Dr. Sara Abosch, an experienced Holocaust educator with an extensive research and publishing background in Jewish culture and history, joined the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance in July of 2012 as Senior Director of Education, overseeing the Museum’s newly expanded Education Department.
Dr. Abosch manages the expanded department and speaks frequently on all aspects of the Holocaust and its context within the broader subject of European and Jewish history. This important role touches the lives of over 32,000 school students annually and trains, through workshops, over 500 teachers, preparing them for teaching the Holocaust in their classrooms.
She holds a PhD in modern European and Jewish history, an MA in modern British and Jewish history, and an MA in Political Science with a concentration in Civil/Military Relations-all fields germane to her work at the museum.
Prior to joining the DHM/CET, Dr. Abosch was the David Bornblum Visiting Scholar in Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis in Tennessee and also taught at North Carolina State University, Colby College and Meredith College.
Recently, she sat for a question and answer session to discuss her passion, priorities and perspectives. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What do you see as the principal role of the Museum/Center?
A: To educate people about the Holocaust! We need to give people the tools to understand what happened and to allow them to arrive at the conclusion that this can’t happen again, that we can’t allow this to happen again. But I don’t think that we have those kind of tectonic tensions that existed in Europe and the world in the Nazi/Soviet era-you know, where you have these plate shifts between one group and another. I don’t think in the American context, in the late 20th and early 21st century that they exist in that fashion.
Q. Is there a direct correlation between the formation of Israel and Holocaust?
A. No. There are certainly historians, political scientists, observers of Israel and of European and modern culture who point to the Holocaust as this event that created so much guilt and angst amongst the nations of the world that they felt that they had no choice but to vote the state into existence. Logically, this doesn’t fit. The two events (the Holocaust and the formation of Israel) happened to occur in a sequence, but I don’t think you create nations on the basis of guilt, because if you did there would be a lot more nations out there right now.
Q. Is there a fact about the Holocaust that people are still surprised to learn about?
A. I think the story of the Holocaust has to be told and retold, but it has to be retold with nuance and sophistication. There is a tremendous amount of surprise that the Holocaust wasn’t exclusively a Nazi event, or a German event. This is a Europe-wide event; the French are actively involved in deporting Jews, the Germans are actively involved in deporting and murdering Jews, there are Nazi sympathizers and informers in the Netherlands and Belgium. There is involvement in turning in and deporting Jews even in Poland, which is being decimated from both sides by the forces of Nazism, on the one side, and the forces of Communism on the other side. Poland is a battleground. This also happens in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. You have all kinds of collaborators. These people are being victimized themselves by the Nazis or the Soviets and yet some of them turn around and help to identify, imprison, and kill Jews. This is something a lot of the people I speak with don’t realize.
The other component I would add to this is that we have a tendency to think of the Holocaust as being the six death camps and the concentration camps, as being this highly systematized, highly organized, industrialized killing of Jews. In fact, there are one and a half million Jews who never get anywhere near a camp-whether it’s a concentration camp or a death camp-they are shot by roving, SS and police killing squads in Eastern Europe. And when you mention this to groups they say, “Really?” and I say, “Yes,” that it isn’t nearly the organized or systematized or-I hesitate to use the word-but the ‘neat’ operation that we frequently assume it was. There’s a lot more mayhem involved in the whole process and that, particularly in the East, it’s personal. The killing is done face-to-face-one bullet in the back of a person’s head. You know, it’s not death dealt from the skies or from a distance. It’s not death dealt by pushing a button. It’s very personal!
Q: And again, not to overstate the obvious, but it is killing emanating from hatred?
A: It is hatred. There’s no question about it.
Q: What is the rationale for this hatred?
A: The rationale comes from age-old anti-Judaism. This was based in religion and goes back in European society to the origins of the church. Although church officials frowned on overt anti-Jewish behavior, beyond making Jews serve as witnesses to the true religion, there was independent killing of Jews around Europe. This hatred flared up in times of crisis, for example, during the Crusades or in the 1340s, with the outbreak of the Black Plague. Jews were accused of being well-poisoners, amongst other things. Moving into the later Middle Ages, Jews were also accused of blood libel and of host desecration.
There are a whole series of things that are religiously connected. The belief was that Jews were frustrated with Christian supersession and they worshiped the devil-endlessly attempting to recreate the passion of the Christ by stabbing the host, by killing Christian children to use their blood for Jewish ‘rituals’. This last belief is particularly appalling to anyone who knows Jewish history and Jewish religious law. Jews have a horror of the ritual shedding of human blood that goes back to the origins of their religion. Jews go out of their way to avoid taking life and have never, ever, used human blood in any kind of ritual. As a product of the ancient Near East they deliberately emerged in opposition to this practice.
When you move into the modern era, you take this older, religious anti-Judaism and transform it into ‘scientific’ anti-Semitism. Before, Jews were hated as members of a religion that denied the gospel and divinity of Christ. But, this could be ‘solved’ through conversion to Christianity. Now Jews are hated for belonging to a dangerous racial group, meaning their very essence and existance is a threat to the rest of Europe and the world. This isn’t something that can be changed. What’s been added is a potent brew of social Darwinism, Eugenics, and other junk science notions. The result is anti-Semitism or the ‘scientific’ hatred of Jews. Jews are no longer merely killers of Christ, but despoilers of racial purity. How do you solve this new and more dangerous ‘Jewish Question’? How do you ensure that the superior and ‘fitter’ races survive and flourish? Well you do everything you can, from separating them from the greater human population to ultimately-in the case of the Nazis-eliminating those who are not desirable.
Jews become-for the Nazis and other racial theorists-a bacillus, a disease, a parasite on the healthier and superior races. So, the only way, ultimately, to cope with ‘disease’ is to do the right thing scientifically, which is to perform surgery on the nation and to remove this cancerous growth, this Jewish population, from the nation. This action is, in fact, a logical conclusion and there is tremendous hatred involved in all this. Thus, this is not a randomly created hatred. It’s a hatred that has a deep history and logic to it. The Nazis, under cover of war, take it to an extreme, but ultimately, ‘logical’ conclusion-the mass eradication of the world’s Jews.
Q: Was the Holocaust a culmination of a series of historic events?
A: Of a historical process-although not necessarily an inevitable culmination. The Nazis start with their racial hatred and end up murdering Jews, particularly after they invade the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Nazis find themselves surrounded by Slavs who are very, very low on the racial hierarchy they adhere to, and Jews, whom they believe to be a pestilence or bacillus that needs to be done away with. And, as they move rapidly through the Soviet Union in the early months of the invasion, they feel they’re surrounded by these race ‘enemies’, and something has to be done. So, within a day of the invasion, their killing squads move in. It’s that rapid. They don’t have a long-term plan to eradicate the Jews when they invade but it very quickly their actions develop into such a plan.
Q: I know with survivors aging and many of them-majority of them-now passed, how do you see Holocaust education evolving?
A: This is something that all Holocaust museums and centers for public engagement are grappling with. We have a number of resources at this point including written and recorded testimony of many of the survivors, both Dallas survivors and survivors from all over the country.
But frankly, the Holocaust, which is an historical event, is no different from any other historical event, in that ultimately historical events pass into history. We have to learn to convey the stories and the developments that occurred during these times in a different fashion.
We have, in fact, been incredibly fortunate in the United States, in Israel, in Western Europe to have had so many survivors who are willing to tell their story. These are people who have felt it was absolutely vital to speak about what they went through, what happened. As they pass away there will be fewer(?) resources to use. They frequently are larger than life in the minds of the communities in which they have lived. They leave a legacy so this isn’t a problem. The Holocaust is not going to pass from the pages of concern because the survivors are no longer here.
Q: I sense an evolution on this notion of education and tolerance, because on one hand the Survivors teach us to never forget, to always remember.
A: This is their history. This is who they are. It’s their identity. And on some level it needs to become the identity of all of us. That’s where I would go with this. The same way, for example-I’m not comparing them because they’re not comparable events-but to say the same way the civil rights movement has become ingrained in the American psyche. These are things that need to be embedded in our consciousness and once they’re there, I think for the most part, people do the right thing with them. And I don’t want to be the one to say, “You must do X.” I want to present visitors to the museum with what occurred and to say, “What do you think?“and give them the tools to understand, to answer critically and logically.
And that, to me, is what education is. Education is providing people with the tools to think critically and make these decisions themselves and to enable them to really embed these decisions and awarenesses in their own psyches because then I think people in America do-almost inexorably- the right thing.
Knowledge is power. I don’t mean to sound like Foucault or a postmodernist, but knowledge really is power. Without knowledge you don’t know who you are. You don’t know who you were. You don’t know where you’re going. That is utterly vital to being a contributing member of any society and part of that knowledge is your history. Without that you’re essentially an empty vessel-an empty vessel that is endlessly just responding to external inputs. That’s not what a productive member of a civil society does.