The Importance of Teaching the Holocaust

Though by middle school I knew about the murder of Jewish people and others in the Holocaust during World War II, the topic was not emphasized in my history classes. As a teenager, I watched the movie Schindler’s List at a friend’s house. Seeing this movie was an emotional experience for me, particularly at the end when the main character regrets that he could not save more Jews.

After watching Schindler’s List, I came to the conclusion that the Germans were bad people. The movie’s characters are portrayed as either good or evil. If I had only watched the movie, I would have held on to these assumptions. When I finally took a course on the Holocaust in college, however, I realized that the film stereotyped the behavior of Germans and Jews during the Holocaust. For example, Nazis were not simply fanatical murderers. Many of them were well educated, loved their families, and enjoyed classical music. In fact, classical music helped some Nazis relax after the day’s brutalities. They were not terrible people but rather people who did terrible things. Also, not all Jews were helpless victims. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi said that the history of the concentration camps could not be divided into simple groups of victims and persecutors. He talked about a “gray zone” in which corrupt Jews in positions of authority abused fellow prisoners while some Nazis showed they were human by weeping as they killed people.

In addition to the gray boundaries between victims and persecutors, I learned that the German population as a whole was not made up of monsters. Instead, they were mainly worried about their own well being in wartime. Busy with their own concerns, average Germans reacted with indifference when Jews were excluded from certain professions and public places.

While the German indifference towards the Jews is inexcusable, the amount of knowledge that the German population had about the extermination of the Jews is still debatable. Although their indifference to milder forms of prejudice made it possible for others to contemplate extermination, the majority of Germans had little information about the death camps. As one historian suggested, “the very secrecy of the ‘Final Solution’ [the Nazis’ plan to kill the Jews] demonstrates more clearly than anything else the fact that the Nazi leadership felt it could not rely on popular backing for its extermination policy.”

In fact, if faced with enough problems of our own, Americans might act with indifference toward a persecuted group. This is one of the most important reasons that young adults should study the Holocaust. Although the Holocaust happened years ago, prejudice against others who are different can still lead to serious consequences. The underlying dislike of Jews in the minds of Europeans laid the foundation for a catastrophe, particularly when the Great Depression in the 1930s came and people could not find work. Many European countries were also beaten down after losing World War I.  The majority of Europeans blamed the Jews for their sufferings and looked for a leader who would tell them how great their country would be again.

Of course, some Americans might say that we are not prejudiced against Jews, did not elect Adolf Hitler, and our economy is not as bad as it was in the 1930s. Yet some of the same ingredients for another Holocaust exist in America today. Murders of homosexuals, the isolation of some African-Americans and others in ghettos, as well as racial hate groups are all present in American society. Like the majority of the German population during World War II, most people in America do not condone killing minorities, but some feel uncomfortable helping them or associating with them. If this prejudice spreads and other factors like an economic depression and a persuasive leader are added, the world could witness another Holocaust. Teaching the Holocaust is important because it shows students that we must learn from history so the same event cannot happen again.

Children in the Nazi Ghettos

Although the concept of the family did not disappear during the Holocaust, the traditional family structure was modified to meet new circumstances. Isolated from their jobs and their role as provider for their families, fathers no longer had the same authority. Since many family members worked in the ghettos, including children aged ten and older, the father’s status within the family changed. In addition to the inability to adequately provide for their families, fathers also could not protect their children from Nazi cruelty. Israel Gutman states that “during the Nazi occupation and the existence of the ghetto…the trust and logic of the adult world was undermined. Fears, frustration, and helplessness affected adults more profoundly than it did the adolescents and placed the head of the family in a humiliating position. Fathers could not protect their children.” Deprived of their traditional roles, fathers were ineffective and had no influence over their children who began to disobey and question their authority. These children also had no role model to replace their real fathers. No paternal feeling existed among the Nazis for the Jews in the ghettos. Since the Nazis believed the Jews were evil, children either had a male role model through their father or they had none at all.


The role of Jewish children changed as a consequence of the decline in patriarchal authority. Their fathers were no longer providers, so children smuggled food to their families. They accomplished their mission by slipping through and over the gates to beg on Polish streets, and many saved the food they received to present to their families rather than eat it immediately. Mark Mandel from Warsaw, Poland is one example of a child smuggler. There was a streetcar that ran for two blocks in the Warsaw ghetto which Mandel, age 11, and his sister used to smuggle goods from the Christian side. The entire society was turned upside down as children began to replace their parents as the support of the family. Children had the advantage of size and the ability to play on the sympathies of those on the outside, but their task was dangerous. Diarist Abraham Lewin told of the Warsaw ghetto’s tiny smugglers: “Once again we can observe the scores of Jewish children from the age of ten to 12 or 13 stealing over the Aryan side to buy a few potatoes there…There are also vicious guards who hit the children with murderous blows…More than one child has fallen victim to their bloodlust.” Prior to the conditions of the ghetto these children only worried about school and chores, but in the ghetto they were forced to take on adult responsibilities and even risk their lives for the sake of getting food to their families.


Following the breakdown of the traditional family, teenagers in the ghettos established youth groups. Many members either had no blood relations left alive or had missing relatives, but the groups they formed soon became surrogate families. Youth groups performed the basic functions needed for survival. Members of youth groups shared whatever they had in money or food so that everyone had enough to survive. The groups provided aid to members, but those involved formed familial bonds with their fellow members. Youth movement leader Yitzhak Zuckerman explains: “There was common responsibility, not concern for ourselves…the possibility that one of us would abandon the other and get along somehow—something that sometimes even happened within families—did not exist within our circles.”