Children In Former Soviet Union Know Little About Holocaust

Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
Jan 26 2005

East: Children In Former Soviet Union Know Little About Holocaust
By Jeremy Bransten

A personal memorial at the Birkenau death camp

World leaders gather this week to commemorate the 60th anniversary of
the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in
Poland. Although the Nazis operated many deaths camps throughout
Europe, Auschwitz was the largest and it has come to symbolize the
horror of the regime’s atrocities in its purest form. Six millions
Jews were murdered by the Nazis in World War II — more than one
million of them in Auschwitz alone. Millions of non-Jews perished
alongside them — there and in other death camps — as part of a
systematic liquidation campaign unequalled, in planning and scale, in
recorded history. This is known as the Holocaust. If another
Holocaust is to be avoided, historians warn, the lesson of what
happened at Auschwitz and other death camps must be taught to future
generations. But what do today’s schoolchildren know about the events
of 60 years ago?

Prague, 26 January 2005 (RFE/RL) — Ask children on the streets of
Minsk what they know about Auschwitz and the Holocaust and you are
liable to get some disturbing answers.

One 13-year-old girl has this to say: “I think Auschwitz is a type of
hoofed animal.”

Her friend does somewhat better — but her answer is far from
complete: “It was some sort of camp during the Great Patriotic War.
They burned Jews there.””I have no idea what the Holocaust is. I have
never heard anything about something like the Holocaust.”

A third girl answers: “We could tell you more if they taught us
something about it in school.”

Belarus may be a disturbing example, especially considering the
country’s history of Jewish settlement prior to World War II and the
country’s devastation during the conflict. But it is hardly unique.

In 1944, the word “genocide” was coined to describe the Nazis’
attempt to liquidate the Jews, Roma, and other groups in their
entirety. Four years later, the word was officially adopted in the
United Nations Convention Against Genocide.

Yet for decades, in the former Soviet Union, all war dead were only
identified as Soviet citizens. The Holocaust was mentioned only in
passing, if it all. Today, several former Soviet countries are trying
to remedy the situation, making the teaching of the Holocaust an
obligatory subject in school.

But progress so far depends more on the initiative of individual
teachers. Textbooks are lacking, and so is general interest among
students. Kazakh history teacher Amina Tortayeva describes the
situation at her school in Almaty: “We do not have a special course
on that. There are many courses on the war period and we give some
kind of information on that ourselves. But in our textbooks there is
nothing written about the Holocaust. So I cannot say we have full
knowledge on that issue.”

Her students do not perform much better than their counterparts in

RFE/RL correspondent: “Have you heard about the Holocaust?”

Student: “No, not at all. Holocaust? I have no idea what the
Holocaust is. I have never heard anything about something like the

Irina Belareva, a high-school teacher in Moscow, says it falls to the
teacher to decide whether the Holocaust is taught or not as a
specific subject in Russia. “If you take the school curriculum,
specific discussion of the Holocaust is not required,” she said. “I
talk about it, but to a large extent, it depends, of course, on the

Even in Armenia, whose people suffered their own genocide a quarter
of a century before the Jews, knowledge among young people of the
extent, methods, and reasons for the Nazi Holocaust is shallow at

Our correspondent in Yerevan quizzed several young people about what
they know about those events. The most comprehensive — if factually
incorrect — answer came from a 19-year-old boy: “The Holocaust was
perpetrated by Hitler. One-and-a half million people died. Hitler
sought the extermination of the Jews because I think Jews in Germany
had very high positions. That’s why he exterminated them and
expropriated their property.”

For years after World War II, discussion of the Holocaust in schools
in Western Europe was also minimal. Events were too raw. Survivors
wanted to forget their trauma. And the issue of collaboration with
the Nazis by parts of the population in many countries cast a shadow
over a fuller discussion of the war.

It was not until relatively recently that schools in Western Europe
began to teach the Holocaust in a comprehensive way. Germany,
understandably, has one of the best programs. Students learn about
the Holocaust and other aspects of the war in history classes, civics
lessons, and postwar literature studies. Visits to former
concentration camps as well as talks with survivors are also
frequently used.

Chana Moshenska, who runs educational programs at the Centre for
German-Jewish Studies at Britain’s University of Sussex, says
discussions with survivors are one of the most effective ways to get
children interested in learning about the period. “One way that does
work — but having said that, it’s only going to work for a short
time — is survivor testimony,” she said. “I think survivor testimony
is the most powerful way that young people can relate to what
actually happened in the Holocaust. Now, obviously, that’s
time-limited because survivors are getting older. They haven’t got
the energy to speak and soon they won’t be able to speak in public.
But when they come and speak, what young people see is someone who
looks like grandma or grandpa. And that has an enormous impact. And
then, quite often, these are people who experienced the Holocaust
when they were teenagers. And they’re able to say, ‘When I was 15,
this is what I was doing,’ or ‘This is what happened to my little
brother, this is what happened to my mother.’ And that has an
enormous impact on young people.”

RFE/RL analyst Michael Shafir is an expert on the period and served
on the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in
Romania, chaired by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

He notes that Eastern Europe bears the twin burden of the Nazi and
Communist eras, making open discussion about past crimes, ethics and
responsibility — especially with children — doubly difficult,
although he believes, doubly necessary.

“Unlike Western Europe, East-Central Europe must not overcome one
difficult past, but two difficult pasts,” he said. “That, of course,
of whatever happened during World War II and its communist past. Now,
in both these cases there is a tendency to transform not only
villains but mainly collaborators or even stand-by witnesses into
martyrs and heroes.”

Students — be they in Russia or Britain — can be easily interested
in investigating the past, if a personal connection is made.
Fifteen-year-old Tatyana tells our Moscow correspondent she knows
about the Holocaust and she related it to the experience of her
grandfather in the Soviet gulag. “It concerns me a lot because my
grandfather, under Stalin, was sent to the [Soviet gulag] camps,” she
said. “When I was 10 years old, I read his diary. He left a diary
about it all and it had a strong impact on me.”

Shafir says the sooner the East comes to grips with the truth of its
past, the better. “Genocide” was coined to describe the Nazi
Holocaust, but it is a word that has unfortunately had to be used
since, to describe more recent events in Cambodia and Rwanda. Shafir
says genocide is likely to be repeated until the lessons of the
Holocaust are learned by children today: “It is important to convey
to anyone that the Holocaust was not something that Germans did unto
Jews. It is important to convey that this is something that anyone
can do unto anyone else. That is the tragedy of the Holocaust.”

People’s willingness to forget crimes of the past was a lesson not
lost on Hitler himself. Sending his troops into Poland in 1939, he
ordered them to be merciless, saying: Who today remembers the
extermination of the Armenians?”

(RFE/RL’s Armenian, Belarus, Kazakh, and Russian services contributed
to this report.)