Resilience amidst remembrance: Navigating Holocaust education


With the Holocaust being one of history’s darkest chapters, how do you educate future generations to ensure such horrors never happen again? Join Noam and Mijal as they re-examine Holocaust education and navigate the delicate balance between honoring the past and shaping a resilient future amidst the increasingly hostile climate of today.

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Noam: Hey everyone, welcome to Wondering Jews with Mijal and Noam.

Mijal: I’m Mijal.

Noam: I’m Noam and this podcast is our way of trying to understand the Jewish world. We don’t have it all figured out at all. And we’re gonna try to figure out at least some of it together.

Mijal: And we really want to hear from you. We’ve really enjoyed getting your emails and phone calls. Please keep emailing us at and leave us a voicemail at 833 WONJEWS. That’s 833 WONJEWS. When you call, just leave your name, phone number, email, and share any thoughts, questions, disagreements, anything under 30 seconds.

Entering Auschwitz 1 (Photo: Liyah Rozett)

Noam: Do you also want their social security number, Mijal?

Mijal: Um, no, I’m good.

Noam: Okay, so we’ll leave it at that. We really love these voicemails. There’s something that feels just authentic and powerful about hearing your voices. And we’re loving the questions that come in, whether or not they’re huge questions or silly questions, whatever they are, they’re fun. This week, we got a great question from a listener named Andrew. And I like this one. Mijal, you ready for this? All right, here it is. You ready? All right, here we go.

Mijal: Okay, okay, now I’m good. Yeah.

Noam: The question is, what would your ideal day look like?

Mijal: Ideal day, ideal day, actually, nice weather and enough free time to walk around and go into bookstores. That’s my ideal day. Is that it?

Noam: Oh my God, Mijal, I really like you, but I feel like our ideal day is very different.

Mijal: Is that boring?

Noam: No, it sounds like it’s an ideal day for you. But my ideal day actually have a lot of, I put a strange amount of thought into this question as I’ve thought about it over my, in my life, yeah, I think about this sort of question.

Mijal:  What’s your ideal day now?

Noam: Okay, so here’s what it looks like. Here’s what it looks like. It looks like there has to be a physical component, a spiritual component. Yeah, yeah, no. I’m just.

Mijal: Oh my gosh, no, just one, one sentence answer.

Noam: I’m telling you what the day looks like, okay? So the day looks like this. I wanna be watching my kids play. I don’t necessarily wanna play with them, but I wanna watch them play, okay? I want to have a great cup of coffee. I wanna make sure that I have a slice of pizza somewhere in there, okay? I wanna make sure that I sweat, that I either played basketball, did something physical. I wanna do something spiritual. I’m just saying my ideal day.

Mijal: Yeah, am I a terrible mother? I didn’t mention my kids in my ideal day.

Noam: Well, you said you want to read books.

Mijal: I want to walk into bookstores with hours and hours.

Noam: You don’t even want to read the books. You want to be near books, in the proximity of books.

Mijal: when I walk into. Anywho, that ideal day isn’t happening anytime soon. What are we speaking about today?

Noam: Okay, so we’re speaking about something transitioning. By the way, one of the things I used to say when I was a high school principal is I would take all the students in a room. If there was like, I’d say 250 kids in assembly, I would say, what’s the ultimate sign of maturity? And they would all know what to scream. They would scream, transition. The idea being that you have to transition from a lot of different things in life to wherever you are. So we’re transitioning in a very purposeful way, very intentional way right now, from silly to serious. Okay, so let’s get serious for a second.

It’s about to be Yom HaShoah, or the day that the Jewish people commemorate the Holocaust. And I want to have a conversation with you about this question of Holocaust remembrance. Do you think that this day is—or I know that you’re going to say yes, it’s important. Okay, it’s important to commemorate the Holocaust. Why? Why is Holocaust remembrance so important?

Mijal: Why? It’s funny, to me it’s so obvious that I never posed the question this way.

Noam: So, give me the obvious because, okay, let me give you the numbers then. I’ll give you some numbers that I think are interesting. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany survey 2020 said that 12% of people between the ages of 18 to 39 were unsure if they ever heard of the Holocaust. If you look at different numbers from a different study, the Pew Research Center said that 29% of people are unsure of the death toll of the Holocaust.

45% of American adults know that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. So these are a lot of numbers.

Mijal: Yeah. Yeah, well, they are talking about something different. They’re talking about Holocaust education and they’re talking about Holocaust education and memory everywhere for all people. And Yom HaShoah is different. I would say it is a Jewish day of mourning, of remembrance. And there the reason is important, it’s very primal. It’s very, you know, it touches our heart and our soul. Hit by the most horrendous tragedy that ever, you know, that happened to us in, you know, in our memory. And we are still living with worlds that were lost and destroyed. And there are still Holocaust survivors who are alive and there are descendants of Holocaust survivors who are living Jewish lives. And we are going to do what we just do. We’re going to remember, we’re going to mourn, we’re going to honor resistance. It’s, I just think it’s very, it’s part of who we are.

Noam: To play devil’s advocate for a second here, how would you respond to this argument that the Holocaust is a moment in time that from 39 to 45, 6 million Jewish people were killed and there was a targeted genocide against them. But if we have our identity that is shaped by something that was tragic that external people did to the Jewish people, what we really should be doing is thinking about the other great revelations.

And the other two great revelations that the Jewish people have experienced throughout history, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni points out that there was a revelation at Auschwitz, that revelation was a revelation of God’s absence, but the revelation at Sinai was the revelation of God’s presence. And then I would add a third revelation, which was 1948, the Jewish state reemerging. And the argument could be made, and early Zionists and early people in Israel were kind of trying to say, allow the Holocaust to be a critical part of our identity. That’s something that was happened to us, not something that we were that we actively constructed. What do you think about that?

Mijal: I mean, I think I would agree with the criticism only if the Judaism that I see around me would be only predicated on Holocaust memory. There I would agree. Like, I don’t, that’s not what I think we should be doing. But talking about Yom HaShoah to have one day a year in which we gather as a community at a date that we chose and we mourn and we cry and we also remember heroism and we just make sure to continue to bear witness to what happened.

I have zero, I think it’s really important and it doesn’t stand in contradiction with thinking about Sinai and Revelation and positivity and Zionism and all these other things that shaped us. But the Shoah has shaped us, every single aspect of who we are.

Noam: I actually, I mean, I really do agree with that. And it’s important to just remember that January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day in general. But like you said, the Jewish people have their own day, Yom HaShoah. And there are some really great stories about how Yom HaShoah came to be the day that the Jewish people commemorate the Holocaust. There was a great debate, should there be a separate day for, you know, by the way, shout out to Rabbi JJ Schachter. I took a class of his when I was an undergrad, on how Jewish people respond to communal catastrophe. It was an unbelievable class. And one of the things that we studied was the emergence of Yom HaShoah. And one of the stories that I heard from him was that there was a great debate whether or not there should be a separate day to commemorate the Holocaust or should it be subsumed under Tisha B’Av, which is the ninth of Av, in which many different tragedies were all coupled together with the Jewish people. The different temples were destroyed, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades. Then there’s also the 10th of Tevet, in which another day that we commemorate tragedy,

And there’s a debate, should that take place? But really the argument was it was anti-Shabbat Av, on the 9th of Av, that you should just commemorate the Holocaust on that day, because if that’s what you’re doing, you’re basically making a theological argument that this is not something that was fractured from the rest of Jewish history, but it is part of Jewish history. And if you have a separate day, then you’re making the argument that it is somehow separate from the history of the Jewish people and a new theology emerges.

So that was a great debate. On top of that debate, they ultimately put it in the month of Nisan. And Nisan is a month that you’re supposed to only have joy. It’s the month, it’s the beginning of one of our New Years. It’s the beginning of the exodus of the Jewish people. It’s a story of the Passover. And the month of Nisan is not supposed to be a month in which you commemorate something super negative. So I got to tell you what happened. It’s just a great story.

Listen to this, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, in the early 80s, people like Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, who was the leading public Jewish Orthodox scholar of the day in the 20th century. And Prime Minister Menachem Begin went over to Rabbi Soloveitchik and he said to him, we both actually are from Brisk, which was a city in Eastern Europe. We’re both from Brisk. And I got to ask you, should we have Yom HaShoah or should it be a part of Tisha B’Av? So Rabbi Soloveitchik was apparently of the opinion that it should be part of Tisha B’Av, but because of the reasons that I had said. But his son-in-law, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, was at some conference with leading public intellectuals, academics, scholars, rabbis, and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s own son-in-law was asked the question, should Yom HaShoah exist or should it be subsumed under Tisha B’Av?

And listen to what he said, this is such an educator. He said, it should be its own day. Why, why should it be its own day? Rabbi Lichtenstein said it should be its own day because Tisha B’Av, he didn’t make a halakhic argument, not a Jewish legal argument. He said Tisha B’Av falls out in the summer. And the summer is not a time where there’s so much Jewish education taking place. So the reason it should exist is because it’s during the school year, at its own, during the time that students are in school and they can learn about it in school in a meaningful way. And for that reason, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein said, we have to have Yom HaShoah not be on Tisha B’Av of, but as its own day. Isn’t that wild?

Mijal: That’s fascinating. And I think it’s really interesting, Noam. I think that it’s almost like there’s two debates that have some relationship to each other. One debate is like an internal Jewish debate. Is the Shoah unique in our history? And I think there’s also a debate that happens out there. Is what happened to the Jewish people in the Holocaust something unique? You know what I mean, in terms of oppression in general, and how much should the Holocaust education become universalized and be about just plain oppression and hatred versus a unique Jewish story. So that’s a really interesting, it’s like two questions, it’s like a unique Jewish story, and is this story unique in Jewish history for us?

Noam: It is twofold. It’s twofold, yeah.

Mijal: I know, I’m just curious. So you mentioned, there’s a pedagogical case to be made for having Yom Hashoah fall out in the school year. I’m curious what you were to think. I think there’s a lot of people that feel increasingly like Holocaust education has been like a little bit of, not done well, maybe a failure. And I’m curious as an educator, what are things that you maybe would say, like things to that you would criticize or not like in terms of Holocaust education? And what are things that you think really powerful and really good to do?

Noam: Okay, I’ll give you my top four reasons why I think what a good Holocaust education should encompass. So that is such a good question. Let me give you my reflections and then tell you. So, oh my gosh, Mijal, I’ve thought so much about this question over the years. For seven years, I took students to Poland. I took 12th graders to Poland and where something like 90% of Jewry was.

Mijal: And is this for a Jewish audience or a universal audience?

Noam: was wiped out, an astounding number. And by the way, and to your point earlier about the survivors, there are around 220,000, 230,000 survivors that are still around today, so that they still exist. And we haven’t reached pre-Holocaust numbers of the Jewish population. Before 1939, I believe, there were 16.6 million Jewish people, and now there’s still not yet 16 million Jews. I mean, and this is decades, decades later. So I wanna throw those numbers out there, but then I wanna talk about why we should teach about the Holocaust. Now, there’s been all different types of arguments. The most famous argument is, if we want people to learn about the Holocaust, then what we should do is we should tell it as a universal story. A universal story that says, here’s what could happen when bullying goes too far. Here’s what could happen when we don’t take care of the minority when we don’t take care of the other. And there’s, you know, and look at the story of the Holocaust as an example of this to be utilized in your own life. And the thinking goes that if you do that sort of thing, then what you could do is you could figure out a way to get Holocaust education into public schools, into private schools, because you’re now universalizing the story. You’re making the story of the genocide against the Jewish people, not about the Jewish people and about something that they can see themselves in the story.

Mijal: Right. No, I would say in many, I learned this, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer from Hartman, he’s the one who pointed this out to me some years ago, that very often in American institutions, like in museums, the universal message being given is don’t be a bystander, right? If this is happening, like don’t be. So there’s both telling it in a universal way and giving like a universal like takeaway.

Noam: Correct. Yep. And I understand that point. I don’t be a bystander. That is a very important philosophical, practical, educational, pedagogical. Um, good thing to do. Don’t be a bystander. Yeah. Here’s why I want to make an argument that it’s okay for people to learn about the Jewish people, and it’s okay for people to have an understanding, a distinct understanding, that what happened in these years, 39 to 45, are unique in world history. And if I’m speaking to a Jewish audience or a non-Jewish audience, I want a few of these messages to be heard of why this is important. Number one is, I don’t make the argument that it is because of the Holocaust that there is a state of Israel, but I do believe that if there were a state of Israel, there would be no Holocaust.

Mijal: So wait, to pause for a second, so you’re saying there’s actually an implication from the Holocaust as to the need for just to have their own state. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important.

Noam: I think that the world has to pay attention to what could happen in a world in which the Jewish people do not have their own sovereignty, do not have their own autonomy. And it’s not the case that 39 to 45 happened out of nowhere. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were centuries of vicious anti-Semitism. And the only reason people associate anti-Semitism with the Holocaust and vice versa is because of the magnitude of it. But we have to remember that before the Holocaust took place, there were unimaginable pogroms, state-sanctioned violence, killing tens of thousands of Jewish people, raping many, many people, hurting many, many people, making sure the Jewish people were sidelined over the years. There was the Evian Conference, which predated the actual, the final solution, exactly.

Mijal: final solution.

Noam: before 1941, when that final solution was talked about, or maybe early 1942. They, the Avion conference, right? It makes you want to scream, right? Or maybe me. Right. Okay.

Mijal: Yeah. I hate that conference so much. It’s just, yeah. It’s just like, it’s, I mean, what, yeah, makes me want to, no, makes me want to go back in time. But yeah, because basically it was a conference and you’re, you, you do more history than me, you know, but it was a conference in which Germany basically said, it’s, is anybody willing to take the juice? And you have the entire world community just silent and basically consigning them to Nazi hell.

Noam: Yeah.

Mijal: Noam, is Yom HaShoah feeling different for you this year?

Noam: Because of 10-7 or the 7th of October?

Mijal: Yeah, of course.

Noam: Um, well, say why it would be. Tell me why it might feel different for you this year.

Mijal: Oh my gosh, so many directions. I mean, for me, and I’m not the only one, October 7th was almost like a window into the horrors of the Shoah. Even though we have a state, and even though we have sovereignty, and we are not defenseless, but you saw Jewish families burned alive, tied together, brutalized, program happening. The hostages were still being tortured. Like, it was almost like the horrors that I associate with the Shoah. It was almost like seeing that happening, like in real time. That’s one reason, the feeling of betrayal of so many people, and I would also say there is a terrible inverse Holocaust analogies happening by so many who are calling Israelis the Nunatsis. Hasbushalom, God forbid, I don’t agree with that. But it’s such a, that to me is like a perverse betrayal of Holocaust memory and almost like a, seriously like we haven’t, the world hasn’t learned, what have we done wrong? And I think there’s also like a real questions to be asked. How have we failed in Holocaust education? If this is what we’re seeing, the numbers you shared before, the ignorance around it and the lessons kind of like not learned.

Noam: Yep. Yeah, I mean, speaking of the ignorance around it, 38% of teens apparently know about the six million Jews were killed. And what you said is the reversal, the reversal of victim to culprit and turning the ultimate victim, the Jewish people of the Holocaust, and now saying that they commit the Holocaust as the culprit is a real, it’s perverted. That’s the word I would use. It’s perverted.

Mijal: And it happens, yeah, it’s…

Noam: It’s perverse. And I, listen, I’ve made a career out of nuance. I’ve like, really, you know this about me. Like, and I, not because, well, I deeply believe in it, but it’s the demonization of the Jewish state to be called the very thing that it escaped is so hurtful. And it’s so despicable that makes me want to scream or probably what I normally do is ignore it. But we’re going.

A little bit in a tangent here, I want to say a little bit more about why I think Holocaust education is so important. So number one is I really think the world needs to understand, this is a universal message and a particular message, about the very need for Jewish agency, for Jewish autonomy, for Jewish sovereignty, period. They used to be screaming in Europe, Jew go to Palestine, right? Now the argument is Jew get out of Palestine. It’s like it’s really, it’s really, it’s something that needs to be understood by people.

The second story that I like to tell is, and maybe it comes out of Emil Fakenheim. Emil Fakenheim was a philosopher, a reformed rabbi, and he says that the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people has no precedent with the Jewish history, and he says you won’t find it outside of Jewish history either, and he created this thing, what he called the 614th Commandment. The 614th Commandment is there 613 commandments traditionally associated with Jewish living.

And the 614th commandment he argued is don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory. Meaning you have to make sure and specifically in the case of secular Jewry that the Jewish continuity, this is what the concept of Jewish continuity, that the Jewish people continue to live on no matter what. He says, if we don’t live on, then you’re giving Hitler posthumous victory. And there’s part of me that says, I think it’s really important. Not that you should ever have an identity that is defined by Hitler, you know.

But that we do remember that we have something to fight for. And something to fight for is remembering the resilience of the Jewish people. The resilience of the Jewish people is such an incredible part of the story of the Holocaust. If, like I said earlier, if the Holocaust is typically taught about from the perspective of look at what they did to us, now we could reverse the story and say, look at the Jewish resilience. Look at the resilience in terms of education continuing in the face of these atrocities. Look at the very fact that there were Jewish people that physically fought back. Look at the willingness of Jewish people to rebuild their lives after being thrown in gas chambers, being having families ripped apart, not for three months, not for six months, but for years. That story of resilience is a story to continue telling the world about.

Mijal: So that’s beautiful, Noam. By the way, sorry, I don’t know if you can hear, there’s some traffic noise behind me.

Noam: You’re good.

Mijal: I’m good. Yeah, you know, yeah, I have so much. I think part of me is with you. There’s another part of me, I’m speaking like from an emotional personal place, not as an educator, but there’s like another part of me that like I just, the brokenness, the pain, the suffering, the devastation of the Shoah are just so, so devastating. So, I don’t even think we can comprehend it. You know, when I was younger, I was like, I want to be a Holocaust denialist. I want to be. I don’t want to live in a world where this happened. Like, I don’t want to live around with the knowledge that this happened.

Noam: Oh, I see what you’re saying.

Mijal: And like that this, like, you know, that the one million children could be, could be murdered for no reason. You know, ever since I had my own children, I, it’s very hard for me to watch anything Holocaust related or to really read in depth. I kind of like make myself do it on like Yom HaShoah and Tisha Be’av, the day of our remembrance for the temple. But I think I am, I, I appreciate the need to highlight resistance.

and continuity and joy. And I also wanna keep some parts of Yom HaShoah that are just about the brokenness and the pain of the people who are killed. I’ll tell you one more thing, Noam. It’s funny, I’ve experienced a lot of people who are like, oh, you’re a Sephardic, you probably… But you know what people assume? People, okay, it’s a pet peeve of mine. People assume that

I’m going to be like annoyed that we don’t profile Sephardic victims of the Holocaust. Okay? I’ve had this assumption.

Noam: Where do you get people say that to you? You’ve heard that? I mean, that’s something you’ve specifically heard or?

Mijal: It’s like, no, I’m reading between the lines in this identitarian moment. It’s like, oh, of course, Mijal, you want us to really highlight the Sephardic Jews from like Greece and this and that who were part of the

Noam: Which by the way, it is a part of the story that is not talked about enough.

Mijal: 100%. I literally wrote like papers on this in like high school and college. 100% No, no.

Noam: Let’s just say the numbers. 90% of the Jewish community in Greece, I believe, and Salonika was wiped out. Like, that’s a crazy number! Those are human beings!

Mijal: In Salonica, yeah. A hundred percent. The only point I’m trying to make is as follows. My own family did not go through the Holocaust. And also I feel like my family did. I don’t see a difference between being Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, like we, this was a war against the Jewish people. It was my family. It almost like hurts me when I hear the implication. Like, this is not someone else’s tragedy. It’s not like even a little bit removed. I’m like, these are my people. My people.

Noam: It’s not someone else’s story. Right, it’s just yours. Right. Yeah. Right. Yeah, well, that’s something that’s true. I don’t have, I mean, all of my grandparents were born in the United States of America. My grandfather on my dad’s side actually fought in World War II. He fought in D-Day, he fought in Normandy. And for me, that’s such a badge of pride that my grandfather did that, that he was a Jewish person in the United States of America that fought the Nazis. It’s such an unbelievable story to me. But I want to say one more thing about this, why I think it’s so important to teach the Holocaust, a third idea. And the third idea is I think this is maybe more in the Jewish world. It’s such an important conversation to have around theology. And you have great theologians, whether it’s the about, he said provocative things about God’s lack of presence during the Holocaust or in general in the world. Then you have someone like Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz who said that the issue, the theological issue was not God’s, what was God doing, but where was mankind during this? And people like him, you have people like I mentioned earlier, like Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, who speaks about the two different revelations, the revelation of Auschwitz, of Sinai, which is God’s presence. And then you have the debates in the Zionist world about people from the Sat-Moravi who argued that it was to the Zionism that this took place. And then people like on the other side of it, people formerly who are anti-Zionist like Rabbi Shlomo Techtel, who argued on the other side of things that it’s actually, if the Jewish people, the religious world engaged in Zionism more, there would have been a Jewish state earlier, and there would have been the opportunity to never have the Holocaust. I think this is a really important conversation to be having about what faith looks like after the Holocaust and what post Holocaust theology looks like. That is definitely more of an internal Jewish conversation, but a really fascinating one.

Mijal: Yeah, I find we can add there a race access perspective also on one foot. I mean, he, I think the way that he talks about the Holocaust, but also other tragedies and kind of like the incomprehensible nature of it. He uses the parable. He’s like, I’m going to say too long, but basically he talks about, his question is not so much about God, it’s about human beings.

Noam: Which is what?

Mijal: And his theological response is an anthropological one. It’s one that has to do with human beings responses to seeing all of this evil in the world. The reason I like his approach is that it doesn’t pretend to resolve some of the big questions around God and evil and the Holocaust. And to me that combination of the place of mourning and grief and also, and memory, and also, you know, doing better, doing good, that to me is very powerful.

Noam: Right. Yeah, I think that I want to go back to something you said about 10-7. It’s, I think we, I know what you’re saying, Mijal, that like it feels different this year at the Holocaust commemoration, but I feel like we almost have to tell ourselves, this is my thought, that we have to tell ourselves at the very least that 10-7 is radically different. And the reason is because I want to feel like the story of the Jewish people radically shifted after 48. I want to feel that. I want to feel that the Jewish people are never again going to be helpless again. They are never again going to be vulnerable to the whims of other people. I want to feel that way. And maybe that want is like a prayer of mine. That I want to make sure that we never ever feel that helplessness, feel that vulnerability. And you know, that we could, that we have the ability to forge our own identity that’s not being driven by outside forces that are looking to end us and have always looked to end us. And we can’t be naive. We can’t be naive about this, but that’s my hope.

Mijal: Yeah. And in that, with that dark thought to conclude with, literally, we are like, if you think about Hezbollah, about Hamas, about Iran, if there were no constraints, they would want to do another Holocaust. There’s no question around it. And it’s a crazy thing to live in a time like this and to know that. And to also, we’re not powerless also. We have, you know, American Jewries are not powerless. Jews in Israel are not powerless. And there’s like this really weird place in which we feel vulnerable.

Noam: We’re not powerless.

Mijal: And we’re also powerful and there’s also enemies and we have to live with all of that in the memory of the Holocaust.

Noam: Absolutely. So let’s have a meaningful commemoration of this day, and it should be part of our consciousness, not just for this day, but I think throughout the year. Throughout the year it should be part of Jewish consciousness because it is an incredibly important part of Jewish identity, and it is something that leaves an indelible mark.

Mijal: Yeah. All right, Noam, thank you so much. We’ll talk soon.

Noam: Yes, very soon.

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