The “Krakow Menorah,” a rare menorah crafted in Brussels which dates to the late 18th or early 19th century, was lit at a special candle lighting ceremony kicking off the Conference. The menorah represents a façade of a wooden synagogue which was common in Lithuania and Poland up until the Shoah.

By Maayan Hoffman

On a freezing Friday night in eastern Poland, 17-year-old Zalman Gurevitch joined an underground resistance movement in the forest. Before leaving his family, the young atheist hesitated. Only after he watched his mother light the Shabbat candles, did he depart.

“Jewish identity was complicated even during the Holocaust,” said Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Questions of the Shoah and Jewish identity were the focus of a first-ever international conference of Jewish educators held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Some 220 principles, headmasters, heads of Jewish studies departments and educators from 30 countries, representing 25 percent of all Jewish day schools worldwide, attended the three-day event. The conference made possible by the generous support of the Asper Foundation, the Adelson Family Foundation, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Yad Vashem experts and visiting scholars took educators on an explorative journey from Jewish identity during the Holocaust to the Holocaust’s impact on contemporary Jewish identity. Attendees were provided with formal and informal tools for teaching the Holocaust in 2017.

“The focus on how Jewish people relate to and discuss the Shoah in their schools is of extreme importance to us,” said Jane Jacobs, director of the international relations section at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. “How does the Holocaust shape identities? To what extent to we have to be nervous about teaching it [to young Jews] and how much fatigue do certain communities feel around the world?”

Jacobs said educators need concrete tools to make the Holocaust relevant to their younger students. Whereas books at one point were among the most important tools, today films are more important.

“There is an attention span problem,” said Jacobs.

Further, she said use of artifacts and other tactile objects is becoming increasingly popular. Educators can use these props to tell a story with which students can engage and hopefully connect.

“The fact that the survivors are slowly leaving us provides us with a challenge that we are learning on the job how to answer,” said Jacobs.

Yad Vashem spokesperson Simmy Allen said Jewish objects help students understand the complexity of the lives of Holocaust victims.

“We are using these tactile objects to say that these people lived, they were Jewish and they practiced Judaism in whatever way they practiced. They had a Jewish identity and the reason they were murdered is because of it,” said Allen. “This is a very important message for young people.”

In his talk, Bauer talked about how during the Holocaust there was no such thing as one Jewish identity, much like today.

“A person is not only a Jew or only an American or whatever,” explained Bauer. “Identity is multifaceted. He or she is also a mother or father or son or daughter and so on.”

He continued, “The German Nazis defined Jews as only Jews and persecuted them in accordance with that identity.”

Discussions of Jewish identity help provide Eitan Kastner’s students, who learn about the Holocaust each year of most of their young lives, context. A member of the history department at Frisch School located in Paramus, New Jersey, Kastner said such discussions also build sensitivity and offers a more worldly perspective on the subject.

“The most valuable thing these kids can learn about the Holocaust is to make sure it does not happen again,” said Kastner. “Use the memory to humble people, to help them not to be mean to each other, to put a hand toward stopping these things from happening again.”

Jacobs said Yad Vashem tries to tailor its materials for each community, as different communities, states and countries face diverse teaching challenges.

Yad Vashem offers its teaching tools in more than 30 languages and also can help communities to focus the center’s tools for their needs. For example, in Australia, where the majority of students are grandchildren of survivors, the materials might look different than those used in the United Kingdom, where the Kindertransport is embedded in their history.

Bauer said that while there are new struggles with how to teach the Holocaust, there is not less demand to learn. He regularly receives requests for assistance, not only from the U.S., but from Germany, Poland and even China.

Bauer has been in the field of Holocaust education for 50 years. His teaching methods have evolved over the years. He believes the newest generation is the most disconnected from the Shoah, and does not really have a grasp on the implications of the Holocaust on the Jewish people.

“The younger generation has to be taught what happened,” said Bauer. “It all starts with the teachers. Teachers don’t now, students don’t know – and they want to know.”

“Educators need to stay current on recent trends,” said Susan Schwartz, an educator at a New Jersey-based pluralistic Jewish day school, explaining why she chose to attend the Israel conference.

Added Kastner: “There is always more to learn.”