What I learned about Holocaust education (and myself) while in Europe | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

What I learned about Holocaust education (and myself) while in Europe  

In April, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s mission to Poland and Hungary, in collaboration with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and alongside 30 incredible community leaders. The theme of our trip was Rediscovery, Resilience, and Reflection, and this mission brought us to ghettos, concentration camps, historic and contemporary synagogues, active Jewish communal spaces being supported by our Federation dollars, museums and memorials, snow-covered mountains, urban and rural settings, and everything in between. 

In every city where we visited — Warsaw, Krakow, and Budapest — we learned about the long history of Jewish life in those places as well as the many episodes of persecution and antisemitism over hundreds of years, culminating in the Holocaust, and the renewal of Jewish life since. We heard a similar narrative everywhere: over history there were moments of highs and lows for the Jewish communities of diaspora. 

This tension point between Jewish identity, safety, and democracy became a focal lens through which I explored the places we visited. This intersectionality popped out in Budapest, where an authoritarian government led by Viktor Orbán has actively sought to deny Hungarian culpability in the Holocaust, and limits freedom of speech. 

Let’s talk about Auschwitz.  

Despite over two decades of actively learning and educating others about the Holocaust, I myself had never visited Auschwitz. Leading up to the trip, I wondered what I would feel and how I would react. Would I be sad? Angry? Numb?  

At its core, Auschwitz brought together the dual worldview of Hitler and the Nazis: 1) A strong desire to create “Lebensraum” or “living space” for the Aryan German nation they were trying to create across dominated Europe and the globe, and 2) The erasure and removal of those they deemed racially inferior, especially Jews.  

Upon our group’s arrival at Auschwitz, we were greeted by a professional guide, who spoke at great length about the Nazis actions toward implementing the Final Solution at Auschwitz. Absent from this narrative was any culpability on the part of Polish collaborators – a dangerous revising of history that neglects the Polish citizens who turned over their Jewish neighbors, Polish train operators who ensured trains ran on time, and Poles who benefitted financially from the roundups and murders of Jews.  

The buildings in Auschwitz were filled to the brim with shoes, suitcases, human hair, prosthetic limbs, glasses and other personal objects that have become well- known symbols of the victims of the Holocaust and the inhumanity of the Nazis and their collaborators. Having interpreted and helped rotate a sampling of these shoes on loan from Auschwitz at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. during my intern days, I found the displays emotionally draining, but familiar.  

What stopped me in my tracks were two spaces filled with confiscated objects I had never before seen on display in a museum or site. The first was a collection of tallit, Jewish prayer shawls, taken from Jewish victims upon their arrival at Auschwitz.  

Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in.  

By the time deportations of Jews started to Auschwitz, Nazi racial law had been in place for several years in Germany and surrounding territories under Nazi influence. Jews had already been forcibly moved to ghettos and cut off from the public sphere, because of their Jewish identity. When they were deported to Auschwitz and other killing centers, they may not have known exactly where they were going (indeed the Nazis aimed to deceive), but they knew being Jewish made them vulnerable. Yet so many Jews refused to part with physical markers of their Jewish identity – in this case the tallit. What does this say about the resilience of the Jewish people? What does this say about how we bring these stories to students? Why does it matter?   

After viewing the tallit, my attention moved on to the next room, which was packed with colorful cookware. They came in a range of colors — white, black, green, red, yellow, blue – including a blue Le Creuset that bore a striking resemblance to the one on my own stove that I use to make my favorite pumpkin mac and cheese. So much of what we see from the Holocaust is in black and white photographs – this pop of color in a space filled with darkness was surprising and eye-opening.  

What meals were Jewish women planning to make upon reaching their next destination, using whatever meager ingredients they found? Were they meal-planning while in the cattle cars? Of all the things to bring with them on an unknown journey, what made them grab this dish, or that pot?  

Concluding reflections 

Everyone on our mission is forever changed by what we saw and experienced together in Poland and Hungary. For me, as a member of our Jewish community and as the leader of Wisconsin’s top Holocaust education organization, I can share that my approach to how we educate students about the Holocaust in 2024 has also shifted. Seeing the tallit at Auschwitz and hearing about the many ways Jews continued to practice their Jewish identity solidified the need to bring the “Jewish” back into Holocaust education. The Holocaust happened overwhelmingly TO JEWS. When we teach students across our state about the Holocaust, HERC is often working in rural communities where Jews may not live, or may not openly identify as Jewish. When we are teaching about the Holocaust – which nearly destroyed the Jewish people – should we not also teach the students about what it means to be Jewish, the diversity of our people that has grown over our thousands of years, and Judaism more broadly? The family recipes developed over the generations? The Holocaust, and antisemitism more broadly, are of course a large part of our story as a people. But there’s so much more to us, and it’s important students of the Holocaust understand this truth.  

I also come back to Wisconsin prouder than ever of how HERC and our partners are working together to teach about the Holocaust and train our state’s schools to do so in a responsible, inquiry-based, critical thinking-based pedagogy. During a time of extreme antisemitism and gross weaponization of the Holocaust for political gain, my time in Europe only re-invigorated my preexisting belief that democracy is fragile and must be protected, and an informed society that values education is our safest defense as a Jewish people and as humankind. We are all accountable for upholding this vision. 

At the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Milwaukee delegation saw Israeli teenagers draped in flags. Photo by Rick Rocamora, HERC board chair.  
“Shoes on the Danube Bank” is a memorial that remembers the 20,000 Jewish men, women, and children shot into the river by the Hungarian Arrow Cross during the Holocaust. Photo by Rick Rocamora, HERC board chair.  

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Writer Samantha Abramson is executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center.