The Holocaust: Dilemmas in Teaching – by Emmanuel Kahan (Pagina 12)

~This essay was originally published by Pagina 12 on April 6, 2017 ~

The Holocaust is a sensitive topic in Argentina. Its effects were felt early on. Beginning 1940 there were activities and demonstrations challenging the Nazi policies of racial exclusion, as well as public demonstrations in support of the Nazi regime. There were also solidarity campaigns and fundraising drives to support victims and refugees that stood in sharp contrast to the official refusal to open the country’s doors to immigration.

Since then, the issue of the Holocaust has occupied a central place in public debate. It was central when the United States embassy, along with the political parties of the Democratic Union, contrived to equate Peronism with Nazism, and remained central to the narrative of diverse nationalist organizations (Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista, Guardia Restauradora, Tacuara) who in their anti-Semitic screeds introduced the first Holocaust denial narratives to the country. During the last military dictatorship, the Holocaust became a topic of public debate when Elie Wiesel visited the country at the same time as Jacobo Timerman was a political prisoner and following the publication of an article by Marek Halter in Le Monde that denounced the persecution of Argentine Jews by the regime.

It would be the memory of the Holocaust that took center stage following the return of democracy in 1983, when it became a reference point for our own experience, the experience of state terror. It had been so before, when Jewish identity became linked to political radicalization during the 1960s and 70s: the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became a forum for dialogue between members of Jewish youth movements and their contemporaries in leftist organizations.

This presence in the public sphere became more apparent following the attacks on the Israeli embassy and the offices of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in 1994. Since then, Jewish organizations and other institutions dedicated to the memory and teaching of the Holocaust (the Holocaust Museum and the Argentine Anne Frank Center), along with the state and federal governments, have promoted programs to memorialize, created monuments, and offered rhetorical acknowledgements.

In recent years, references to the Holocaust have been used in attacks on political opponents. Perhaps it is this singular presence in the national political culture that prompted the unfortunate statements of National Minister of Education and Sports, Esteban Bullrich, during his visit to the Anne Frank house.

Those statements, at the same time, ignored what Bullrich’s own ministry set as the curriculum regarding the Holocaust and the genocides of the Twentieth Century. During 2015, the School of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires carried out a survey of 37 schools across the country regarding the impact of including recent history in classroom curricula. In the case of the Holocaust, the results were striking: 61.5% of students surveyed responded that they were aware of it, and had learned about it in school.

While there is still room for improvement, these surveys show that the topic is now rooted in the schools. This would not have been possible without a series of norms and policies that promoted the training of teachers on the matter. This included the production of materials to accompany the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides in the Twentieth Century: books, pamphlets, audiovisual and digital materials— La Shoá en la pantalla (2007), Memorias en Fragmentos (2009), La Enseñanza del Holocausto/Shoá como acontecimiento clave del siglo XX (2010), Holocausto y genocidios del siglo XX, Preguntas, respuestas y propuestas para su enseñanza (2010 y 2013) and El genocidio armenio. Preguntas, respuestas y propuestas para su enseñanza (2015). (these can be found online: Also on this list would be the last chapter of “Zamba y su asombrosa excursión a la memoria” (“Zamba and her shocking expedition into memory”) that begins with a meeting between the boy from Clorinda and Ana. (This chapter, it is worth noting, won the Martín Fierro prize for children’s television last year).

These productions were accompanied by trainings for teachers across the country by diverse civil society organizations (DAIA, AMIA, the Holocaust Museum, the Argentine Anne Frank Center, among others) along with National Universities and other state bodies. The description should also include the “Memory and Holocaust” collection that was created in the Teacher’s Library during 2014.

Why insist on the power of including these experiences in our classrooms? Because in teaching them, there is an opportunity to focus on a series of questions and perspectives that are relevant to our daily lives. Addressing the Holocaust and all its dynamics—from the Ghettos to the concentration camps and the gas chambers—implies entering a series of problems and topics that break our rigid disciplinary lines. For Auschwitz to be possible, it was necessary not only for there to be ideologues and willing Nazi functionaries, but also for there to be contributions from science and teaching: engineering, biology, medicine, chemistry, education, among others.

We have heard on repeated occasions that formula for teaching the unteachable. And perhaps it is time to revise it. The Holocaust can be taught because it encompasses experiences that, while in the past, could perhaps happen again because, basically, they have happened in other times to other people.  Taking this into consideration, what would be conditions for advancement, in a Weberian sense, between an ethic of conviction and responsibility in addressing these experiences, without falling into trivializations and shallow negations?

Emmanuel Kahan  is a Ph.D. in history and a researcher for Conicet. This essay was originally published by Pagina 12 and is available at:

Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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