Aug 24th 2013 | JERUSALEM |From the print edition

The study of the Holocaust is expanding worldwide—for differing reasons

ACROSS the globe, schoolchildren study the industrialised slaughter of Jews by the Nazis. Holocaust museums in America, Israel and Poland each draw more than a million visitors annually. The UN has passed two resolutions in the past decade to institutionalise memory of the Holocaust worldwide. Yad Vashem, an Israeli museum and remembrance authority, trains 10,000 domestic and foreign teachers every year. “Interest is growing immensely,” says Dorit Novak, the director-general. Membership of the Association of Holocaust Organisations (AHO) has increased from 25 in the late 1980s to over 300. Commemorative museums have opened from Germany and France to Brazil and Japan. Of the 16,000 books on the Holocaust listed in America’s Library of Congress, more than two-thirds were published in the past two decades.

In its immediate aftermath, the Holocaust went largely unacknowledged. Perpetrators and bystanders preferred to forget. Commemoration began in Israel, where many survivors had gathered. But even there it was done quietly. For the exuberant young country the slaughter of European Jews was an uncomfortable image of passivity and presumed feebleness. A 1960 study showed that barely a quarter of schools taught children about the Holocaust. Only when Israelis came to feel an existential threat during successive wars with Arab neighbours did that change.

In 1982, the education ministry made teaching about the Holocaust compulsory for all children. Coverage in history textbooks increased from 20 pages in the 1960s to 450 in the 1990s. Today, every Israeli schoolchild spends a semester studying the history of what they call the Shoah, along with further coursework in literature, music and art classes. Some 200,000 students and soldiers tour Yad Vashem annually, the soldiers carrying their guns. The state has managed to draw great strength from keeping alive the memory of the murdered.

Yet over time the depiction of mass slaughter has changed. When Israel was meek, it stressed the heroism of the Warsaw ghetto. Now, with reassuringly powerful armed forces, the focus is more on victimhood. Schools teach that “we need a strong army because the world hates us,” says Dan Porat, a professor of Jewish education in Jerusalem. Domestic critics have called some Israeli history teaching simplistic. The Holocaust is at times presented as evidence of a lack of Jewish national spirit, they say, rather than an excess of Germany’s. Government offices exhibit photos of Israeli air-force jets flying over the death camps of Auschwitz. On Holocaust memorial day, inaugurated five years after the founding of Israel, politicians routinely present the country’s foes as would-be annihilators. “All our [current] dangers are viewed through the prism of Auschwitz,” says Avihu Ronen, a lecturer in Jewish history at Haifa University. …read more