By Arthur Berger
I recently visited Lithuania and Ukraine to take part in Holocaust education programs for local teachers, organized by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI) in partnership with the International Commission for the Evaluation of Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum and with the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies.
Both countries’ Jewish communities were decimated during the Holocaust. The Nazi Einsatzgruppen (killing squads) accompanied the German army throughout Eastern Europe, and were joined by willing local collaborators. The killing of millions of Jews was what Father Patrick Dubois called the “Holocaust by bullets.” In our visits with the teachers to the mass killing sites of Ponary and Babi Yar, we walked the length of these massive graves and said Kaddish in memory of the victims.
Teaching the Holocaust in these countries is challenging, even for the most dedicated teacher.
Revisionist history and selective memory, especially with regard to national heroes, obscures their collaboration with the Nazis. Yet, a new generation of educators want to look honestly at their nation’s past and to convey the lessons of the Holocaust to their students. Katazina Sokolovskaja, a teacher in a high school in Butrimoniai, Lithuania, said: “The seminar motivated me to work on this subject with my students, maybe not only with my students, but with teachers, my colleagues.”
Danguole Maciuliene, a high school teacher in Vilnius, said “it was my first time there [Ponary]. I only read about it, I knew that this place existed, but being there feeling and imagining what the victims experienced somehow felt to me very emotional.”
In our lectures and discussions, Holocaust historians and local educators connected the history with the need to respect human rights, especially for minorities. The events of 80 years ago are relevant to these educators. We saw the greatest impact when lectures, workshops and discussions combined with the testimony of a Holocaust survivor and visits to the Ponary mass grave just outside Vilnius and the Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. For many of the educators, it was their first time visiting these sites and learning about the Jewish massacres that took place so near to their own communities and schools.
In Vilnius, the five-day seminar for 30 teachers (from Vilnius, other cities and towns) aimed to increase the quality of Holocaust education in Lithuania. Some of the teachers had already included the Holocaust in their classes while others needed the strong foundation the seminar gave to help them teach their students.
Understanding the Holocaust is essential for Lithuanians to come to terms with a conflicted history relating to Jews in their country. While Jewish culture and religious study flourished for hundreds of years in Lithuania, there is a long history of anti-Semitism predating the Holocaust as well as extensive collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.
A highlight of the seminar was the participation of Nobuki Sugihara whose father, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, gave life-saving visas to more than 2,000 Polish Jewish families who had escaped German-occupied Poland. As I interviewed Nobuki Sugihara about his father’s actions, we spoke about his heroism and his humanity in granting visas to the Jewish refugees.
In Kyiv, lectures, discussions and workshops focused on the unique nature of the Holocaust in Ukraine, and how the history is relevant to their students. While collaboration of the local population with the Nazis was common in Ukraine, where approximately 1.5 million Jews were murdered, there were also rescuers who saved Jews at great risk to their lives.
Assia Raberman, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in a small town in Ukraine, spoke of her life during the Holocaust and how she survived. Her riveting testimony gave a human face to the terror victims endured. Irina Kozlovskaya, a history teacher in Luhansk, Ukraine, said that the Holocaust survivor’s testimony “influenced me in many ways because I work in an orphanage where every day we have to begin with a smile, with the hope for the better future that my students will be good citizens of our country.”
In both Lithuania and Ukraine, the teachers developed outlines for follow-on projects that they could accomplish with small grants from TOLI, which organizes seminars in Europe and the United States.
The controversy in these countries over their own participation in the Holocaust is troubling and won’t disappear soon. But what I found inspiring was a young generation of educators, some who traveled great distances to participate in these programs, to be open to confronting the past and to teach the Holocaust and its lessons in their schools and communities. As we say at TOLI, “Never again begins in the classroom.”
Arthur Berger is a board member TOLI, the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. He is a former official at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and retired American foreign service officer.