I just returned from France, where I spent 10 days looking into issues of anti-Semitism and racism in a country that has Europe's
largest populations of Muslims and Jews. What I found is a subject for an upcoming story. But one item -- really just an offhand remark by an Education Ministry official there -- struck me as especially topical considering the anniversary we mark this week.
"We have never had as strong a program of Holocaust education as we've had in the past three years," the official said. "And we've never had as much of an increase in anti-Semitic acts."
The idea that more Holocaust education could have no effect -- or an inversely proportional effect -- on anti-Semitism struck me as a perverse.
It certainly runs counter to the agenda of so many Jewish organizations and museums that promote Holocaust education as a means of preventing future Shoahs. And it flies in the face of a slogan we hold dear: "Never Again!" as if spreading those words, and the true history behind them, is enough.
What if it isn't; then what?
Jan. 27 marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Around the world, commemorations, exhibits and curricula will recall the horrors of that camp to a generation for whom it is, largely, history (see story, page 22).
We have long understood the effect of such teaching to be vaccine-like. The idea behind remarkable organizations, like the Los Angeles-based Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, is that confronting people with the testimony of real people who have real stories of real camps will warn future generations of the kinds of attitudes and actions that led people to carry out, or at least acquiesce to, the Nazi program.
But the French official hinted at another possibility.
He outlined a significant series of steps his ministry has undertaken to confront anti-Semitic and racist remarks and actions among students in French public schools. These incidents account for the bulk of anti-Semitic acts registered by the government and Jewish groups. For French Jews, they are by far the most troubling acts. It is one thing to paint a swastika on a graveyard, quite another to attack -- verbally or physically -- a child on the way to or from school.
One aspect of the new curriculum is increased Holocaust awareness. The Education Ministry works with the International Task Force for Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research to coordinate lesson plans and strategies. Viewing French filmmaker's Claude Lanzmann's devastating documentary "Shoah" is mandatory for every French public school student.
These students are introduced to the Holocaust in junior high (called college in French), then taught more in the second year of high school, or lycee, and then again in the final year.
"A child in the French school system will have three exposures to the Shoah," said the official. It made me think of a tetanus shot and two boosters.
The government has instituted field trips to French concentration camp sites, including Drancy, near Paris. At Drancy, just on the outskirts of the city, thousands of Jews were rounded up and eventually sent to their deaths.
Successive French governments refused to acknowledge the French Vichy government's complicity in this barbarism. Current President Jacque Chirac did so in 1995, admitting the responsibility of the Vichy regime during a speech in memory of the victims.
His government has even sent some classes to visit Auschwitz itself. When a 12-year-old boy was found guilty of putting swastika stickers up at his school in Toulouse, he was ordered to visit the nearby town of Oradour-sur-Glane. There, on June 10, 1944, Nazis rounded up all 642 men, women, and children in the village and shot them.
It would be nice to assume that visiting the village shook the boy down to his marrow, and he came home and immediately joined the Friends of Hebrew University. But current events are telling us otherwise. In some French schools, said the officials, some students shout down teachers who try to conduct lessons on the Holocaust or the Dreyfuss Affair, calling it all Zionist propaganda.
How can that be? How can a student hear the cold, awful numbers of Auschwitz and not feel for the victims, not shudder at the senseless cruelty?
So many forces conspire to stunt the capacity for empathy, for understanding. Daily life is hard. People who suffer discrimination themselves might seek scapegoats rather than allies. History recedes further and further into the past, into something people feel they can choose to believe. And when the establishment decrees the Holocaust worth learning, those who would rebel could choose the Holocaust as their battlefield.
Teaching facts is easy; teaching empathy -- mysterious. But, that being the case, the answer is not to give up. If the lessons don't take among the few, they should among the many. The kiosks on the streets of Paris advertised a special issue of Le Nouvel Observateur, whose cover story is devoted to Auschwitz, 60 years later. The French government has marked Jan. 27 as a day to commemorate crimes against humanity. On that day, Chirac will give a speech at Auschwitz, at a ceremony along with about 14 heads of state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israel's President Moshe Katzav and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
All good, but the worry remains: speeches and movies and cover stories, good as they are, may not be enough for the next generation.