The Case of John Demjanjuk and Teaching the Holocaust to Today’s Youth

Perhaps it’s just me, but when my history classes learned about the Holocaust in school we knew it was an inappropriate time to misbehave, crack jokes, or seek diversions elsewhere. The topic was serious and tragic.

Perhaps I’m not the best teacher of the Holocaust, which I fully accept. Regardless, the response to the subject matter I’ve gotten from both 8th graders and 10th graders has been rather upsetting. Many students could not stop gossipping or texting during the lectures and presentations, and a few even actively goofed off – making jokes and trying to play some sort of immature game that involved throwing pencils and balls of crumpled paper. If there is ever a lecture to NOT do this in a high school or junior high history class, it is probably the Holocaust lecture.

When I read the saga of the trials of 91-year-old John Demjanjuk, who has just been convicted by a German court of assisting the Nazis as a concentration camp guard during 1943, I wonder how it is possible to teach effectively about Nazism and the Holocaust, especially to K-12 students. At sixteen I knew what the Holocaust was and that it was not a subject to be taken lightly. I was, frankly, appalled to find that the same mentality did not seem to prevail a decade later, particularly after the advent of cell phones and MP3 players in the classroom.

Kids would rather text or check their social networking pages on the Internet via smartphone than learn about the Holocaust. Heck, even the strategy and battles of World War II barely registered a response…only discussing “Call of Duty” could elicit a semi-engaged response from teenagers during a World War II lecture.

I see the pictures of an old man in a wheelchair on trial following his deportation from the United States and wonder if, regardless of cell phones and MP3 players in every kid’s pocket, topics like World War II and the Holocaust are simply too ancient for today’s teens to engage. They seemed old enough to me as a sixteen-year-old ten years ago, and time only seems to have moved faster since then. After the Demjanjuk legal controversy fades, will there even be another case to take its place? The convicted Ukrainian was in his early twenties during his suspected time as a guard…perhaps this IS the last Nazi trial. Not many younger defendants are likely to be found anymore, and anyone older is, to be blunt, likely to be dead.

Attempting to raise questions about the merits of trying a 91-year-old retiree and all the legality, ethics, and morals related to the events of the Holocaust in the late 1930s and early 1940s doesn’t seem to provoke much response from your average teen anymore. Nobody seems to have firm convictions about politics or firm knowledge of the past…what can be done?

Should parents be encouraged to have their young teens read more history? Watch some documentaries? Discuss history and ethics and morality around the dinner table?

It’s hard to have to teach complex and controversial events like the Holocaust when students have no background knowledge and, as the years march on, it will become even more difficult. After John Demjanjuk there may be no more opportunities to read about the Holocaust except in history texts.

So seize this opportunity to discuss and, please, bring the kids along.