STUTTGART, GERMANY “Because the Nazis were cooler than the Jews.” I hadn’t caught the question, but the answer was the latest in a succession of jokes about the Holocaust a month ago in my ninth-grade history class in Germany. The boys laughed uncontrollably, ignoring our teacher’s attempts to stop them, while looking at pictures of starving concentration camp victims.
A few days later, things got worse. Our class visited Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp. I was with some girls who congregated next to the barracks, where the prisoners once lay piled on top of each other. Nearby was a large black sculpture of men ensnared in barbed wire. One girl cracked a joke, and everyone laughed. I didn’t see the humor, only the ghosts.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is Sunday. Many U.S. schools will observe the day on Monday, but not my German school. What I heard from my German classmates that day makes me think that maybe we should.
Am I overreacting? Is it because I am American — and a Jew? As the daughter of a Marine officer, I’ve had the opportunity to live in different parts of the U.S. and the world. In each setting, I’ve learned to live among different peoples and cultures, forcing me to view life from different perspectives.
So why does it matter to me that my class take the Holocaust seriously? There are two lessons we can learn from the Holocaust. First, we can learn the past: The dates, the names. All the things my class learned in school. The second lesson is about the present. About human nature. About ourselves. The lesson my classmates missed. As a Jew, I couldn’t miss the lesson. My relatives are living history.
But my classmates’ families really don’t talk about the Holocaust. Perhaps it is too uncomfortable a topic. Nor is it usually a topic in school. In my school, the Holocaust is not even mentioned until the ninth grade. And when we do study World War II, the systematic genocide of Jews is barely mentioned.
I do think that German students should take the Holocaust as seriously as other students. These horrors are a big part of their history, and something that continues to affect how some Germans see their country today.
When my classmates laughed at Dachau, they weren’t being monsters. My class acted no differently than my class in South Carolina, where slavery was justified because “times were different.” In both these situations, my classes covered up these tragedies of the past and chose to ignore the lesson taught by history: that if allowed to go too far, humans can do terrible things.
The best way to make sure something like the Holocaust is never repeated is not to shield children from what happened, but teach them the moral lessons about people’s capacity for evil.