Since the late 1970s
Holocaust museums and education centers have emerged across the
United States. Their goals are remembering the victims of the Nazi
genocide, and educating the public so that such an atrocity will
never happen again. These museums quickly became a vehicle for both
teachers and students to learn about the Holocaust. They helped
to shape the ways that the Holocaust is taught throughout the U.S.
While teachers are now often relyi on museums to educate their students
on the Holocaust, the museums rely heavily on teachers to prepare
the students before the visit to their facility. This project examines
the education programs offered by two Holocaust museums in the United
States, the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance and the Houston Holocaust
Museum. It evaluates their efforts in teaching middle and high school
students. Despite different approaches to learning, themes of tolerance,
personal responsibility, and personal choice are emphasized in the
education programs, often at the expense of teaching and learning
about the Holocaust itself.
On a humid Houston morning, a yellow school
bus filled with high school students makes its way to the museum district
of the city. As they pull up to their destination point, the students
gaze out the bus window and notice how it does not look like most
museums they have seen before. A building with a black cylindrical
structure and six steel poles emerging from a slanted, wedge-shaped
edifice interests some students in what they are about to experience. A
friendly staff person meets them at the entrance to welcome them to
the Holocaust Museum Houston, and then escorts them into the building,
walking past the entrance desk and into a classroom. They know they
will be learning about the Holocaust, since their teacher discussed
the upcoming field trip, but few realize that they will learn much
more than just the history. Their emotions will be incited and they
will take away lessons beyond the history they expected to learn. For
these students, the museum will help bring the Holocaust closer to
Fifteen hundred miles away, on a sunny southern
California day, a similar group of students arrives at the Museum
of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Their teacher hurries them off the bus
in order to make the scheduled arrival time. The students arrange
themselves in a single file line outside a brick building, standing
eight stories in the air, in the busy Pico Boulevard neighborhood
of Los Angeles. They enter the museum through tinted glass doors
and are told to turn off all cell phones and remove everything from
their pockets. As the security guards pass each student through metal
detectors and check all belongings, the students begin to realize
this is not like other museums they have visited. They too know why
they are at this museum—to learn about the Holocaust—but they are
also aware that the issue of tolerance will be addressed. Some students
will leave feeling empowered to take action against injustices, while
others will be incited to seek out additional knowledge. They will
remember some information about the Holocaust and will relish the
experiences of playing with the computers and other technology.
For these students, the Holocaust is just one thing they will learn
about during a full day of field trip excitement.
The Holocaust is one of the most horrific
crimes of the twentieth century, and historians have spent much time
analyzing the causes, nature, and consequences of this gruesome event.
Over the past three decades, many institutions, like the Holocaust
Museum Houston and the Museum of Tolerance, have emerged with the
goal of trying to teach how and why over 11 million individuals, 6
million of them Jewish, could be savagely murdered. These facilities
also provide a place of solace for people remembering the lives lost. While
serving as both a place of remembrance and learning, Holocaust museums
in the United States have undertaken a complicated task in educating
both students and adults about an event that is difficult to comprehend.
As many young people learn about the Shoah from history books or popular
mainstream movies like Schindler’s List, or more recently,
The Pianist, Holocaust museums remain places that teachers
are relying upon to further their students’ knowledge.
The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and
the Holocaust Museum Houston opened their doors in 1993 and 1996,
respectively, while interest and growing Holocaust awareness in the
United States was blossoming. As state governments began to pass
legislation in the 1990s requiring that teachers add the Holocaust
to their social studies lesson plans, instructors turned to various
outlets, including museums, for information on how to approach these
difficult issues. Museum educators planned teacher in-service trainings,
created guidebooks and teacher resources, and brought classrooms into
the museum setting. The educational mission of these museums quickly
came to include the goals of combating intolerance, prejudice, and
anti-Semitism as lessons that can be learned from studying the Holocaust.
While teachers often rely on museums to educate their students on
the Holocaust, the museums depend heavily on teachers to prepare the
students before the visit to their facility. These museums quickly
became vehicles for both teachers and students to learn about the
Holocaust, and they began to shape the ways that the Holocaust was
taught across the U.S.
In this study, I examine how the education
programs offered by two urban Holocaust museums, the Holocaust Museum
Houston and the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, teach middle and
high school students about the history of the Holocaust and the lessons
that can be learned. Despite different approaches to learning,
these two museums’ education programs emphasize themes of tolerance,
personal responsibility, and personal choice, in some cases at the
expense of teaching and learning about the Holocaust itself. Regardless
of scholarly criticism, I argue that one does not need to teach only
the history of the Holocaust in order for students to learn about
the event. The Holocaust Museum Houston exemplifies that a middle
ground between teaching history and promoting tolerance education
can be achieved. The Museum of Tolerance, on the other hand, also
attempts to focus on teaching history and teaching tolerance, but
unfortunately, it sacrifices crucial aspects of Holocaust history
in the process.
This thesis explores the Holocaust Museum
Houston and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles as institutions committed
to educating youth. I begin with a discussion of each museum’s background,
goals, and other distinguishing factors that led me to choose these
institutions as case studies. Next, the literature review examines
current work in the field of Holocaust commemoration in the United
States and its implications for museums today. I also provide a short
survey of the role of museum educators and museum education in teaching
youth. The section, History in the Museum, begins by evaluating
the materials developed by museum educators for teachers to help prepare
students before a visit to the museum. I also explore the physical
space of the museums and its role in the student’s visit. Next, I
evaluate the main exhibition halls in Houston and Los Angeles and
explore how each teaches students about the history of the Shoah and
the lessons that can be learned. By examining how each museum portrays
certain events, such as the Nuremberg Laws and acts of Jewish and
non-Jewish resistance, I am able to observe the methods, successes,
and shortcomings of these institutions. The final section, Lessons
Learned, explores how the debates discussed in the literature
review, such as the notion of uniqueness, are played out in the exhibits.
I also evaluate what learning went on in the museums, by examining
letters written by students following their visit. This helps to
illuminate what students experienced and how their visit to a Holocaust
museum affected them.
When Ellen Trachtenberg and other members
of the Holocaust Museum Houston Permanent Exhibit Committee met with
exhibit designers for the first time, they conveyed their three wishes
for the museum’s permanent exhibition. They wanted to discuss life
before the Holocaust, highlight the children who were savagely murdered
by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, and focus of the oral histories
provided by Holocaust survivors now living in Houston.
Comprising the committee were two Holocaust survivors, constituents
of the Jewish community, and staff members of the museum. They hired
Dr. John K. Roth, a Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College
and a noted scholar in the field of Holocaust studies, to write the
text panels that would fill the museum. He recalls that two major
themes were kept in mind when they created the main exhibit:
We wanted to tell
as much of the history of the Holocaust as possible, and we wanted
to link that history to the local Houston context as much as we
could. We also felt that it was important to do more than many
museums do with the earlier history of the Jewish people.
To continue this focus on personalizing
the story, they began to research locally and listen to the oral histories
of survivors. At one point, upwards of 900 survivors were living
in Houston, and provided a remarkable resource and inspiration for
the creation of this museum. Because space was limited, the exhibit
designers told the committee they should choose seven of the survivors’
stories to be highlighted throughout the exhibit hall. While this
proved to be a difficult challenge, they eventually decided on seven
stories which displayed a variety of experiences. Their stories are
carried throughout the exhibit, beginning with a family tree that
indicates those who perished in black ink and those who survived in
white ink. As the exhibition progresses, panels provide updates of
what the local survivors were facing at that time. This emphasis on
the lives of survivors who made Houston their home after the war makes
this exhibit especially unique and personal.
By March of 1996, the museum had welcomed
its first visitors and had crafted a mission statement emphasizing
its main objectives:
The mission of Holocaust Museum Houston is
to promote awareness of the dangers of prejudice, hatred, and violence
against the backdrop of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of
millions of Jews and other innocent victims. By fostering Holocaust
remembrance, understanding, and education, the Museum will educate
students as well as the general population about the uniqueness
of that event and its ongoing lesson: that humankind must learn
to live together in peace and harmony.
Ellen Trachtenberg recalls, “We did not
know if people would come when we opened the doors.”
Their worries were unfounded. From 1996-2002, the museum welcomed
nearly 550,000 visitors.
The Houston museum’s emphasis on educating
students is in the mission statement itself and is reinforced by the
fact that no admission fee is charged to visit the facility. In 2002
alone, over 30,000 students toured the museum with a trained docent.
The Education Department reached another 338,000 students through
their curriculum trunk outreach program.
This program provides a comprehensive curriculum for teachers to utilize
in elementary, middle, and high school language arts and social studies
classrooms throughout the world. The museum has sent these trunks
to such countries as Afghanistan, Belgium, Bosnia, Germany, and Italy.
The Education Department provides age-appropriate lesson plans and
materials, including multimedia tools, at no cost to the schools and
teachers. They also provide annual teacher trainings for those interested.
The Holocaust Museum Houston staff believes very strongly that lessons
can be drawn from studying the Holocaust and they direct great efforts
to teaching these lessons to young people so that the memory of the
Holocaust will survive. While this museum is modest in size, its
goals are lofty. Presently, the museum staff is working to create
a statewide Holocaust Education Mandate to ensure that “every Texas
child will be educated in the lessons of the Holocaust.”
This museum’s dedication to education, especially that of today’s
youth, makes it an excellent case study for an analysis of youth Holocaust
education in the United States.
In several ways, the Museum of Tolerance
is the direct antithesis of the museum in Houston. Located in Los
Angeles, California, not far from the Hollywood Hills and Rodeo Drive,
this museum has adopted a high tech format to teach students about
the Holocaust. Originally, the museum was affiliated with Yeshiva
University. When the State of California appropriated $5 million
for the museum in 1985, the ACLU filed suit against the state for
violating the separation between church and state. Once the two institutions
formally separated, the court rejected the ACLU’s plea and awarded
the $5 million grant to the museum.
With these funds and many other private donations, the museum began
its construction. Its enormous 165,000 square foot building houses
two large exhibition halls, a separate artifact room, a multimedia
center, and spaces for rotating exhibits. The Holocaust Museum Houston is quite
modest in comparison, utilizing all 18,000 square feet of its floor
space for the main exhibit hall, rotating exhibit hall, theater, classrooms,
and library and archives.
Since its opening in 1993, many stars and
high profile politicians have been seen at fundraisers for the L.A.
museum and events promoting one of its main themes, eradicating racism
and prejudice in the U.S. and worldwide. They see nearly five times
as many students per year as the Houston museum, but also charge $6
per student. Programs, such as Investing in Diversity, help fund
Title 1 schools’ field trips to the facility, and the museum is committed
to the idea that they will not turn anyone away.
Considering itself as the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal
Center, which is firmly committed to promoting human rights, the Museum
of Tolerance is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust
while promoting human dignity. This is conveyed in the museum’s mission statement:
The Museum of Tolerance is a high-tech, hands-on
experience that focuses on two themes through interactive exhibits:
the dynamics of racism and prejudice in America and worldwide, and
the history of the Holocaust—the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity
The directors of the museum are forthcoming
in their objectives and do not shy away from their focus on “racism
and prejudice.” However, this has led scholars to present a number
of critical assessments of the museum. Since its inception, the Museum of Tolerance has received
mixed reception from academics who see this emphasis on tolerance
rather than history as detrimental to the study of the Holocaust and
the propagation of its memory. Since the museum opened, exhibit
designers modified some exhibits and completely eliminated and replaced
others. While the Associate Director of the Museum states that these
changes were made because of their “commitment to making it more relevant
to current situations,” one wonders whether any of these changes were
made in response to the numerous critical reviews.
The name of the museum itself was another of the changes made. While
it used to be referred to as the “Beit HaShoah-Museum of Tolerance,”
which means “house of the Holocaust” in Hebrew, any reference to the
Holocaust itself has been dropped from the museum’s name. Despite
negative views of this museum among scholars, the majority of the
general public and press have had wonderful things to say. Even
The Oprah Winfrey Show recently featured and praised the museum
for its work.
The Holocaust Museum Houston and the Museum
of Tolerance are two very different institutions, not only in their
physical appearance, but in their methodology as well. The media-centered
approach in Los Angeles differs greatly to the more artifact-focused
exhibits in Houston. Regional differences are apparent in the exhibits
and programs at both museums. The Houston museum’s emphasis on local
survivors creates a community-based atmosphere for visitors. The
visitors from the Houston area feel a type of shared memory, realizing
that their neighbors went through the events they are learning about.
The Museum of Tolerance’s substantial use of technology throughout
the exhibition halls seems appropriate for a museum located so close
to the Hollywood Hills. The abundance of media that is reminiscent
of Hollywood—cell phones, computers, television—is reiterated by the
high-tech exhibits. In addition to the regional differences, the
L.A. museum has received a great amount of attention, while the Holocaust
Museum Houston has not received the same interest among academics
and the press.
Despite all differences, one can discern
some similarities. They have similar goals as evident by the focus
on teaching lessons maintained in their mission statements. Both
museums highlight certain themes, such as prejudice and racism, throughout
the exhibits and programs. These non-profit museums both sit in the
center of very large metropolitan areas and place a great emphasis
on their education programs for young people. Many Jewish students
attend these museums on class field trips, but both museums aim especially
to bring non-Jewish students into their institutions. They have
also placed an age requirement for student tours, discouraging groups
of students below grade six from visiting the exhibits, although they
do provide alternative programs for these younger students. While
their style and methodology are very different, the Holocaust Museum
Houston and the Museum of Tolerance aspire to achieve similar goals
by teaching the history of the Holocaust and its lessons.
The memorialization and commemoration of
the Holocaust in the United States did not emerge immediately after
the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. Decades passed before
the horrific atrocities that took place under the Nazi regime entered
into the collective memory of the American public. By the 1970s,
silence gave way to an intense interest. This Holocaust consciousness
led to and was inspired by the creation of numerous Holocaust memorials,
museums, and education centers across the United States. In San
Francisco, survivors of Nazi Germany and Jewish community members
founded the Holocaust Library and Research Center in 1979, which was
later renamed the Holocaust Center of Northern California. In 1984, the Holocaust Memorial Center in West Bloomfield,
Michigan opened its doors as the first freestanding Holocaust museum
in the U.S. The growing interest in remembering the Holocaust has
also been paired with an interest in studying and teaching the Holocaust.
Scholars have explored three central questions: Why has the Holocaust
become central in American consciousness in recent years? How has
the Holocaust been interpreted in relation to the larger historical
context? How have American ideals shaped the ways that the Holocaust
has been taught?
There has been a
plethora of studies examining the emergence of this “Holocaust consciousness,”
not only in the countries in which the events took place, but in the
United States as well. Once the general public became interested
and began to discuss the Holocaust in popular culture, through movies,
television, literature, and museums, a new field of Holocaust studies
appeared. Scholars began to analyze not only the Holocaust itself,
but also the emergence of Holocaust consciousness itself and its place
in American society. They grappled with the question of why intense
interest in the Shoah became so prevalent here so suddenly in the
1960s, especially since the vast majority of America’s population
was not directly, or even indirectly affected by the events. Historian
Omer Bartov emphasizes that one result of having Holocaust memorials
and museums in the United States, is a greater potential to universalize
the Holocaust as an event from which a variety of lessons can be drawn.
 Is the Holocaust
a universal event that can be taught in a broad historical context,
or is it a unique event, without any comparison and any lessons?
These debates have shaped the ways in which the history, causes, and
circumstances leading up to the Holocaust have been taught in schools
The historical facts of the Holocaust are
not the only topic, or even primary issue, emphasized within museum
and school curricula. Holocaust educators also emphasize the lessons
that can be learned from this event. The lessons found in Holocaust
museums in the U.S. often reflect core ideals of American society—liberty,
freedom, and pluralism—revealing the trend to “Americanize” the Holocaust.
The idea that lessons can be extracted from the Holocaust has led
to some criticism, on the grounds that lessons are not usually found
in extreme cases of events or situations, but instead are found in
more normal situations to which normal people can relate.
Regardless of these criticisms, the Shoah is being taught in schools
and museums across the nation and many efforts are made to draw lessons
from these horrifying events. Many believe that a future holocaust
could be prevented if proper education on the dangers of intolerance,
racism, and prejudice is administered across the U.S.
While scholars have contributed extensive
research to the field of historical memory and Holocaust studies,
they have given little attention to the role that historical memory
plays in museum education. The surveys of curricula have been brief
and sporadic in Canada and England, and even less has been done in
America. A survey of American textbooks by Lucy
Dawidowicz is over a decade old, and as new curricula are developed
and old ones are improved, there is a manifest need for additional
exploration of these texts.
Scholars have developed three main arguments
to explain why the Holocaust was not discussed immediately after the
liberation of the camps in either public or private contexts. Some
scholars see the silence as a result of the trauma and subsequent
repression that stemmed from the horrific images and events of the
concentration camps. Others
agree that the survivors themselves kept quiet because of the trauma
of their experiences, but do not see the collective silence of both
American Jews and non-Jews as a result of this trauma. Peter Novick,
a leading scholar in the field of Holocaust commemoration, argues
that while most Americans were probably shocked, dismayed, and saddened,
there are other explanations for their silence.
Edward Linenthal, another scholar in the field, attributes the silence
to underlying guilt among American Jews for not doing more to help
as Europe’s Jews were perishing in the concentration and extermination
camps. Other scholars claim the desire to focus on seizing
personal and financial opportunities in post-war America came to be
the driving force in evading public discourse on the atrocities of
the Holocaust. Survivors
who immigrated to the U.S. especially wanted to rebuild their lives
and turn their attention towards the future instead of dwelling on
the past. A feeling of success spread throughout American culture
after the war ended, and the nation wanted to focus on the Allied
victory and the bright future that lay ahead.
Although there were many reasons to remain
quiet about the traumatic events of the Shoah, an accumulation of
events and circumstances eventually broke this continued silence.
Just as debate continues today over the causes of the silence, discussion
is also present regarding the breaking of this silence. Most agree
that the political climate in the U.S. was a major contributing factor.
Peter Novick argues that many circumstances in the 1960s and 1970s
that affected American politics and society, such as changing attitudes
towards victimhood, shifting positions towards the acceptance of ethnic
differences, and the Middle East conflicts, greatly contributed to
the emergence of interest in the Holocaust. The Vietnam War and the
Civil Rights movement helped to combat the notion that victimhood
equaled weakness. Novick argues that a more sympathetic outlook developed
that accepted and even celebrated victimhood. A new spotlight on
spousal and child abuse also emerged at this time, revealing this
shift in attitude towards victims.
Just as the idea of victimhood came to be
acceptable in American society, a greater toleration of ethnic differences
also developed. The decline of an “integrationist” agenda in the
U.S., and the rise of a “particularist ethos” which emphasizes the
differences between Americans, contributed to the notion that is was
acceptable to embrace one’s ethnic differences and display them proudly.
 American Jews no longer
felt the pressure to assimilate into their surrounding culture, and
began to incorporate the Holocaust as a defining factor of their collective
Jewish identity. This also helped to strengthen Jewish continuity
in America, at a time when intermarriage was rising and religiosity
was declining. American Jewish identity became intertwined with Holocaust
memory and many Jews began to see it as their duty to commemorate
and memorialize the Shoah in mainstream America.
In addition to these factors, nearly all
scholars agree that the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann greatly
increased awareness and popular interest in the U.S. In 1961, Hannah
Arendt’s articles in the New Yorker and in her subsequent book,
Eichmann in Jerusalem provided gripping accounts of the trial,
making it front-page news in America.
She helped to bring the horrors of the genocide back into the public
eye, and these issues could no longer be avoided. For Americans,
Eichmann symbolized more than a Nazi perpetrator. Even after his
trial ended and throughout the 1960s, Eichmann’s role in the genocide
remained in the American conscience. Later in the decade when anti-Vietnam
War sentiment was increasing, protestors put his name on banners since
his story embodied the current conflict of individual conscience versus
obedience to authority.
The fate of Holocaust consciousness was
imprinted into the minds of Americans during a short span of six days
in 1967. Scholars have marked the Six Day War as one of the defining
moments of Holocaust awareness and interest. On May 26, 1967, after mobilizing his army, Egyptian
President Gamul Abdel Nassar stated that the destruction of Israel
was his main goal. The
fear that the Jewish people would be faced with another holocaust,
struck deep into the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in America.
People began to think that by remembering the Shoah and attempting
to understand why and how it happened, history could be prevented
from repeating itself.
Throughout the 1970s, Holocaust consciousness
continued to increase across America. During the Yom Kippur War in
1973, the fears of Israel’s possible destruction resurfaced, and concern
with commemorating the Holocaust became manifest. Then in 1978, two landmark events took place, which
brought the Holocaust to the forefront of American popular culture
and politics. The airing of the NBC miniseries Holocaust brought
the horrifying events into the living rooms of all Americans and broadened
the scope of consciousness to non-Jews as well. In addition, during
that year, President Carter formed a commission to recommend the creation
of a national memorial to the Holocaust. This initiative ultimately resulted in the creation
of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located on the Mall
in Washington, D.C. The location of this memorial to Europe’s murdered
Jews is very symbolic as it indicates that the Holocaust has been
incorporated into American history and identity.
As the public began to discuss the Holocaust
in many arenas, including the media, universities, museums, and popular
culture, the events were analyzed, and debates emerged regarding how
the facts should be interpreted. Is the Shoah a unique and unmatched
occurrence, without any comparison, or is it a universal event with
implications throughout history and for today’s society? Are there
lessons or messages that can be taken from the senseless murder of
11 million human beings? This issue of defining the Holocaust as
either a unique or universal event in history becomes especially important
in regard to Holocaust education. The ways that the events are perceived shape how the
story is told.
Many survivors tend to argue for the uniqueness
of their experiences, setting it apart from other historical events
entirely. However, in the process of historicization, the mass murder
of millions of Jews is inevitably subject to comparisons with other
genocides in history. Might such comparisons deny the uniqueness
of the event and trivialize the crime? In their article “Two Kinds
of Uniqueness,” Professors Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg argue
that the uniqueness of the Holocaust can only be recognized through
comparisons with other genocides.
This can be a problem in Holocaust curricula, as teachers often place
the Shoah into the larger framework of human rights violations, racism,
and intolerance, but often neglect to focus on the role of anti-Semitism.
While this emphasizes that lessons can be drawn from the Holocaust,
it negates the important notion that this genocide was very different
from other genocides throughout history. Many people believe strongly
that the Holocaust was either a unique or a universal
event. However, some scholars are now bridging this gap and stating
that neither is entirely correct. The Shoah can neither be “marginalized
as an aberration” nor “contextualized as a part of human progress.”
Milchman and Rosenberg use the term “caesura” to explain the events
as neither universal nor unique, but instead as an interruption in
human history that must be studied. Regardless of which view is accepted,
the presence of competing views makes the narrative even more complex
for educators, who have to create an account that will be accepted
and understood by many.
Also adding complexity to the role of educators
in Holocaust museums is the notion of the “Americanization of the
Holocaust.” This phrase is used in almost all of the scholarly works
on the commemoration and representation of the Shoah mentioned above
and refers to the aspects of American society that have influenced
how the Holocaust is taught.
In his study of Holocaust memory and memorials, James Young argues
that memorials remember the past according to the “national myths,
ideals, and political needs,” and therefore, U.S. memorials remember
the past according to specific American ideals and values.
This is evident in museums, as well as memorials.
Both have shaped the story of the Holocaust to incorporate the ideals
of “pluralism, tolerance, liberty, and human rights.” 
Many museums put forth this agenda, in particular the Beit HaShoah-Museum
of Tolerance. The name of the museum itself illustrates how American
values are being incorporated into the museum narrative. Michael
Berenbaum, the former deputy director of the President’s Commission
on the Holocaust, has even stated:
[T]hroughout the United States, instruction in
the Holocaust has become an instrument for teaching the professed
values of American society: democracy, pluralism, respect for differences,
individual responsibility, freedom from prejudice and an abhorrence
This helps to create an atmosphere that
will resonate with all the different types of people in America who
visit the various Holocaust museums across the U.S. While this process
of “Americanization” has received some criticism for trivializing
a sacred event, it is mostly the mass media, literature, and tourism
that have received the greatest critical assessments, while most critics
have spared museums. The museums, for the most part, have been created
as places of remembrance and learning, while also retaining this very
“Americanized” focus towards ideals of liberty and pluralism. President Carter reiterated this notion
at the first “Days of Remembrance” ceremony when he gave three reasons
for the justification of a national memorial to the Holocaust here
in the U.S.:
Although the Holocaust took place in Europe, the
event is of fundamental significance to Americans for three reasons.
First, it was American troops who liberated many of the death camps,
and who helped explore the horrible truth of what had been done there.
Also, the United States became a homeland for many of those who were
able to survive. Secondly, however, we must share the responsibility
for not being willing to acknowledge forty years ago that this horrible
event was occurring. Finally, because we are humane people, concerned
with the human rights of all peoples, we feel compelled to study the
systematic destruction of the Jews so that we may seek to learn how
to prevent such enormities from occurring in the future.
President Carter projected the notion of
the United States as a haven for the oppressed and a land of “humane
people” who see it as our duty to uphold the freedoms of others for
future generations. He also indicated that by studying about the
Nazi genocide, we could learn how to prevent future atrocities from
occurring. It is for this reason that many museums and education
centers have been created, with the goal of remembering the Holocaust
as well as preventing another genocide from happening.
Just as Holocaust consciousness in the U.S.
was growing in the 1970s, the role of education in museums was expanding
tremendously. The American Association of Museums (AAM) recognized
the need to establish specific minimum standards for all museums.
In 1975, the AAM broadened its definition of a museum with two main
goals in mind—to entrust those institutions in educating the public,
and to create a greater level of professionalism among museums. The importance of education in museums
continued to grow and by the early 1980s, exhibition development teams
began to include museum educators. By 1992, the AAM published the
first major work identifying the educational role of museums, entitled
Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums.
This report argues that a museum’s commitment to education should
be central in its mission and pivotal to all its activities. Practitioners began to gather and discuss the new role
of museum educators. A clear definition of the collective role of
a museum educator soon emerged:
The educator establishes the link between the
content of the exhibit and the museum audience. The educator is a
communication specialist who understands the ways people learn, the
needs that museum audiences have and the relationship between the
museum’s programme and the activities of other educational institutions
including schools. The educator plans evaluation activities that
will examine the exhibit’s success in meeting its intended objectives
and communicating with visitors.
Traditionally, schools and museums have
established close relationships. Teachers see museums as a place
to expand upon their in-class lesson plans and to fill in areas they
left out. The students relate their museum experience closely with
school, however it is a new venue for them to explore, making a museum
field trip even more interesting and full of possibility.
If the museum educator is able to establish the connection between
the exhibit and the student, as the above description states, class
visits to a museum can entice students to expand upon the knowledge
they acquired in their museum visit. Serving as a catalyst to increase
students’ knowledge and interest in a subject, museums can become
a central part of youth education.
Because Holocaust museums have taken on
the task of educating America’s youth about the Holocaust and the
lessons that can be learned from the history, museum educators are
left with a difficult job. How much can museums be expected to teach,
and students expected to learn, in a short several-hour visit? Practitioners
and scholars in the field of museum education have grappled with this
issue extensively. Scholars argue that for visitors to learn in museums,
they must encounter topics and displays relevant to their own personal
lives and interests. Thus, for students to connect during their short visit
to the museum, they must see the information being conveyed as important
for their own lives. Michael Berenbaum, former project director
of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has often stated that
the message these museums are telling must resonate with its audience
so they can relate. By situating the Holocaust in a historical context that
Americans can relate to, Holocaust museums can reach its audience
and establish a connection that will promote learning. Some scholars
have taken issue with this notion, as Alvin Rosenfeld argues that
American social problems are not genocidal in nature and do not resemble
the persecution and systematic genocide that was the Holocaust.
Regardless of criticism by scholars, museums have accepted the idea
put forth in the museum education field—for students to learn in the
museum, they must be able to relate. Educators in Holocaust museums
apply this idea not only to the education programs they create, but
also in the exhibitions themselves. The growing importance of educators
to these museums has influenced the ways that students are now being
taught about the Holocaust.
Before visiting museums, packets of information
are sent to teachers to help prepare for their visit and also supplement
their pre- and post-visit lesson plans. At the Holocaust Museum Houston,
the teacher packet provides a general list of guidelines, vocabulary
terms, timelines, maps, quotations, and a suggested reading list.
In addition to these resources, one page is dedicated to the question,
“Why teach the Holocaust?” Teachers must address this question and develop
a solid rationale for teaching the Holocaust long before the lessons
or field trips begin. Holocaust educators Samuel Totten, Stephen
Feinberg, and William Fernekes argue that without strong underlying
principles, the lessons and units lack an appropriate historical focus
and concentrate solely on the “whats” of the history, instead of the
Houston museum’s teachers’ guide continues to ask, “How can we not
teach it?” It goes on to argue that the study of the Holocaust will
be extremely pertinent to the students’ lives, as they make connections
between history and current moral decisions they will be faced with.
The guide also emphasizes that this history should not solely be studied
by Jews, but rather is relatable to all students and will promote
a more positive approach to different cultures. However, the guide does little
to further this notion of fostering more positive attitudes towards
other minorities. In response to its question, “How can we not teach
it?” the guide states that by “studying the past… [the students] become
aware of the importance of making choices and come to realize that
one person can make a difference.” The educators and docents carry this theme
throughout the students’ visit and strongly emphasize the importance
of individual choice and free will throughout their museum experience.
The educators argue that students should view themselves as active
individuals, not bystanders, who possess the ability to control their
actions and the choices they make. Despite the devastating and incomprehensible
nature of the Holocaust, lessons can be learned by studying it and
students can take away ideas that might help them live better lives.
To further provide historical context for
students, a vocabulary list of general Holocaust terms, as well as
terms about Judaism, helps to familiarize the students with the Jewish
religion and people and places involved with the Holocaust.
The focus on Jewish religious terms provides students, the vast majority
of whom are not Jewish, with a general background so they can recognize
certain artifacts at the beginning of the permanent exhibit and understand
terms used by the docent. In the early planning stages of the museum,
the Holocaust Museum Houston Permanent Exhibition Committee decided
that attention must be directed to the pre-Holocaust history of the
Jews, to show how rich their culture was and to highlight how much
was truly lost. This helps to place the long
history of Judaism and anti-Semitism into a historical context. Also
provided are prejudice terms—stereotype, prejudice, racism, discrimination,
anti-Semitism, genocide—and related questions for discussion on these
topics. While they list only six general prejudice terms, 64 Holocaust-
and Judaism-related vocabulary words are provided. A comprehensive
timeline ranging from 1933-1945 includes not only events directly
related to the Holocaust, but also events that students may have already
been aware of, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Allied
invasion of Normandy. Issues also included are the revolt of inmates
at Auschwitz, the attempt to assassinate Hitler, and the Warsaw ghetto
uprising, in addition to armed resistance in other various ghettos,
and the Sobibor extermination camp. The guide also discusses the Jewish
partisan movement. To expand upon the theme of resistance, a detailed
map indicates all Jewish revolts between 1942 and 1945 and highlights
that “[d]espite the overwhelming military strength of the German forces,
many Jews… rose in revolt against their fate” (fig. 1). Again, the educators are able to incorporate the theme of individual
Figure 1. Map of Jewish revolts
in the Holocaust Museum Houston Teacher Packet.
They also stress the importance of including
a comprehensive look at resistance to the Holocaust prior to the students’
visit, in order to debunk prejudices that the “Jews went like sheep
to the slaughter.” Geoffrey Short argues this point, stating that
teachers should address any and all misconceptions students might
have about Jews or the Holocaust before their visit. By providing
materials to study and discuss in the classroom, this goal can be
timeline also illustrates the progression of Hitler’s policies that
deprived Jews of their rights, their dignity, their freedom, and ultimately
their lives. The timeline was taken in part from the book, Genocide:
Critical Issues of the Holocaust, which is a Simon Wiesenthal
Center publication. The Holocaust Museum Houston teachers’ guide
also utilizes the list of frequently asked questions about the Holocaust
compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. However, the Houston guide
abbreviates the list of 36 questions to twelve selections that address
very broad concepts that docents expand upon during the tour. Even
though Houston educators utilized information from Simon Wiesenthal
publications, they saw the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
as a greater influence in the development of their education programs.
Analysis of vocabulary words provided in both museums’ teachers’ guides.
The Museum of Tolerance educators recommend
that teachers begin preparation for their visit by discussing the
vocabulary and concepts they will encounter in the museum. Few of
the vocabulary terms they provide for teachers relate directly to
the Holocaust. The majority of terms relate to racism, intolerance,
and genocide in general (fig. 2).
In a pre-visit lesson plan provided to teachers
entitled, “Essential Vocabulary and Concepts,” thirteen terms are
discussed and only one is Holocaust history-related. The lesson plan
consists of a word match and a column of scenarios that refer to the
vocabulary terms provided—prejudice, racism, genocide, stereotype,
and discrimination. Only one scenario deals directly with the Shoah
stating, “Nazis try to kill all Jews,” which matches with the term,
genocide. The other scenarios refer to instances that students might
commonly identify with, such as people blaming innocent Arab Americans
for terrorist attacks. While the educators hope that students can
put these terms in the framework of their modern lives, the lesson
plans and teachers’ guide do not discuss how such terms as prejudice,
stereotype, discrimination, and racism relate to the Holocaust. They
might understand what racism is, but not in the context of Nazi Germany
or the Shoah.
The Museum of Tolerance educators developed
thirty-six frequently asked questions and answers, in which more terms
relating specifically to the Holocaust can be explored. This comprehensive
list of questions provides a great deal of information and would be
most appropriate for teachers and students to explore prior to the
visit. This guide focuses on certain topics, such as when the first
concentration camp was established, why Jews were singled out for
extermination, how much Jews in Europe realized what was going to
occur, how much the German people knew about what was happening to
their Jewish neighbors, how much the Allies knew about what was happening
in Nazi Europe, and what the attitude of the church was towards the
Unfortunately, the main exhibit in the Los Angeles museum does not
reinforce much of the information presented in these questions. In
some cases, the exhibits skip over entire questions and in other parts,
the questions are briefly discussed. It is therefore up to the teachers
to teach their students all the history of the Holocaust before they
step into the museum.
The Museum of Tolerance also developed four
themes and learning objectives that students see throughout the museum—the
power of words and images, the dynamics of discrimination, the pursuit
of democracy and diversity, and personal responsibility. The museum
illustrates how their themes relate to the California State Frameworks
and Content Standards. Throughout the year, teachers must achieve certain goals set
by the state, and the museum is careful to show that the students
will not fall behind if they add a lesson on the Holocaust and tolerance
to the curriculum. Again, the teacher is supposed to contextualize
the history and prepare his/her students. As the Associate Director
of the Museum of Tolerance pointed out in an interview, the materials
provided for teachers are seen as “trigger lessons,” meant to be stepping-stones
for further research and learning on the teacher’s part. To facilitate further learning
among teachers, the museum maintains an interactive web site in which
teachers can post messages and share ideas for teaching about the
Holocaust. The Museum provides workshops to better prepare teachers
to provide appropriate lessons for their students. These workshops,
however, focus mainly on tolerance-related issues. While the museum provides what seems to be
a vast array of resources for teachers, it still relies on teachers
to prepare students for the visit. Once they enter the museum, the
students are in the hands of the museum educators.
|Figure 3. Museum staff utilize this diagram to
begin discussion about the Holocaust.
Despite all the preparation, the ultimate
question is how this translates into learning and understanding once
in the museum. At the Holocaust Museum Houston, students are immediately
escorted to a classroom and met by a staff visitor coordinator. This
staff person provides an orientation to the museum and introduces
the docent(s) who will be guiding the students through the museum. The staff person begins by
directing students’ attention towards a diagram fixed to the front
center of the classroom. Students look at a triangle, with the words
rescuers, bystanders, perpetrators affixed to each corner and victims
inscribed in the center (fig. 3). They begin to discuss how each
of these groups participated in the Holocaust, and how only one group
had no choice—the victims. The staff person emphasizes that the rescuers
and perpetrators were very small groups while the bystanders constituted
the vast majority of people. “We all have a choice, and this is why
you are here” is the last phrase left in the minds of these young
students before they begin the tour. The students will revisit this
theme throughout their visit, not only in the context of Nazi Germany,
but in their own lives as well. As the students go off with a docent,
the staff person reiterates that the museum is also a memorial, and
therefore needs to be treated with the respect that a church, temple,
or synagogue would.
As the groups move into the exhibit hall,
the docent notes how the design of the space evokes a certain emotion
and symbolizes some part of the Holocaust. The materials used in
the construction of both the interior and exterior—steel, brick, concrete—suggest
a feeling of somberness and the industrialization of the camps.
While standing in the lobby and gazing down the hall towards the memorial
garden, the students see steel beams over-head slowly becoming narrower.
The hallway itself also becomes more narrow and the image of a railroad
track leading to Auschwitz is immediately conjured up. For the students
who do not immediately notice the metaphorical nature of the architecture,
the docent spends a few minutes discussing the structure. He/She
also tells students to notice the shape of the room they are about
The permanent exhibit hall, which is the
wedge-shaped building visitors see as they arrive, begins with a high
and open ceiling when telling the history of Jewish culture in Europe,
but it progressively becomes lower as the story shifts to the slaughter
of the Jewish people. The exhibit designers incorporated multiple
forms of media to tell the story of the Holocaust. A combination
of enlarged black and white images, text panels, artifacts, reproductions,
maps, and television screens are utilized throughout the hall. The
exhibit designers incorporated five television screens at different
points in the story; however, the only one in sound is film footage
of Nazi rallies and propaganda. During the planning phase, the Permanent
Exhibit Committee felt that it was very important for visitors to
hear Hitler’s charisma when he spoke and the “war-like” quality to
his voice. Because
this is the only video clip with sound, the role of Nazi propaganda
takes on a greater importance. If a visitor recognizes this video
as the only one with sound, it conveys the message that Nazi propaganda
must have played a very important role in Hitler’s rise to power and
his continued popularity among the German people, even as he led them
to war. Even though monitors were not originally planned for, a
few were included that show archival images of the Warsaw ghetto,
concentration camps, and the liberation of the camps.
Unlike the mixed media approach presented
in Houston, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles utilizes an abundance
of television screens to reach its goals of teaching about the Holocaust
and fostering tolerance. In justification for the excessive use of
TV images, founder Rabbi Marvin Hier asks, “Where are your kids now?”
He goes on to answer, “[t]hey’re at the computer and after that they’re
going to watch television. That’s the kids of America. This museum
wants to speak to that generation. We have to use the medium of the
age.” In its attempt to create an
environment that appeals to the youth of America, the Museum of Tolerance
has subscribed to a view of today’s adolescence as unable and/or unwilling
to listen and learn unless material is presented in the form of television
images. The museum even hired media experts to create an environment
in which the viewer is constantly stimulated and never bored.
Unlike most museums, it rarely employs text panels as a method of
communicating with visitors. Besides the plethora of television screens,
in its architectural style and appearance, the museum building lacks
metaphorical symbolism. This is quite different from most Holocaust
museums and memorials, with their striking visual impact and structural
significance. From the outside, the structure stands as a tall eight-story
building comprised of blank stone and glass and is “nothing special
architecturally,” as one critics points out.
Once inside, an unusual structural feature is a Guggenheim-like spiral
ramp that leads to the exhibit halls. While docents and other museum
staff do not allude to any significance of this spiral structure,
I would argue that the architecture is symbolic. Visitors descend
down the staircase into a hell-like experience—the Holocaust—and then
reemerge, arising with the knowledge after learning in the exhibits.
|Figure 4. If time permits, students
explore such items as Anne Frank's diary pages and a concentration
camp bunk bed (courtesy of the Museum of Tolerance).
Among the exhibit halls is the museum’s Multimedia
Learning Center, which contains over thirty computer workstations for
visitors to explore the history of World War II and the Holocaust in greater
depth. Once again, the museum utilizes a technologically focused approach
to learning. However, most class tours are pressed for time and rarely
have the opportunity to visit this exhibit, unless the teacher makes special
arrangements. Docents often encourage students to return with their parents
at another time to explore the museum and all the sections they were unable
to discuss due to time constraints. The classes that sign up for a special
program called “Steps to Tolerance” have the opportunity to spend time
in the Multimedia Learning Center. This program is solely for fifth and
sixth grade students, and they spend their 2-½ hour visit solely in the
Center learning about the Holocaust and contemporary issues of tolerance
and diversity in an age-appropriate way for younger students. These students do not visit the main exhibit
Adjacent to the Center is the museum’s collection
of artifacts and documents (fig. 4). Tucked away from the abundance of
technology, this room provides a more conventional approach to museum
learning. This is the only place in the museum where visitors find actual
artifacts. Unfortunately, many students do not have the opportunity to
view these during their tours, once again due to time constraints. Students
spend the majority of their museum field trip in the Tolerancenter. There
are many different stations in this part of the exhibit, and if the docent
does not hurry students through certain stations, they have little to
no time to explore the artifact room.
The separation of mediums—television screens,
photographs, artifacts—in the Museum of Tolerance is very different than
the balanced mix of mediums found throughout the Holocaust Museum Houston.
The balance that is found in Houston can be seen not only in the physical
space of the museum, but in the teaching of the history and its lessons
as well. The history of the Holocaust and the lessons that can be learned
are balanced throughout the exhibit hall. In contrast to this balance,
the Museum of Tolerance has allotted the majority of space and time to
television screens and other technological accoutrements. Because the
museum designers incorporated this abundance of technology in the main
exhibit hall, they had to sacrifice the use of artifacts. Many students
are unable to ever experience real artifacts because there is not time
during their tour. This is one of the first things that the Museum of
Tolerance sacrifices to reach its goal of providing a “high tech, hands-on
experience.” Even though each museum utilizes different
approaches to their exhibits, the main issue that must be examined is
the content of the exhibits themselves.
The visitors’ lack of knowledge about the Shoah
before visiting these museums provides a major concern for Holocaust educators
and exhibit designers who work with limited time and space. James Young
expressed such concerns in response to the creation of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum:
I did not want all that non-Jewish America knew
about Jewish history to be the Holocaust. And I did not want all that
Jewish America knew about Jewish history to be the Holocaust. A thousand
years of European Jewish life is reduced to 12 terrible years—I think
that’s the great danger.
Placing the Holocaust in a historical context
has proven to be an important facet of Holocaust education and can help
to minimize the concerns raised by Young. By learning about the history
of the Jewish people and the history of anti-Semitism, the student will
be better equipped to learn about the emergence of Nazism, Hitler’s racist
ideology, and the Nazi party’s new anti-Semitism. It also helps to counter
arguments raised by historian Lucy Dawidowicz that Holocaust educators
spend more time on teaching what happened, instead of on why it happened.
Educator Mark Weitzman provides several guidelines for teaching about
the Holocaust, including the notion that it is crucial to “explore the
context within which the Holocaust occurred” and to “explore Jewish life
and culture before the Holocaust to gain a sense of the living community
which was destroyed.”
Doing this helps to eliminate misconceptions that somehow the Jews were
guilty of something and deserved separation from society. Another scholar
rightly argues that students must understand that the Jewish people were
more than objects of genocide.
The Holocaust Museum Houston’s teachers’ guide
highlights this issue and has a guideline stating, “[t]he teacher should
contextualize the history they are teaching… so that students may begin
to comprehend the specific circumstances that encouraged or discouraged
As students enter the main exhibition hall in Houston, the docent begins
by pointing out a variety of religious artifacts that survived the war,
as well as some that belonged to survivors. Directing students’ attention
towards a salvaged Torah scroll, the docent provides a brief background
into the Jewish religion and the Hebrew Bible. This helps to emphasize
the differences between race and religion. This issue is discussed further
as the docent highlights differences between Nazi racism and previous
forms of anti-Semitism. He/She reiterates that Hitler did not invent
anti-Semitism, nor did the German people, but that it stems from a long
history. On one side of the entrance corridor, the students examine a
large map of the world, which highlights various occasions of discrimination
against Jews (fig. 5).
5. Various instances of anti-Semitism throughout history are highlighted
on this map of the world (courtesy of Holocaust Museum Houston).
Among the many examples is a 306 AD edict
from a church council in Spain stating that intermarriage and intercourse
between Jews and Christians was prohibited . This serves as a reminder
to students that the roots of the Holocaust were embedded in centuries
of religious anti-Semitism and political inequality. It is important, however, to emphasize that
Hitler’s anti-Semitism evolved from such previous forms, but was based
on racial and not religious terms. Despite critiques that a focus on
religion could obscure the notion that the Nazis defined Jews by racial
factors, it is central to the history of the Holocaust to understand how
the events came to take place.
Next, students examine a wall of photographs,
and the docent explains that these are family photos of Holocaust survivors
who moved to Houston. The images portray Jews with a variety of religious,
geographical, and economic backgrounds. This helps to show that not all
Jews fit into the stereotypical categories presented by the Nazi propaganda
they are about to encounter in the museum. Pictures show well-fed, healthy
Jews before the war, and serve as a comparison to the images that are
associated with the victims of the Holocaust—emaciated, weaken bodies
barely holding on to life. By focusing on these photos and emphasizing
that these individuals could be their next-door neighbors, the museum
helps students connect and see those who lived during the Holocaust not
just as victims, but also as normal people who faced unimaginable circumstances.
The docent also points out an enlarged photograph of students standing
in rows with their teacher behind them. This photo is reminiscent of
the class pictures that students today take with their classmates and
teachers on picture day. Again, the students are able to relate to the
various people the museum presents in the exhibit.
Adapting parts of Mark Weitzman’s article for
its own use, the Museum of Tolerance’s website also highlights the importance
of exploring the context of the Holocaust and the Jewish life before the
Holocaust. Therefore, one should expect that visitors would receive
a proper introduction into the historical context in both these museums.
While the Holocaust Museum Houston provides a thorough background on the
history of the Jewish people, Germany, and anti-Semitism, the Museum of
Tolerance’s discussion is much more limited.
In contrast to the Houston museum’s exploration
of Jewish life before the war through photographs, religious artifacts,
and discussion with the tour guide, the Museum of Tolerance employs a
short video to describe “The Jewish World That Was.” Students watch this
video as they wait for their tour to begin in the computer-controlled
main exhibit hall of the Holocaust section. Prior to watching this video,
they receive a “photo passport” of a victim of the Holocaust to take through
the exhibit. Each student receives a driver’s-license-sized card with
a photo on it. Students insert their card into a computer at a station
at the beginning, middle, and end of the exhibit, which displays information
about “their person.” In some instances, the card is of a survivor; however,
the majority of the cards update the students with dismal information.
The short video that students are supposed to be watching at this time
is eclipsed by the excitement of their new interactive tool, as students
whisper to each other about “who they got.” The few students who do
pay attention to this film hear myriad Jewish and Yiddish terms, most
of which were probably not discussed in class prior to their visit, since
they were not included in the teachers’ guide. The narrator talks about
major European cities and the centers of Jewish learning and culture that
developed within each. Multiple images of Jews celebrating various religious
holidays and occasions reveal a narrow view of Eastern European religious
Jews, who wear black hats, long beards, and sidelocks. The story
briefly shifts to focus on the pogroms Jews faced, and how they still
managed to go on with their lives. While this film presents Jewish culture
as rich and fruitful, like the exhibit in Houston, it does little to dispel
any preconceived misconceptions about Jews and Jewish life. While the
majority of the Jews affected by the Holocaust were from Eastern Europe,
not all dressed this way and were religious. “The Jewish World That Was” does not begin
to discuss how many Jews assimilated into their surrounding societies
and often felt a greater devotion to the country they lived in than their
religious heritage. An attempt to display other types of Jews spawns
a collage of famous Jewish faces, such as Felix Frankfurter, Albert Einstein,
Golda Meir, and of course the namesake of the museum, Simon Wiesenthal.
Although it is the explicit goal of the Museum
of Tolerance’s teachers’ guide to place the events in a historical context,
the exhibit does little to do this. In referring to why there is such
little background prior to the 1920s, the Associate Director of the Museum
stated that they rely on the teachers to contextualize.
Regardless of whether students are properly prepared, many of the images
shown in this introductory video do little to dispel, and may possibly
even reinforce, stereotypes of Jews as aliens. Aiming to rid such stereotypes
is one of the claims the museum placed on its website as a guideline for
teaching about the Holocaust. However, it does not discuss the complex
history of Jewish persecution and anti-Semitism in this film. The short
video does display a facet of Jewish life before the war, but because
of time constraints, it discusses Europe in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries only very briefly. After the screening
is over, doors open automatically and visitors quickly move into the main
exhibit hall to begin their journey “back in time to become witnesses
to events in Nazi-dominated Europe during World War II,” as the teachers’
guide puts it. The tour is just beginning and will subsequently
discuss many events that took place during the Holocaust. As Lucy Dawidowicz
pointed out, while the “whats” are incredibly important in studying the
Shoah, it is crucial to explore why and how those events happened as well.
By providing information about Europe before
Hitler came to power, the Holocaust Museum Houston places the Holocaust
in a broader historical context. Many scholars have pointed to this as
one of the most important guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust,
because then students will be able to understand the history that contributed
to the mindset of those living during the Holocaust. When deciding what
events to include in the Holocaust section at the Museum of Tolerance,
exhibit designers decided to begin discussion in the 1920s. They had
to select certain events, and because time and space were minimal, specific
aspects of the history were either discussed briefly, or not discussed
at all. The video, “The Jewish World That Was,” was their attempt to
provide some historical context behind the history of the Jewish people
in the years before Hitler’s rise to power. This is another instance
where the Holocaust Museum Houston found a balance, and the Museum of
Tolerance made sacrifices to the teaching the history of the Holocaust.
Just as scholars have grappled with the question
of origins, museum educators have had to as well. While a contextualization
of Jewish history is crucial, museums must also explore how Hitler came
to power and how he was able to initiate his state-sponsored program of
genocide. The power of Hitler as an orator, as argued by both academic
scholars and museum educators, played a very important role in his ascent
to power. In addition, many other factors contributed to Hitler’s rise
to power, such as the economic conditions in Germany, its emergence as
an industrial center, and the previous years of history that shaped German
The Holocaust Museum Houston provides a straightforward
and factual account of Hitler’s ascent to power, highlighting his early
anti-Semitic beliefs as propounded in Mein Kampf. It employs text
panels, artifacts, and docent instruction to detail the development of
Hitler’s anti-Semitism, from that of eliminationist to exterminationist.
The Holocaust Museum Houston effectively displays the economic and emotional
turmoil within Germany following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.
However, little attention is paid to other influencing factors. There
is little to no background information provided on the history of Germany,
which would help to explain how so many Germans came to accept Hitler
and support his regime. By understanding the culture of militarism and
obedience to authority, which had been a long tradition in Germany, one
can better understand the variety of contributing factors that made the
The Houston museum subscribes
to the functionalist view claiming that the Holocaust was not inevitable
and was a process of decisions that eventually led to the genocide. Houston’s
visitor guide brochure states:
The Holocaust was not inevitable. Human decisions
created it and people like us allowed it to happen. The Holocaust reminds
us vividly that each one of us is personally responsible for being on
guard, at all times, against such evil.
In reference to the museum’s approach, the Director
of Education pointed to parts of the exhibit that illustrate how the Nazis
first attempted to make life unbearable for Jews in Germany, then how
they tried to make Jews leave and through the various racial laws put
into place. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September 1935,
officially defined a Jew in strictly racial terms. Nazis began to consider
anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents to be a Jew. The laws
also deprived all Jews of their citizenship and prohibited marriage and
sexual relations between a Jew and a non-Jew.
This view clearly reinforces the idea that the events of the Holocaust
were part of a process. This helps to convey the importance of personal
responsibility, a reoccurring theme in the exhibit. Because the events
of the Shoah were part of a process that culminated because of individuals’
actions and decisions, if students accept personal responsibility for
the events happening around them, they can help prevent history from repeating
itself. The Houston museum takes this opportunity to make sure the student
has a lucid understanding of what was happening in Germany in 1935. The
docent points out an artifact—a family tree class assignment—and discusses
how students in Germany were supposed to document their family’s racial
and religious background. Furthering the functionalist view, the museum
highlights the influence Hitler’s words had on the German people.
Docents assert repeatedly that Hitler was a charismatic
speaker and the visitors are able to witness this through archival footage
of Hitler speaking at a rally, the only video with sound used in the main
hall. Previously, when discussing Hitler’s early legislation, the docent
explains his actions as a suspension of civil rights. Again, when discussing
the Nuremberg Laws, he/she describes them as anti-civil rights laws.
The museum uses terms that the students will understand, as most have
learned about America’s civil rights movement throughout their elementary
and secondary educations. The student groups I toured with in Houston
felt a special appreciation for the plight of the Jews, as the school
was predominantly African American. They took their own understanding
of discrimination and racism against African Americans in this country
and applied it to their understanding of the progressive discrimination
against the Jews in Germany.
The docent continues to relate to student visitors
by discussing the events of 1936. Highlighting the Olympics, docents
ask students if they know who Jesse Owens was. They all respond, “yes,
of course.” In the process of explaining how Germany had “cleaned up
its act” for the world to see in 1936, the docent also tells an anecdote,
explaining the story is more of a legend than reality. When Owens set
a new record, becoming the first American to win four gold medals in Track
and Field in a single Olympics, he went to shake Hitler’s hand, a formality
for the host country and gold medal winners. As the story goes, Hitler
refused to shake Owens’ hand because of his race. While this story may
or may not be true, and the docent clearly states that, it serves to bring
history closer to home for these students. It also clarifies the differences
between Hitler’s racial anti-Semitism and the religious anti-Semitism
they previously learned about at the beginning of the exhibit. Also helping
to explain the events in terms these students could relate to, the docent
called the process of Jews being moved to ghettos, “segregation like we’ve
never seen it.”
The exhibit especially provides a clear explanation
of the Evian Conference, which helps to eliminate the obvious question
of why the Jews did not leave Germany. In July 1938, representatives
of thirty-two governments met in Evian, France to discuss the plight of
Jews who were trying to flee Nazi Germany. At this conference, many countries,
including the U.S. and Great Britain, refused to alter their immigration
policies to let in any Jews. By conveying to students that Jews had few
options at that time, students begin to realize that Jews did not in fact
“go like sheep to the slaughter.” The exhibit designers included a quote
that underscores the United States’ role in allowing the Holocaust to
occur. A U.S. delegate at the conference promised that “many millions”
would be aided. The exhibit helps to remind students that his promise
was never kept. While explaining the history of the event itself, this
well-thought out portion of the museum also explores the implications
of each event.
The Museum of Tolerance, although in different
ways than the Houston museum, conveys a variety of information to the
visitor exploring Hitler’s ascent to power and the years leading up to
the Holocaust. To discuss Hitler’s background and the beginnings of his
anti-Semitic views, the L.A. museum employs a mock scene of a German bookstore
with Mein Kampf in the window. The exhibit briefly discusses the
industrialization that occurred in Germany and how this made Berlin a
“modern city.” However, the narrator does not go into greater depth.
When discussing the economic distress facing the country and its government
throughout the 1920s, the narrator quickly voices the various problems
with inflation in the early twenties and a depression at the end of that
decade. As in both museums, the short length of the student’s visit prevents
a thorough examination of all contributing factors. And as a historian
of modern German history explained about this part of the exhibit’s inaccuracies
and brevity, the economic status of Germany during that time was complex
and would require substantial class discussion to really begin to understand
it. Although science
and technology also played a crucial role in the Holocaust, both museums
neglect this as a contributing force in the development of the genocide.
In fact, several historians have cited this as failure in evaluating the
causal factors of the Holocaust.
The Museum of Tolerance also addresses the divisive
debate between intentionalists and functionalists, which it reinforces
by one of the “Frequently Asked Questions” provided on the Museum of Tolerance
Question: Did the Nazis plan to murder Jews from the
beginning of their regime?
Answer: This question is one of the most difficult to answer. While Hitler
made several references to killing Jews, both in his early writings (Mein
Kampf) and in various speeches during the 1930s, it is fairly certain
that the Nazis had no operative plan for the systematic annihilation of
the Jews before 1941.
While the educators clearly
display the difficulty of this question and debate, their view of the
development of the destruction of the Jews is clear. They employ the
functionalist agenda in the exhibit, as it describes the many factors
and decisions that led to the Holocaust. At the Museum of Tolerance,
the theme—“power of words”—plays well into the tolerance premise they
aim to promote and the functionalist approach to the Shoah they employ. The pre-recorded voices that
carry you through the exhibit claim, “[i]f you repeat a line often enough,
people will believe it.” This is the power of words that the museum warns
students about in the Holocaust Section and in the “Tolerancenter.” Moreover, while the museum talks about how Hitler’s words fed
on existing prejudices, it does not explain from where these prejudices
originate. It is at this point where additional background information
would help the students understand why there were existing prejudices
in Germany and its surrounding areas at that time.
|Figure 6. Dioramas throughout the exhibit tell the
story of the Holocaust (courtesy of the Museum of Tolerance).
In discussing the Nuremberg Laws, the Museum
of Tolerance exhibit provides a factual account of the event, but does
not elaborate further. This discussion comes within the diorama describing
anti-Semitism (fig. 6). The narrators describe a list of events, including
the boycotts of Jewish stores, book burnings, and the Nuremberg Laws,
as evidence of the growing anti-Semitism within Germany. Again, the exhibit
designers reiterate the idea that if you repeat a line often enough, people
begin to believe it. While this notion does convey the important role
of propaganda under the Third Reich, this outlook can give the impression
that all Germans were weak and susceptible to this type of influence.
This part of the exhibit does not highlight the failure of the first boycotts
of Jewish stores. Thus, students are left without a full understanding
that not all Germans succumbed to Nazi influence. The later exhibits
discussing resistance also lack proper information to combat this problem.
Continuing the discussion of events leading
to the Holocaust, the L.A. museum uses an interesting quote by Australian
authorities at the Evian Conference. “We don’t have a Jewish problem
and we don’t want to import one either,” says a recording with an Australian
accent. This elucidates the problems Jews faced even before the war and
the genocide began. Unlike Houston’s exhibit which explores the role
of the United States and its failure to help Germany and Austria’s Jews,
the emphasis on the Australian delegate’s quote removes some of the culpability
of the United States for its inaction during the Evian conference and
the years following.
In discussing the immediate factors that led
to Hitler’s accession to power, the museums lacked crucial information.
They both emphasize the economic hardships following World War I and the
Treaty of Versailles, but do not provide information about the affects
of science and technology. Despite these shortcomings, both museums accurately
portray most aspects of the history between 1933-1939. It is in this
area where the educators begin to intermingle lessons with the history
the exhibit is teaching. In most instances, the exhibits teach the history
and lessons without making any sacrifices. The functionalist argument
both museums employ in their exhibits helps to promote the idea that individual
actions truly make a difference. Here, they utilize the history to teach
Figure 7. This children’s book
is among the many artifacts displaying Nazi propaganda (courtesy
of the Holocaust Museum Houston).
While these museums both provide excellent accounts
of specific events leading up to the Holocaust, explaining how the perpetrators
could have done the horrific things they did and how the bystanders could
just sit back, proved to be a more difficult task.
Employing artifacts, photos, and images from
German archives, the Holocaust Museum Houston presents an effective display
of Nazi attempts to brainwash young Germans. Through extensive propaganda
tools such as children’s primers, school supplies branded with the Nazi
swastika, and various Hitler youth paraphernalia, the museum reflects
how young Germans, around the same age as the student, learned about the
world (fig. 7). The government promoted this skewed view, which was apparent
throughout German society.
The Museum of Tolerance discusses Nazi propaganda
in print, focusing on the short publication entitled Protocols of the
Elders of Zion. While written in Russia before Hitler even came to
power, the Nazis utilized this publication, which claimed that an international
Jewish conspiracy existed aimed at world domination.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion was translated into many languages
and was even distributed in the United States by automobile magnate Henry
Ford, the narrator tells the students. The students continue along the
automated tour, briefly distracted by the second group that enters the
exhibit, a perfect eleven minutes from the time they entered. They arrive
at a café scene and listen as mock characters discuss Hitler and the Nazi
8. The Berlin Café diorama explores public views of the rising
Nazi party (courtesy of the Museum of Tolerance).
Students see a variety of views held by average
Germans in this part of the exhibit. One voice contends that the “good
German people won’t let it happen.” However, another voice then says
in response to Hitler and his Nazi party’s rise to power, “if you can’t
beat them, join them” (fig. 8).
An intense debate among scholars erupted over
this very issue. Commonly known as the Browning/Goldhagen debate, the
main issue at the center of this recent argument is whether the perpetrators
were “ordinary men” or “Hitler’s willing executioners.” By exploring these two opposing views, one
can better understand the various reasons the perpetrators could have
done the things they did. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Holocaust
Museum Houston lacks sufficient information. The docents emphasize that
educated individuals were the ones involved in the euthanasia programs.
However, neither the exhibit nor the docent explains why these educated
individuals became involved. The Director of Visitor and Volunteer Services
attributes this lack of information to a limitation of time and space.
The Museum of Tolerance’s approach to this dichotomy
is evident in a video clip shown in the exhibit. After talking about
Germany’s taking of the Sudetenland and Kristallnacht, the
narrator begins discussion about the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing
squads. The men who were part of these mobile killing squads are repeatedly
referred to as “ordinary men.” By taking the position that these men
were in fact ordinary, the museum must provide information explaining
why these ordinary men did such things. This question is left unanswered
in the visitor’s mind. The museum argues that since these were ordinary
men involved in such horrible acts, we too are susceptible to such actions.
By learning to tolerate others, the museum argues, such a thing will never
happen again. And while the museum explains that the Nazis and their
supporters were not “inhumane monsters,” as one critic of the Museum of
Tolerance writes, it does not do enough to help students understand the
circumstances that led these ordinary Germans to become involved in murdering
their neighbors. The museum continues to convey the idea
that these men were not inhumane monsters. In a short video, a voice
representing a Nazi officer asserts that even some of his men were repulsed
by the actions of Lithuanian police against Jews. While on the surface
this reflects that anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Eastern Europe
and not just centered in Germany, it also lends itself to instigate feelings
of sympathy for these Nazis. The so-called “repulsion” these Nazis felt
should not diminish their culpability in any way or incite feelings of
sympathy. Regardless of whether the perpetrators are ordinary people
swept up in a horrible situation or willing to murder at a moment’s notice,
unless these different ways of evaluating their actions are understood
in the context of Hitler’s accession to power and his eliminationist and
later exterminationist policies, the learning process will be incomplete.
Scholars are now recognizing the many instances
and types of resistance against the Nazis during the Holocaust. In doing
so, museums have an opportunity to utilize this new research to fully
convey that Jews did not “go like sheep to the slaughter.” And while
Jewish and non-Jewish resistance was limited in its scope and effectiveness,
it is now recognized that there were many more occurrences of rebellion
than previously thought. Individuals and groups resisted in many different
ways. Some came together in the ghettos or camps and staged uprisings.
Both in museums and in popular culture, these instances of resistance
are most frequently discussed. The popular made-for-TV movie Uprising
tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which was the first civilian
armed resistance in occupied Europe and was the most successful attempt
at rebellion. Scholars
now discuss other types of resistance, such as Jews retaining a semblance
of normalcy in their daily lives, non-Jews hiding and aiding Jews, acts
of civil disobedience, student acts of protest, and partisan efforts to
sabotage German efforts.
9. Students explore various panels describing types of resistance
(courtesy of Holocaust Museum Houston).
The Holocaust Museum Houston portrays well-known
examples of resistance and also explores those that are more obscure.
Vertical freestanding panels describing the types of resistance continue
to tell the stories of local Houston Holocaust survivors and their experiences
(fig. 9). One panel focuses on “Operation Texas.” Through local research,
those involved with the creation of the permanent exhibit found documentation
of Lyndon B. Johnson and his colleagues’ efforts to rescue Jews from Europe
during the late 1930s and early 1940s. They were able to smuggle
hundreds of Jews through Galveston, Houston’s port city, by both legal
and illegal means. While many parties first denied this story, one of
LBJ’s colleagues made the story public at a 1963 synagogue dedication
in Austin. Figuring he would not face prosecution for any of the crimes
he may have committed, LBJ admitted his involvement at this dedication
ceremony. In her White House diary, Lady Bird Johnson recalled that at
this event, survivors tugged on her sleeve and gratefully stated that
if it were not for her husband, they probably would not be alive today. This little known story helps to give students an idea of the
wide range of resistance that took place under the Third Reich. Docents
approach this section of the museum differently, as they have many options
of which stories of resistance they can highlight. Students have the
opportunity to explore these panels themselves. Docents allow a few minutes
to look at the various stories after highlighting one or two panels.
The Museum of Tolerance addresses issues of
resistance through a mock scene of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator invites
visitors to “sit amongst the ruins,” as the voice discusses how groups
formed and tried to resist the Nazis. In each country, the narrator reminds
us, someone resisted. However, they were outnumbered and poorly armed.
This scene also depicts the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and clearly provides
the facts. After years of starvation, persecution, and random killings,
the Jews of Warsaw rebelled, holding off the Germans for one month. This
story of Jewish struggle is indeed a powerful one. However, there is
little time for reflection. Immediately after the narrator finishes the
story, the students must hurry to the next part of the exhibit. Because
of the nature of the Holocaust section at the Museum of Tolerance, students
have little time to process the information they are receiving. The perfectly
timed stations guide the visitors through the entire exhibit in sixty-five
minutes. While they are supposed to become witnesses to the events, as
the teachers’ guide proclaims, they in fact have little time to witness
and comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. And while the narrator correctly points out
that acts of resistance occurred everywhere, the voice does not elaborate
on other types of resistance. At the end of the entire Holocaust section,
students pass by a wall describing various acts of resistance by righteous
gentiles. This thoughtfully put together part of the exhibit highlights
the sacrifices made by non-Jews to help their Jewish neighbors. While
a discussion of these instances would be helpful in expanding this notion
of resistance, the tours I followed passed right by without even noticing
the wall. Thus, students miss out on a lesson that could promote the
museum’s goal of learning “from the past, to engage in the present and
assume responsibility for the future.”
Because Holocaust museums
in the U.S. are primarily created and funded by members of the Jewish
community, the narrative of these museums highlight the Jewish Holocaust,
instead of discussing all victims of the Nazi regime equally. The members
of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust grappled with this very
issue in deciding how to discuss other victims of the Nazi regime in the
D.C. Holocaust memorial, which eventually caused great internal conflict
among the members.
Because of this heated debate, it is important to look at how museums
portray the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish victims.
The Holocaust Museum Houston’s mission
statement clearly singles out Jews as the primary victims of the Nazi
genocide, but also includes the “other innocent victims” that perished
at Nazi hands.
While highlighting Jews as the main victims, there is an attempt to include
Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally ill, Jehovah’s witnesses, Soviet POWs,
and political enemies in the main exhibit. One wall of the exhibit shows
the various symbols for the different prisoners and emphasizes that millions
of non-Jews became victims as well (fig. 10). The exhibit designers stressed
that the fate of Gypsies closely paralleled that of Jews. Historians
have also noted the parallels between Nazi genocidal policies towards
Jews and Gypsies, since Nazis considered both groups as racially alien
and dangerous to Hitler’s goal of creating a pure Aryan race. The teachers’ guide also states that Jews
were singled out for extermination, but includes a list of other groups
in Germany who were persecuted by the Nazis as well. Houston educators again used part of the
Museum of Tolerance’s frequently asked questions for their teacher packet.
The Museum of Tolerance’s thirty-six frequently
asked questions provide information for teachers about a variety of Holocaust-related
topics, but as the Holocaust Museum Houston found, certain answers provide
great insight for teachers regarding non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The Museum of Tolerance asks what the difference was between the persecution
of Jews and the persecution of other Nazi victims. It goes on to state:
Jews were the only group singled out for total
systematic annihilation by the Nazis…Every single Jew was to be killed
according to the Nazis’ plan. In the case of other criminals or enemies
of the Third Reich, their families were usually not held accountable.
Thus, if a person were executed or sent to a concentration camp, it
did not mean that each member of his family would meet the same fate.
|Figure 10. The “other victims” are
highlighted in this portion of the exhibit (courtesy of Holocaust
This approach clearly emphasizes the differences
between Jewish and non-Jewish victims and takes the position that the
Jewish experience was unique among all victims of the Nazi regime. In
the exhibit, the narrator reinforces this notion, telling students that
the Jews were the only group singled out for total annihilation. The
narrator also lists other victims quickly—homosexuals, Gypsies, communists,
Jehovah’s Witnesses, mentally ill—and then students move on to the next
part of the exhibit. At this point, students can begin to discern the
museum’s approach towards the importance and uniqueness of the Jewish
story. Here, it is not the museum’s focus on teaching tolerance that
prevents students from gaining a broad perspective about the Holocaust,
but the politics involved in the creation of the exhibit. Undoubtedly,
Jewish financial and volunteer support for the museum, as well as the
early partnership with Yeshiva University, played a role in shaping what
narrative would be told in the museum. The quick passing mention of the
other victims of the Holocaust promotes the notion that the Jewish Holocaust
was more important that the genocide of other Nazi victims. Unless teachers
spend time with their students discussing the Nazi persecution of Slavs,
Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals and others, the students will miss other
parts of the story.
In the concluding portion of Holocaust museums,
the exhibit designers have many options. They can end on an uplifting
note, they can conclude with an emphasis on the destruction and devastation
caused by the Holocaust, or they can find a middle ground between the
two. In American popular culture, stories about the Holocaust have typically
ended on a positive note.
Some scholars see this phenomenon as an attempt to meet the needs of their
American audience and to promote themes of hope, renewal, and optimism.
For example, the Holocaust museum in New York dedicates an entire floor
of the three-story building to “Jewish renewal,” including the creation
of the State of Israel and the American Jewish experience. Both the Holocaust Museum Houston and the
Museum of Tolerance also subscribe to the belief that the visitor should
be uplifted in some way following their tour through the exhibit.
The final section of the Holocaust Museum Houston
exhibit emphasizes the varied experiences of Jews following liberation.
At first, the docent points out pictures and video images of American
troops liberating the camps. Newspaper clippings from a local newspaper,
The Houston Chronicle, highlight the liberation of Nazi prisoners.
It also tells the story of how the managing editor of the newspaper was
one of seventeen newsmen to be flown directly to Germany to cover this
unfolding story in April of 1945. Again, the museum exhibit makes connections
between the Holocaust and Houston. The exhibit also describes the Nuremberg
Trials in twelve panels, which display the names of the accused, the verdict,
their sentence, and the eventual outcome. The Nuremberg trials teach
students that many of the perpetrators were condemned for their actions.
In contrast to this discussion of the Nazi war
criminals, the opposite wall discusses the fate of liberated Jews through
photographs and text panels, which highlight the various places Jews ended
up following their liberation. The exhibit explains that in displaced
persons camps, Jews continued to face anti-Semitism. In Poland also,
anti-Semitism was still rampant. Many Jews made their way to Palestine
despite British immigration quotas. There, they were given a chance to
rebuild their lives. It is at this point that the tone of the museum
shifts to feelings of hope and redemption. Docents emphasize the courage
and determination of Jews in rebuilding their lives after the war. The
final panel focuses on those Jews who came to the U.S. And while America
was not totally free from anti-Semitism then, and still is not today,
the docent reminds students that survivors came here in pursuit of the
American ideals of life, liberty, and happiness. This panel also includes
a picture of the Statue of Liberty in the background and a quote, which
conveys the idea that having survivors here in the U.S., is truly a gift
because it makes all Americans remember how precious our rights really
are. The final portion of the exhibit lists the names of survivors
who at some point have lived in Houston and asks what the world has learned
from the Holocaust. Ultimately, the docent answers, not enough. The
original theme of personal responsibility is again reinforced, as students
learn that the responsibility to prevent further atrocities lies with
them. “The responsibility begins with each of us today,” is the final
statement that students are left with.
At the Museum of Tolerance, students spend time
in a darkly lit gas chamber-like room watching and listening to dramatic
stories about the victims of Nazi camps. Following this display, they
exit through double doors, not before passing a sign that states “[h]ope
lives when people remember.” This message of hope continues as students
enter a lit room to watch TV screens depicting images of the liberation
of the camps. The video explains that American and Soviet troops stumbled
upon the camps to find the inmates who did not even “look human.” This
helps to show students that the end of the Holocaust came because of the
Allied troops happened upon the camps, instead of actively seeking to
free the prisoners. On a more positive note, this video clip ends by
discussing Israel. Here, the narrator describes Israel as a place where
survivors could put their past behind them and have a bright future.
Much like the Houston museum, the Museum of Tolerance shows Israel as
one answer to the persecution of Jews. Also contributing to the optimistic
focus at the end of the exhibit, students pass by the righteous gentiles
wall, mentioned earlier. If a docent were to discuss this section, they
could utilize these acts of goodness as a counterweight to what is mostly
a very depressing subject. Instead of stating that everyone
is intolerant and prejudiced, the museum could highlight these few acts
of kindness as a type of role model for these students.
Because visitors have just been faced with some
of the most horrific images and ideas imaginable, the museums end their
discussion of the Shoah with a positive outlook. While the Holocaust
was of course devastating and disastrous for so many, educators show that
the survivors were resilient and were able to rebuild their lives, in
countries like Israel and the United States. While most students leave
the museums stunned at what they just learned, the emphasis on hope helps
to uplift these students and encourage them that they can make a difference
if they exercise their moral responsibilities.
A Holocaust museum is undoubtedly going to have
some affect on its visitor. Museum educators hope to teach students about
the history of the Holocaust through their exhibits. They also aim to
teach lessons that students will take away with them. Because a class
visit to a museum is confined to the timetable of both the school and
the museum, the exhibit must make its point clear in a concise manner
so that the students are able to understand and process the information.
In Houston, students overwhelmingly recognized
the importance of personal responsibility, one theme the museum educators
continuously promote. In letters that students wrote to the Holocaust
Museum Houston after their visit, they repeatedly referred to the many
people who were bystanders. Several students vowed to “never be a bystander,”
not act on their prejudices, and stand up for victims in their everyday
lives. One student
made a list of changes he/she intended to make in his/her life. “Using
the word ‘gay’ will change…poking fun at others because of their size…will
change…giving people a second chance will be a motive.”
This sixteen year old clearly realized that the lessons being taught in
the museum had implications for his/her own life. Another student wrote
that he would like to come back to the museum and show his parents and
brother “what happens when you just stand by.”
Most educators hope their museum will serve as a catalyst to a new interest
or idea, as this student experienced. His visit to the museum led him
to want to teach his family about the Holocaust and the lessons he learned
from his visit. Many students had no personal connection to the Holocaust
before their visit to the museum. Once they realized that there were
and are survivors living in their community, they felt that studying the
events was in fact relevant to their own lives. One student remarked
that “to actually know that even people here in Houston were effected
by the Holocaust…brings the whole thing closer to home.”
As educator Samuel Totten argues, it is the power and emotion of an individual
story that can best engage students.
The Houston museum’s emphasis on the local narratives of survivors utilizes
the museum-learning theory that students need to relate to understand
In many letters to the Houston museum, it becomes
obvious that the students did learn a great deal about the Shoah. Some
simply write that in their letters, while others refer to certain issues
they learned about. One ninth grade student wrote, “My condolences to
the millions of Jews and other minorities killed and descriminated.”
He clearly understood that Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi
regime. However, not all students will understand all the history and
lessons being conveyed. While the exhibit made several attempts to enforce
the idea that many Jews did resist, one letter stated, “if I were a jew
I probably would at leest tried to fight back or something.” While it could be assumed
by the student’s spelling and grammatical errors that he/she might be
younger or not that bright, it is still important that the museum reach
its goal of teaching all students, regardless of their age or intelligence
The letters students have written to the Museum
of Tolerance repeatedly convey their gratitude for the opportunity to
attend the museum. They all stated that they learned a lot; however,
they do not elaborate further. One student’s experience has led him to
“[check] out all these things on the Holocaust and geneside.”
While no student so dramatically listed ways to change his/her attitude,
as in the Houston letters, it is apparent that several students’ interests
had been aroused. One student remarked that while many people already
know about the Holocaust, the Museum of Tolerance teaches much more than
just the history.
A high school student carries this notion even further in a letter that
was ultimately quoted on the museum’s membership recruitment form. She
writes, “[t]he day I visited your Museum I learned more about love and
hate than I have in my whole life.” The variety of lessons and
information being taught in the museum leads to a multitude of responses
from students. There is no cohesive agreement among students, as seen
in their letters to the museum, regarding what about their visit made
the most impact on their lives. However, many of the students did seem
to recognize that they were learning more than just about the Holocaust.
They were aware that the many things they learned on their class trip
have implications for their lives today.
One of the major factors determining how museum
educators teach the lessons of the Holocaust is whether they subscribe
to the idea that the Shoah was a unique event in history or if it was
a universal occurrence.
While many survivors have argued for the uniqueness of the circumstances
they faced, other scholars have attempted to draw parallels between the
Holocaust and other genocides throughout history. This begs the question:
Can a unique Holocaust have universal implications? The Holocaust Museum
Houston and the Museum of Tolerance merge these two arguments. Instead
of taking one position or the other, they argue that the Holocaust is
unique, but that lessons and parallels can be drawn, proving that indeed
these two arguments can be reconciled.
The Holocaust Museum Houston takes this hotly
contested debate and attempts to teach both sides of the argument. In
its mission statement, the museum claims to “educate students…about the
uniqueness of that event and its ongoing lesson: that humankind must learn
to live together in peace and harmony.”
The Director of Education reiterates this point as she explains that the
Holocaust was unique, but not more horrific than the murders and genocide
of other people.
Universal lessons do in fact apply. However, the different elements in
society that came together to create and allow the murder of six million
Jews and five million others truly make the Holocaust unique. In addition,
the Director of Education argues, the Nazis targeted an entire culture
for elimination, not just individuals. The Board of Directors also feels
very strongly about achieving balance between these two dichotomies.
Chairman David Bell comments, “[w]e must be constantly vigilant to ensure
that in our public programs, our changing exhibits, and our educational
outreach, we achieve a balance between the particular and the universal.” To teach students that a
unique Holocaust can in fact have universal implications, museum educators
discuss at teacher trainings various hate crimes and international crimes
against humanity, while relating them to the historical background of
the time. In addition,
the Director of Visitor and Volunteer Services trains docents equally
on the historical facts of the Holocaust and other tolerance-related issues.
The Museum of Tolerance approaches the debate
between the uniqueness and universality of the Shoah in very similar ways.
In explaining the museum’s attitude towards this subject, the Associate
Director of the Museum argues, “[w]e present the Holocaust as an extreme
unique event in history. This is imperative. While it is unique, you
must draw lessons to be learned. There are some parallels to the extreme
example of man’s inhumanity to man.”
Both in theory and in practice, the museum employs this approach towards
interpreting the Holocaust. The phrase, “ultimate example of man’s
inhumanity to man” (emphasis added), repeatedly surfaces throughout the
museum’s brochures and tours. Thus, the museum argues that the Holocaust
was the worst example of any crime against man, but emphasizes that there
have been other examples so that lessons can be drawn. However, in these
comparisons, the other events being contrasted could be trivialized.
If the museum argues that the Holocaust is the worst example, then this
means that there are other examples that are not as bad. This could open
the museum to intense criticism. Those who claim ownership of the memory
of those murdered in the Armenian genocide of the early 20th
century, for instance, could argue that the Museum of Tolerance is claiming
that the Jewish suffering is worse than the suffering of Armenians. This
could be seen as extremely degrading to those other victims of genocide.
Despite this problematic issue, the museum employs
these ideals to extract lessons from the events. At the beginning of
the Holocaust section, the narrators state, “it could have happened anywhere
to anyone.” Because history repeats itself, as the museum argues, we
as individuals must take action to prevent such horrific events from happening
ever again. At several points through the Holocaust section, the narrators
refer to those involved in the Holocaust—the perpetrators, the liberators,
the resistors, the victims—as “ordinary people.” This notion helps to
reinforce the idea that it could have happened anywhere. The exhibit
also conveys the idea that the Jewish persecution was different from the
suffering faced by other victims of the Nazi regime, and therefore, a
Finding a balance between portraying the Holocaust
as either a unique or a universal experience proves to be a difficult
challenge. By not subscribing to one view or another, the museums are
able to appease both survivors who argue for the uniqueness of their experiences
and those who argue that lessons must be learned and applied to the world
today. By teaching students that other issues of genocide have occurred
in history and instances of hate and discrimination still occur today,
they can realize that it could easily happen again. This would influence
students to take responsibility to help prevent further atrocities.
At the Holocaust Museum Houston, the staff and
board members are “committed to using the lessons of the Holocaust to
teach a set of very precious values.”
Among the values David Bell suggests are tolerance, justice, faith, appreciation
of differences, moral courage, and the sanctity of life. From learning
about the history of the Holocaust, many students recognize the importance
of being tolerant of others and accepting of people’s differences.
The students also have a greater appreciation for the freedom they enjoy
by living in the United States. The notion of America as a land of freedom
is amplified by the museum brochure’s claim that the Holocaust teaches
us “to take no good thing for granted, especially the values of America:
liberty and justice for all.” The final exhibit panel of the museum highlights
those survivors who came to America to rebuild their lives. Because the
museum has a local focus, concentrating on the experiences of survivors
now living in Houston, America is represented as a haven for the oppressed.
Some students may think that since the museum portrays America as such
a wonderful place full of freedom and opportunity, the prejudices and
intolerance that contributed to the Holocaust could never happen here.
The Houston museum could take greater care in teaching students that it
could happen again, anywhere.
To teach students another precious lesson of
the Holocaust, the docents discuss moral courage. Throughout their tour,
students learn how bystanders did nothing while the Nazis committed genocide.
Docents teach them to take personal responsibility and not be a bystander
in their own lives. Throughout students’ tours to the Holocaust Museum
Houston, they learn the history of the Holocaust and the many lessons
that can be extracted. However, the Director of Education makes it clear
that first they teach the history, and then its lessons.
The Museum of Tolerance,
apparent by its name, makes teaching tolerance one of its main goals.
Utilizing studies that show by age 12, children have “already developed
stereotypes about other ethnic, racial and religious groups…and nearly
half of our country’s hate crimes are committed by men under 20 years
old,” the museum staff focuses on teaching young people about the dangers
On the Museum of Tolerance website, the educators cite from an article
which claims that the most important lesson is to show students that the
Holocaust is not only important to Jews. The author argues that “any
society can descend to that level unless safeguards are put in place.” In the Holocaust section of the museum, the
exhibits teach students that the events they are hearing about could have
happened anywhere to anyone. In the Tolerancenter, they learn about instances
of prejudice and discrimination occurring throughout the world. Focusing
on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, current hate crimes in the
United States, human rights abuses and acts of genocide throughout the
world, the museum educators ask the question, what were we supposed to
remember? Images of atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo
fill the screen, showing that still today government-sponsored genocide
is still occurring. In both the Holocaust and Tolerance sections, students
learn that they need to remember the lessons of the Holocaust and help
stop prejudice and intolerance before it leads to any more violence.
Therefore, studying the Holocaust is important to all people, not just
Jews, because of the lessons it teaches and its relevance for today’s
By showing these other horrific examples of injustice
and inhumanity, the Museum of Tolerance teaches students that if their
actions are contrary to everything they just witnessed, then the world
will begin to be a better place. Believing that students learn best through
interaction and being involved in the learning process, the museum educators
employ the hands-on media-centered exhibit to teach these lessons.
The museum uses the Holocaust as a tool to show what happens when prejudice
and hate overwhelm a society. Aiming to promote social and personal responsibility,
the museum teaches students to be tolerant of one another in their classrooms
and in the world.
The goal of promoting personal responsibility,
which is found in both museums, leads students to recognize the similarities
between their own lives and those of the bystanders and the perpetrators.
In some ways, this helps students relate to the story they are learning
about, a very important factor in their learning, as museum educators
have pointed out. While this educational tactic can be useful at
times, having students relate their own lives to those of Nazis can
also be disconcerting. Many students, especially younger ones, might
not be open to this type of reasoning and will not understand the
message educators are trying to convey. In further attempts to connect
to students, these museums imbue American values of tolerance, freedom,
pluralism, liberty, and individual responsibility into the lessons
they teach. By teaching tolerance, students learn to fight for these
values, to prevent events like the Holocaust from happening in the
Throughout the United States, educators are
using the Holocaust to teach lessons to today’s youth. Just recently,
the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education Act of
2003 passed through the California legislature. The author of this bill,
Assemblymember Paul Koretz, notes that California is now “poised to become
a model state in using the Holocaust and genocide education to teach about
human rights and other issues of intolerance and bigotry.
In the United States today, the Holocaust has become intertwined with
teaching tolerance. While museums are not to blame nor credit for this
occurrence, they do subscribe to this approach to teaching about the Shoah.
While teaching tolerance can have many positive affects on students, museum
educators must ensure that they are also teaching the history. Without
solid understanding of the history of the Holocaust, students will be
unable to recognize the importance and significance of the lessons they
are learning. In the bill itself, Section 2c states that
in order to create an awareness of the enormity
of the crimes of prejudice, bigotry, inhumanity, and intolerance and
to foster responsibility by future generations to confront these crimes,
it is crucial that we teach the lessons of the Holocaust and genocide.
While the bill emphasizes that the lessons of
the Holocaust should be taught, it neglects to focus on the history of
the Holocaust itself. The interest in teaching lessons to America’s youth
has overwhelmed the need to teach why this event has lessons in the first
place. In museums, movies, television shows, education materials, and
other various places across the U.S., the Holocaust is being used to teach
lessons. As Michael Berenbaum has stated, the Holocaust has become an
instrument for teaching values and morals.
And while his statement was not meant to be taken as a negative fact about
American culture, I argue that it is not appropriate for the Holocaust
to be used. The memory of 11 million murdered individuals, over 1.5
million of them children, is being used to teach lessons. As this thesis
has contended, there are methods to teach the history of the Holocaust,
maintain the memory of those persecuted, and teach the lessons that emerge
from the events.
The exhibit designers at the Holocaust Museum
Houston aim to relate the events of the Holocaust to the lives of the
student visitors. Through various methods, such as storytelling and local
survivor exhibit panels, the Houston museum achieves its stated mission
to “promote awareness of the dangers of prejudice…against the backdrop
of the Holocaust.” This message, the lesson of personal responsibility,
and an understanding of the history, truly become engrained in the students’
minds, as evident through their letters to the museum. The Holocaust
Museum Houston has managed to find a balance between teaching the history
and teaching tolerance, as well as emphasizing the uniqueness and the
universality of the events. Achieving balance, one of the Board Chairman’s
main stated goals, has proven quite effective for influencing and affecting
their student visitors.
The Museum of Tolerance’s second stated objective
is to focus on the “history of the Holocaust.” Just as this theme comes
second in the mission statement, it too takes a back seat to the museum’s
emphasis on teaching tolerance. Despite attempts to discuss various aspects
of Holocaust history, the lack of sufficient time prevents students from
gaining a well-balanced education of the Holocaust and its lessons. Moreover,
there is also little time for reflection. The focus on racism and teaching
tolerance, as found in the “Tolerancenter,” eclipses the objective to
teach the history. However, the museum does make a connection with their
student visitors and effectively conveys the message that another Holocaust
could happen again.
Holocaust museums have taken the controversial
issues that have been debated among scholars, particularly the Americanization
of the Holocaust and the uniqueness vs. universality of the events, and
have employed these debates for their own advantage. By including this
“Americanized” focus in their programs and exhibits, museum educators
are better equipped to connect with their student visitors. Students
can relate to American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Museums have also transcended this debate between advocates of uniqueness
and advocates of universality. While showing the Holocaust to be a unique
event in history, educators and exhibit designers also find universal
lessons among the tragedy that students can relate to their lives today.
Teachers are continually signing up their classes for visits to a Holocaust
museum nearby their schools. Some teachers are even raising funds to
send their students to Washington, D.C. to visit the United States Holocaust
Because teachers are seeking out these museums to teach their students
about the Holocaust, it is important that the museum is sending the right
With Holocaust museums attracting a broader
audience each day, one wonders: what is the future of Holocaust education
in American museums? I would argue that museum educators must continue
to develop and expand their resources for students and teachers alike.
They should not be completely satisfied with their current state and should
always strive for precision. There are many improvements that the Holocaust
Museum Houston and Museum of Tolerance educators could do to better reach
their student audience. Students should be well versed on the historical
context that contributed to the events, including a background on Jewish
history, anti-Semitism, and modern German history.
By studying these historical forces, students will recognize these as
precursors to the development of Nazi Germany, Hitler’s ideology, and
the genocide. It is also crucial to understand the various factors that
allowed the Holocaust to happen. Educators must highlight the role of
economics, science, the international situation, and the psychological
conditions within Germany and its neighboring countries. Moreover, a
comprehensive discussion of the Holocaust should begin not at the museum,
but within the classroom. Museum educators should help train teachers
in ways to best utilize the teachers’ guide and begin teaching their students
about the Holocaust. Increasingly, education departments at the Holocaust
museums are offering teacher in-service trainings, but this must continue
to expand with greater frequency. In addition, the end of the museum
tour should not be the end of the students’ learning. The teachers’ guides
should provide post-visit lesson plans as well, that must be utilized
in the classroom. Because of the importance of continuing education beyond
the museum experience, museum educators and teachers should develop a
rapport to promote learning amongst the students.
As this thesis has shown, the education programs
for youth at the Holocaust Museum Houston and the Museum of Tolerance
in Los Angeles both provide an effective discussion of personal responsibility,
tolerance, and understanding. Unfortunately, this focus has overwhelmingly
become the centerpiece of the L.A. museum. The Holocaust Museum Houston
should serve as a model for Holocaust educators throughout the U.S. They
have achieved a balance between addressing historical debates, as well
as current issues and lessons. While there is always room for improvement,
this museum’s few weaknesses could easily be resurrected. Through more
in-depth docent training and teachers’ resources, certain issues, such
as the role of science in allowing the Holocaust to happen, could be dealt
with more effectively. Teachers could discuss all the contributing factors
before their class visit, and docents could reinforce these issues as
they tour the main exhibit.
Teaching about the Holocaust is an extremely
difficult subject because of the complexity of the events and the
debates that have emerged regarding its interpretation. Despite these
difficulties, museum educators and teachers throughout the U.S. have
accepted the challenge to teach America’s youth about the events that
devastated the lives of millions. As scholars continue to uncover
new information about the Holocaust, museums must be willing to adapt
to new research and continuously revisit their methodology in teaching
students. The Holocaust Museum Houston and the Museum of Tolerance
play an important role in teaching America’s youth about the Shoah.
Since they both sit in the centers of the second and fourth largest
cities in the U.S., they have the opportunity to reach hundreds of
thousands of students. As long as the focus on teaching tolerance
does not overshadow the teaching of the history itself, these museums
can serve as centers of learning for years to come.
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