‘TEACHING ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST IN GREECE’
The Jewish Museum of Greece has already organised and conducted four seminars for primary schoolteachers, secondary schoolteachers and museum educators on Teaching about the Holocaust in Greece. Three of these seminars were held in Athens (2004, 2006 and 2007) and one in Thessaloniki (2005). Not only were the seminars attended by large numbers of teachers, but also by people representing ministries, state organisations and bodies, and interested members of the public at large. The seminars have been widely acclaimed as extremely constructive and are known for their huge success.
In 2009, the Jewish Museum of Greece organised the fifth seminar under the title ‘Teaching about the Holocaust in Greece’. The seminar took place in Athens (at the Electra Palace Hotel, at 18, Nav. Nikodimou st.) between October 14th and 16th. The seminar was once again held under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs, and was supported by the Ministry through its General Secretariat of Youth. It also received support from the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. The seminar was attended by 42 educators, several of whom came from provincial schools. They were addressed by twelve specialists from various relevant fields (historians, educators, university professors etc.)
The proceedings of the first day, October 14th 2009, opened with brief addresses by his Excellency Ambassador Alexander Philon, head of the Greek Delegation to the International Task Force, who represented the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Next spoke Mr. Makis Matsas, President of the Board of the Jewish Museum of Greece. Finally, a message by Mrs. Berry Nahmia was read to the audience. Mrs. Nahmia is the President of the Association of Greek-Jewish Holocaust Survivors and was unable to attend due to indisposition.
The main part of the seminar began with an attempt to place the difficult subject of the Holocaust of the Greek Jews within its broader historical context, which is essential in order to understand an historic event of this magnitude.
Professor Maria Efthymiou, of the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Athens, gave a concise account of the 2,300-year-long history of Jews in Greece. She focused on its most significant aspects, such as the Hellenistic times and the arrival of Jews from Spain in 1492. She gave a general outline of the relationship between the Greek Diaspora and the Jewish one through the centuries, and demonstrated how the co-existence of the two peoples was at times harmonious and at other times strained. She also described the historic processes through which the Jews of Greece attained important social and financial positions.
Next, historian Jason Chandrinos presented the events of the Holocaust in Greece, starting with the Italian offensive of 1940 until the first post war years, when the few survivors were trying to rebuild their lives. Using photographic material and documents from the Museum’s collection, he attempted to shed light on several aspects of the Greek Holocaust, thorny ones, such as how several people took advantage of the absence of the deported to appropriate their belongings; hopeful ones, such as how others put their own lives in danger in order to save Jewish compatriots; tragic aspects, like the fact that the majority of the Greek communities was annihilated; and heroic ones, such as how Greek Jews fought heroically in the Resistance; or how others demonstrated humanity and self-sacrifice in the camps.
The last speech of the day was by Ms. Hara Galanou, legal criminologist, who examined the use of historic experience by legal scientists. She explained the legal meaning of the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” and analysed the reasons that make the Holocaust the chief example of genocide: it was a premeditated crime, centrally organised, of enormous proportions and it has become a point of reference, against which all later genocides are compared (such as those in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia). She also spoke about Holocaust denial, reaching the conclusion that the aim of Holocaust deniers of all kinds is to extenuate the actions of perpetrators, and for this reason it should be unequivocally condemned.
After the speeches, the attendees watched the documentary film “The Song of Life” by Tonis Lykouressis, who recorded with great skill and empathy the story of how the 275 Jewish inhabitants of his homeland, the island of Zakynthos, were rescued. The film is the fruit of keen personal interest and many years of research; it is a moving lesson of solidarity, selflessness and eternal gratitude of the Jews of Zakynthos towards their Christian saviours.
The second day of the proceedings offered a deeper look into historic aspects of the Holocaust, while also focusing on issues of memory and identity. Dr. Alkis Rigos, Professor of Political Science at the Panteion University of Athens, spoke first, giving an interesting account of the history of anti-Semitism in Greece. He presented various incidents from several periods of the country’s history (ranging from the teachings of St. Kosmas of Aetolia, who lived in the 18th century, until the 1931 arson of the Campbell neighbourhood in Salonika and the Holocaust more than a decade later). Dr. Rigos used these examples to demonstrate the remarkable persistence and longevity of the Jewish stereotype, and how it was always compared to the ideal of a “pure” Greek national identity. Though anti-Semitism never became official in the Greek state, it nevertheless existed, creating an anti-Jewish atmosphere, which, when historic conditions were right, was released in acts of violence.
Moving beyond a mere historic account, historian Odette Varon-Vassard, analysed the presence of Auschwitz in collective conscience and memory. She examined the processes through which this particular camp became established in the conscience of European nations in the decades after WW II, as synonymous with an attempt to annihilate a whole race, and why January 27th, the date it was liberated, has been established as ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’. She explained thoroughly the means through which the memory of the greatest crime in the history of mankind complements or sometimes contrasts to the national memory of several European countries.
After drawing a distinct line between concentration and extermination camps, she commented on the term “Holocaust” and compared it to the terms “Shoah” and “Genocide”. She also highlighted the need to differentiate between Jews and war victims in general.
The next speech, “Holocaust and Education”, by historian Christina Koulouri, was more than a mere presentation of contemporary reality. She analysed the responsibility a historian bears with respect to historic events as well as to his or her audience. She then moved on to enumerate the aims of a historically sensitive, modern teaching process. She claimed that teaching the Holocaust represents a veritable challenge for a teacher of history, as it is interwoven with issues of political correctness, national identity, understanding of differences, and condemnation of intolerance. She noted that the subject of history helps students develop conscience and form views about national and social relations. She also mentioned that the scientific community is perfectly able to eliminate cases of Holocaust denial or revisionism, without judicial intervention. She concluded saying that teaching about the Holocaust should above all be a lesson of political education and it is the knowledge and skill of the educator, rather than the quality of the textbook, that may transform teaching about the extermination of Jews into a valuable lesson against racism and all kinds of prejudice.
A lively debate followed the three presentations. Ms. Zanet Battinou, Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, took advantage of the opportunity to briefly present the material contained in the folder handed to attendees. The folder contains teaching aids with a view to reinforcing Holocaust Education but particularly to demonstrating its significance for today.
She also presented each of the three practical handbooks translated and published by the JMG. The first is the JMG Greek translation of the ITF guidelines, which is also available on the organisation’s website.
The second, titled ‘Teaching about the Holocaust’, is a translation of the greater part of a handbook produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, adapted for Greece. It provides guidelines for teachers to help them approach Holocaust issues, and also includes specific teaching methods and ways to deal with the sensitive issues that often surface in the classroom.
The third, titled ‘Preparing for Holocaust Remembrance Days’, is a translation of relevant suggestions for teachers gleaned from the websites of Yad Vashem and ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, of the Foundation for Security and Co-operation within Europe), adapted for use in Greece.
In the afternoon, the participants listened to three admittedly very moving testimonies by survivors of the Holocaust: Sam Nehama, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, despite being only 14 at the time; Salvator Bakolas, who was a member of the National Resistance in the mountains; and Alexandros Simha, who was a young child at the time hiding with Christian families.
On the evening of the second day, the JMG held a reception for the participants. The educators had the chance to get to know each other, discuss the issues examined during the seminar, talk to the survivors and see the Museum exhibits and the temporary exhibition “Jewish Neighbourhoods of Greece.”
They also had the chance to use the new interactive touch-screen terminal installed in the Holocaust area of the Jewish Museum to provide users with information on the subject. Its programme is a functional and easy-to-use educational tool; the presentation is direct and gives the user the ability to focus on specific issues. This makes it not only a valuable teaching aid for the educator, but also the provider of important historic facts and audio-visual material for every interested party. All attendees of the seminar received a DVD - ROM containing the second, improved version of this digital application.
The last day of the seminar was devoted to educational practice.
The first speaker was Mr. Konstantinos Mekkas, representing the Pedagogical Institute. He presented the modern textbooks through which the Holocaust is taught in primary and secondary schools. Starting with the fact that children have different needs according to their age group, he explained the educational choices that have been made in writing the textbooks, by using primary sources (documents, testimonies, photographs) either exclusively or in combination with historic account. He noted that the Institute’s policy is the interdisciplinary approach – to present works of literature and testimonies alongside the historic evidence – while its aim is to sensitise the students.
Belgian historian, Joel Kotek, presented the issue of anti-Semitism from its beginnings until today, showing the universal spread of the phenomenon. Using images that the majority of the audience encountered for the first time, he demonstrated the existence of an anti-Semitic culture which for many centuries left its mark on European culture. His conclusions agree with those of Ms. Koulouri, that the persecution of Jews cannot be explained as the fate of minorities in general, but as the product of conflicts which can be traced to the time when Christianity was beginning to establish itself. These conflicts then evolved into an integral part of European history and systems of beliefs such as Catholicism, Capitalism, Nationalism and others. He underlined the difference between anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic attitudes. Whereas the first term describes an essentially religious difference which may evolve into hatred, the second is defined as hatred based on fictitious reasons. Anti-Semitism is a complex social and political phenomenon which can take many forms and takes advantage of all the means of printed and visual propaganda, ranging from medieval artwork to postcards and advertisements of the past two centuries. Dr. Kotek provided the audience with several examples of these.
Last before the lunch break was Yael Eaglstein, who represented the International School of Holocaust Studies of the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. She conducted the first workshop of the seminar, in which she presented an entire unit for a model teaching of the Holocaust in the 21st century. The workshop replicated the methods used by the Teachers’ Education Department of Yad Vashem, which is based on using testimonies of Holocaust survivors. In this case, the testimony was by Ovadiah Baruch from Salonika, whose story was turned into a documentary film under the title “May your Memory be Love – The Story of Ovadiah Baruch”. All present were deeply moved by the film, which demonstrated the importance of recording a testimony on location. Then followed a discussion with the audience; the answers given in the questionnaire handed to attendees proved the appropriateness of the film’s title: Ovadiah’s survival from Auschwitz and Mauthausen, his subsequent marriage to Aliza Jarfatti, a fellow inmate, also from Salonika, and the children they had together, are no less than a clear victory over death. Memory, whether of a loved one or of a collective trauma, cannot but bear a message of love. Participants showed a keen interest for Yad Vashem and its work.
After lunch, the “education of educators” continued. Ms. Nina Alkalay, dance teacher and dance therapist, divided attendees into three groups and handed them pictures of works of art and a theoretical text. She recommended an alternative “Experiential teaching of the Holocaust through art.” She then proceeded to conduct a hands on exercise, in order to demonstrate how the experiential approach of the Holocaust through the arts, in this case music, dance, theatre and painting, can reach children’s minds more directly than any scientific historic presentation. Thus the children can more easily approach the experiences of people who lived the events and to process these experiences through artistic expression.
Ms. Marisa de Castro, teacher and author, conducted the last workshop, in which she presented a complete educational package, based on the novel “The boy in the striped Pyjamas” by the Irish writer John Boyne. Accompanied by an exercise book, the novel is perfectly suited to become an excellent teaching tool for 7th to 9h grade students, because, besides being a first-rate work of literature, it is also an exemplary combination of history and literature. As the speaker explained, the presentation of historic events through a work of literature helps the students distinguish among different characters and recognise behaviours, and possibly identify with them. This manner of teaching aims to produce emotional responses from the children. This in turn allows the children to approach sensitive subjects, such as death, and values, such as friendship and camaraderie.
Finally, Ms. Orietta Treveza-Soussi, the JMG’s own educator, presented a new educational programme of the Museum’s under the title “Jewish Neighbourhoods of Greece – A World Gone Forever”, which is based on the current temporary exhibition of the Museum’s. She then presented some of the Museum Cases of the JMG, and discussed the usefulness of the device. The Museum Cases have been designed to carry into the classroom some of the subjects covered by the exhibits of the Jewish Museums in such a way that enables the children to process and present the material themselves, at school.
The seminar ended with the pronouncement of conclusions drawn from the work of the three days. Already before the end of the proceedings, most of the attendees had filled in assessment questionnaires that had been prepared with potential improvements in mind. Answers given showed that the participants had a positive opinion of the organisation and content of the seminar. More specifically, they commented favourably on the organisation, quality and high standards of the seminar and the simultaneous interpretation, as well as of the venue and the hospitality provided. Most people also made constructive suggestions and comments.
Conversations we had with attending teachers as well as their comments in the evaluation questionnaires have lead the Museum to the conclusion that the seminar should take place once or even twice a year. Teachers also asked for more seminars, workshops and lectures on the Holocaust and related subjects, such as the history of Greek Jews, their contribution to Greek society, anti-Semitism, historical revisionism, incidences of genocide in the present day and more.
Teachers from out of Athens expressed their wish for seminars in provincial towns, which could possibly deal with the history of the local Jewish communities. Nearly all complained of being informed quite late, of receiving little or no help from the Ministry of Education, of the difficulties in attending a seminar in the capital and the omissions in school textbooks. The teachers also showed keen interest in attending model classes on teaching about the Holocaust and learning about various other teaching approaches, a request that had also been made in previous seminars.
Lastly, many teachers filled in their names and contact details on a special form reserved for those who wish to keep in touch with the Jewish Museum of Greece and receive information about educational initiatives in Greece and elsewhere, as well as information about this yearly seminar for educators.
© The Jewish Museum of Greece, Athens, November 2009