Holocaust education needs to shift its focus from villains to heroes

I have spent a week here in Berlin attempting to understand the past and the present while envisioning the future. I find myself considering the fame of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, as opposed to the obscurity of its heroes.

I visited the House of the Wannsee Conference, where 15 Nazi madmen came together in 1942 to plan “the final solution.” The house is located in a place of remarkable beauty. How did the perpetrators look out at the beautiful, inspiring setting and make the most horrific plan that humankind has known?

I want to know more about the perpetrators, but I realize that I know enough — saying more about them only brings more attention to these human beasts.

It is at the small but powerful Silent Heroes Memorial Center that I am reminded of and inspired by the many rescuers who helped Jews and others during the Holocaust. I am awed by these men and women of moral courage, who risked their own lives to help other human beings. How does one gain that kind of moral courage? Where do we teach it? How do we nurture it?

It is the rescuers who intrigue me; I want to learn and teach more about them. By studying and reflecting on their actions, we can explore what it means to have moral courage in 2016.

As I go through the exhibit, I ponder why we are so unfamiliar with so many of these righteous people. Regrettably, names like Goering, Himmler and Eichmann are familiar to many people. We seem to be obsessed with criminals and violence, as evidenced in the popularity of TV shows and video games that focus on these themes.But the Silent Heroes Memorial Center, tells another story focusing on thousands of German rescuers. Each person’s story is unique, and it becomes abundantly clear that there were many people who performed acts of courage that saved lives.

Focusing on the rescuer is a more fitting way to pay tribute to the millions of victims. As I go through some of the stories, I wonder if focusing on the rescuer should become a central part of Holocaust education. The perpetrators have nothing to teach us, but the rescuers speak directly to our lives and the choice we have to make.

I wonder how many of us know about some of the most famous rescuers, like Irena Sendler, the Polish social worker who saved over 2,500 Polish Jews; Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews; and Varian Fry, the American Protestant journalist who saved thousands of German Jews.

Their stories are desperately needed today. Why did they act in the manner they did? Was it nature or nurture? Many rescuers seem to possess qualities like healthy self-esteem, a willingness to break from the status quo, a concern for other human beings who are victims and vulnerable, and the courage to act on their values.

Next to the Silent Heroes Memorial Center stands the Otto Weidt museum. Here I learn the remarkable story of Weidt, a German who protected at least 30 Jews during the Holocaust. He ran a workshop in Berlin for the blind and deaf (he was nearly blind), making brooms and brushes.

He got his factory classified as vital to the war effort. When the Gestapo came to round up his workers, he did his best to protect them. What gave this man the moral courage to risk everything to help these most vulnerable Jews?

Holocaust education that has spent too much time on the perpetrator has failed to stop the continuation of genocide and mass atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria and those committed by ISIS.

Shifting the focus of Holocaust education to those who demonstrated moral courage might provide a much better guide for us.


Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Vice Chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities and deeply committed to helping JFCS/East Bay and HIAS in their lifesaving work of resettling refugees.