And so we did it: We placed the individual [during the Holocaust] at the center of our activities, at the center of our interest.

We understood that if you are going to educate effectively, you have to build empathy. Much of what has been said here [at the Conference] yesterday and the day before refers to preferred teaching methodologies nowadays: to forging this or that kind of contact and connection. To start the educational process in the classroom from heroes of the Holocaust. This, in essence, represents precisely what was, and still is, our unique approach: We build empathy, we build something which can be identified with, and that is the core.

This is an holistic approach, relevant not only in schools but in other learning and commemorative contexts as well.

When we started to plan the new museum, we knew that we would be working on two planes. Yes, we have to convey knowledge about the events, but simultaneously, the experience is about people, the stories of human beings, all the aspects of those human beings. The life before the Shoah, the period during the Shoah, and the aftermath of the Shoah – all together, are essentially one whole. That, I think, is the approach that has to prevail. That is what we have tried to do in our activities at our School, our Museum and our other contexts.

Presently, as we’ve been conducting this unique gathering, what I have learned from watching you, being part of you, is that you are actually already doing this kind of work around the world. You have developed, everyone differently, very pluralistically, methods and approaches that share a common denominator. And that common denominator constitutes the pedagogical discipline of how to educate young people all over the world – through the story of the Shoah. That is the essence, and this is the reason why, I think, we are on the way to reaching a great milestone on our path.

But the nature of this achievement has to be checked again and again. By asking ourselves time and again why we teach this subject, I think that it will help us confront new and important challenges.

You asked yesterday intensively here during the main session, and then in the workshops, why we should teach the Shoah all over the world, in so many nations and localities, and under so many different circumstances. And I think that it is legitimate to pose that question.

I think that the primary answer is because the Holocaust is essentially a very human experience. We start with the human experience and we want to do something about it. Which is why we also have to deal with evil, with the nature of human beings. Because evil cannot be taken for granted as the essential nature of human beings. Yes, it is part of the picture. But we educators, perhaps a bit naïvely, but always optimistically, believe that we can and should try to effect change. The change is to get youngsters, and adults too, to make choices, to make their own decisions. For the process of decision-making is the unique heart of what human beings do.

We want to bring some added value, which will impact on young people’s future decision-making processes. And when we omit dealing with evil and don’t try to analyze the options that human beings have to change and to make their own choices, then we are missing a very important choice of our own as educators.

Nor, of course, should we ignore the story of Jewish life and civilization in Europe.

So we tried to encapsulate that story at the beginning of the Museum with an audiovisual presentation by the artist, Michal Rovner. That is also a statement: That at the outset of a museum that is committed to authentic documentation, we are also committed to human creativity.

Of course, we place the survivors at the heart of our activity, just as we focus upon those who have been lost, the human beings, and try to appreciate their lives before the Holocaust. It means so much to us to highlight the meaning of the loss and of course, the survivors stand at the center of this approach. They tell the stories, they are witnesses, and the common ground is their humanity, which we share with them.

I think that the aftermath of the Holocaust provides meaning to what human beings can do and be after such a trauma, after such torment, and it is a very essential part of our story.

I was a member of an Israeli generation that sincerely believed that we would build a totally new Israeli, Jewish society, here in the Land of Israel. While growing up, I read and heard much about the Shoah. Yet I think I only gained some sense of it only years afterwards, when I was well into my twenties, even the beginning of my thirties. Only after I had been called again and again to fight and defend our own place here, after I underwent all kinds of experiences. It was only once I was deeply involved in the process of educating soldiers, that I first came up with the idea that we have to change something and to be more personal [in Holocaust education].

In that context, I’ll relate a rather personal anecdote. My parents came to this country before the war, in ’35, from Poland. So I am not a so-called “second-generation” son of survivors, but my parents did leave behind them in Europe their own parents, sisters, aunts and many others. I am a member of a generation that never knew its grandparents and couldn’t quite grasp the idea of what it means to have grandparents. Of course now I understand very well indeed what it is to be a grandparent, believe me. But then I didn’t yet. Grandparents were a virtual concept for me. Old people with beards, or something like that, far away in Poland.

And when I was a young boy my mother used to prepare a traditional Jewish dish, sweet-water gefilte fish for Friday’s Shabbat dinner. And as she did so, many times – though not always – she would cry. Cry while she was preparing the fish. As she cooked, she cried. And when she left the kitchen, I would come close to the fish, which was lying there dead, and I would smell it: Why is she crying? I knew that when you cut onions, they can make you cry. So at first I assumed that my mother’s tears came from cutting onions. But it would happen again and again, so one day I found the courage to I ask her, “Mama, why do you cry? What is so unique about this fish?” And she answered, “I am not crying because of the fish. I am crying because of my grandparents, and parents, and my sister, Shaindele.”

It took me some time to truly understand the meaning of this kind of experience. And to be truthful with you, I eventually came to understand that I could not just leave that sister, Shaindele, and her parents out there in Poland. Rather I would have to make their existence part of my existence, my being, my identity. In fact, we have to make all of them – part of our identity.

This is the process that we in Israel have undergone. It may have started in 1961 (with the Eichmann trial) but it has continued and is still going on. It has taken a long time to conduct this process, and now you have joined us in it.

What are the challenges that we must now confront in this process?

I think that in Israel, as well as in overseas Jewish communities, many of which are represented here, it has become natural to build part of our identity based on memories. To connect ourselves with individuals – some of whom were the victims, and some of whom are the survivors.

It has been my experience that basing part, but not all, of our identity on those memories is a positive human approach.

As for non-Jewish educators, who have come here from all parts of the world, I think that our collective challenge is to stand here together ten years hence, in the year 2018 – of course we will meet before that too – and when we meet at that time, to have brought increased knowledge and deep understanding to many more circles of world civilization about the story of the Holocaust, and the meanings that we can and ought to find within it.

We have the responsibility and the challenge to provide some kind of meaning to what happened there, as part of our universal human heritage. I hope that we shall create those circles of people that will understand the values that are the foundation of the stories. These can and should be the common building blocks of our entire civilization, part and parcel of what we call basic human culture. That will involve a tremendous amount of learning time, and tremendous creativity.

Ten years ago, all the presenters at our educators’ conference were historians. And now, today, the historians are in the minority here. Most of this year’s presentations were made by you, educators, who possess a sound and relevant background in the study of history. And the workshops and the discussions were led by educators. That is a significant indication of the potential for positive change in Holocaust studies.

Aaron Appelfeld, a well-known author and survivor – many of you have read his books – said recently that the survivors, on the one hand, have borne witness and that the historians, on the other hand, have written the story the history of the Shoah. To the point that we now “know”, as much as anyone shall ever be able to, about what happened there.

Now, says Appelfeld, the time has come for our own contemporary creativity about what we know. We have convened here to assume that challenge, to take that opportunity, to embark upon a journey of building creatively together. I believe that ten years from today, more and more people around the world will have joined us.

We at Yad Vashem are committed to being an essential partner on this journey. We shall provide increasingly easy accessibility to our immense data and knowledge bases, which contain the remarkable collective heritage of the millions of individuals who were murdered, as well as the heritage of the survivors. Of course, we shall continue to gather more and more of their stories, their human stories.

In addition, we will increasingly promote interdisciplinary approaches to Holocaust studies: more literature, more art, more drama, film and television, more music and dance. I envisage that ten years from now, our Conference shall include many artists.

Our challenge then is to steadfastly and effectively communicate the message that the story of the Holocaust is an essential part our civilization, and that we must nurture the values which that story implies as the moral foundation that mankind will maintain for eternity.

Thank you.