Images of victims of the Holocaust in the rotunda of Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum and memorial. (Photo/Wikimedia CC0)
Images of victims of the Holocaust in the rotunda of Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum and memorial. (Photo/Wikimedia CC0)

At my Bay Area high school, Holocaust education barely exists

A version of this article was first published in the M-A Chronicle.

In my 1,024-page AP World History textbook, there are two paragraphs about the Holocaust. This is essentially the only Holocaust education I’ve received in any history class from kindergarten through junior year, and it is not enough.

Nationally, antisemitism is on the rise. My school, Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, isn’t immune. In December 2022, a custodian found swastikas painted on the walls of a school bathroom. With this surge in antisemitism, it is essential that youth learn about historical hatred of Jews in order to prevent ignorance that can lead to violence and prejudice.

Holocaust education at M-A, a public high school in the Sequoia Union High School District, begins not in history class, but in a ninth-grade English class called Multicultural Literature & Voice with a unit about Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s autobiography “Night.”

“I always teach the history of the Holocaust as we read the book,” Erin Walsh, who teaches that course at M-A, explained to me. “I start the unit with a mini-lecture on what led up to World War II and the Holocaust, so that we can identify some of the root causes.”

The “Night” unit is great. The book itself is powerful, and the teachers teach the historical context for the story well. But this unit should only be a first step.

Walsh agrees. “We have put a huge amount of work into the unit, but it doesn’t cover every aspect of the Holocaust that should be discussed,” she told me. “If anything, it’s an introduction, and it provides an access point.”

Plus, as an English class, much of the unit is spent analyzing literary elements of the autobiography, rather than learning details of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust comes up next in 10th-grade World History or AP World History.

The two paragraphs detailing the Holocaust in the AP World History textbook “Ways of the World” are historically accurate and cover a variety of key facts. Of course, not all learning comes from a textbook, and a teacher may choose to spend more or less class time on any given subject.

Regardless, a curriculum given to our teachers with just two paragraphs about such a significant tragedy is unacceptable. And for me, the in-class learning about the Holocaust was a two-page Google Docs worksheet about mass atrocities, with 10 sections for 10 different genocides, one being the Holocaust. The worksheet asked students to identify “when,” “where,” “by who,” “against who,” “number killed,” “causes” and “consequences” of each atrocity.

The Holocaust should at the very least take up one day of the school year.

Sophomore world history is the primary opportunity for Holocaust education at M-A and other local public schools — and it is also the most lacking in appropriate Holocaust education.

“I think the Holocaust warrants a longer discussion [than other topics] in my classes,” said Austin Hunt, who teaches World History and AP World History at M-A. “I think the Holocaust could, should be a two-week long class, but it’s all opportunity cost. Any time I’m spending on the Holocaust means I’m spending less time on other things. In high school, the idea is that we should be giving an overview of a lot of information, but to dive really deep into it, you need to take a whole course on it, and go to museums.”

The majority of M-A students will never take a yearlong Holocaust course and therefore depend on M-A classes for their entire Holocaust education. So while it cannot be an in-depth topic, the Holocaust should at the very least take up one day of the school year.

The Holocaust appears — or is supposed to appear — one more time in the M-A curriculum, in 11th-grade U.S. History or AP U.S. History.

In a 2022-2023 AP U.S. History class, Holocaust education consisted of one optional assignment. As senior Danielle Koo explained, “We had a substitute … and our teacher left us a note … saying that we could use the class time to study or to complete two optional assignments,” only one of which was about the Holocaust.

“Since these assignments were optional, I bet most people did not complete them,” Koo told me.

Another senior who took non-AP U.S. History in 2022-2023 told me that the Holocaust was not covered at all.

While the U.S. was more detached from the events of the Holocaust than European countries, the Holocaust is still undoubtedly relevant in American history.

“Holocaust learning is extremely important because of the U.S. involvement, or lack thereof,” Koo said. “It also helps us recognize what the Jewish community had to go through and understand why younger generations still carry that pain today.”

M-A’s U.S. History classes ought to include at least one mandatory, in-depth assignment about the Holocaust and its relevance within U.S. history.

The Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center in San Francisco provides Holocaust learning frameworks for teachers in order to impart students with a rich education regardless of the time frame they have to learn it. Taking the time to hear from a Holocaust survivor, for example through the William J. Lowenberg Speakers Bureau, is another way to provide students with fulfilling Holocaust education.

Improving Holocaust education is not a difficult or lengthy task, and it is one that must be done. A meaningful history education includes thorough discussion of the Holocaust in order to understand the past, contextualize the present and make progress in the future.

A version of this article was first published in the M-A Chronicle. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Ben Siegel
Ben Siegel

Ben Siegel is a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton and a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.