Holocaust Educator's Conference

Remarks I made at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

At the Holocaust Educators Conference, Summer, 2003:

Earlier today, we heard from both David Weiss Halivni and Neil Gilman, both of whom expressed their concern that the holocaust is fading into irrelevance. They both lamented the fact that the holocaust is becoming a chapter in history devoid of the emotions of rage and horror that it once held. Perhaps the presentation by Annette Insdorf who chronicled the rise in holocaust related film has caused you to think twice about their assertions. I'll be looking at popular teen culture and the holocaust, and asking some similar questions.

I speak before this conference not only as an educator who speaks on the holocaust, but as a product of holocaust education. When I was nine years old I watched The Holocaust tv miniseries starring Meryl Streep. At ten I held a yellow candle and commemorated Yom HaShoah in my Jewish Day School. At eleven I saw the play the Diary of Anne Frank. At twelve my Bar Mitzvah tutor was a refuge who told me tales of Hitler's rise to power. At thirteen I watched Hogan's Heroes re-runs. At fourteen I read Night. At fifteen I went on a teen trip which included a visit to Yad Vashem. At sixteen I watched all ten hours of the film Shoah. At seventeen I killed virtual Nazis in the video game Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. At eighteen I read Maus. At nineteen I went to Germany.

In addition to having a strong holocaust education in Jewish day school, I also had a strong informal holocaust education - from that Castle Wolfenstien game, Hogan's Heroes, and from bands like the Dead Kennedys who sang Nazi Punks F*ck Off!
That informal education taught me that Nazis were the stand-in or evil not only in Jewish circles, but in popular culture -- which affirmed that hating Nazis was still relevant, some forty years after their rise and fall. The fact that the holocaust was on TV mattered, as did the fact that I would find video games whose aim was to destroy Nazis at the homes of my non-Jewish friends.

As a product of day school and now as a parent of Jewish day school children I am aware of the strong pull that popular culture has on the hearts and minds of young people.

What message is popular culture putting out to teenagers today? Do the students we teach get the ideas put forward in the classroom affirmed by popular culture or dismissed? Is the Holocaust still relevant? Are Nazis still the stand in for evil? Should they be? How can we, as educators, get students to think critically about the messages that pop culture conveys?

Before I speak on the status of the Shoah in popular culture today, I want to address what I see as an important evolution over the last decade that has shaped what we as educators should be looking for when we ask questions about popular culture. In the 1920s film overtook the theatre as the most popular entertainment venue. By the 1960s televisions pushed aside radios in most American homes. My generation has gone through three such revolutions in media - cable television knocking aside network, the internet replacing encyclopedias and countless other resources and threatening libraries, and most importantly for the purposes of this forum, video games which have not only diminished the sale of board games, but are slowly beginning to rival the television. Today, the average teenager spends 35 hours per week in front of some sort of screen with around 25 hours devoted to television and movies and ten on the computer or gaming console. This is roughly comparable to the number of hours that a student will spend in a classroom.

So when I’m looking at popular culture and the role it plays in the life of teens in particular, I’m not just going to look at the traditional - the top grossing movies, the top neilsen rated tv shows, and the billboard top 10 but rather at the emergent and in particular, the digital revolution. 64% of teenagers play at least one hour of video games per day. Boys generally spend between 10-15 hours per week playing video games. And the experience of playing a game is a new paradigm that we should not overlook. Dr. Sherry Turkle, the leading expert on video game culture (who just happens to be a Jewish mother) writes -

When you play a video game you enter into the world of the programmers who made it. You have to do more than identify with a character on the screen. You must act for it. Identification through action has a special kind of hold. Like playing a sport, it puts people into a focused, and highly charged state of mind. For many people, what is being pursued in the video game is not just a score, but an altered state (83). – Sherry Turkle

What really defines teen popular culture? Hybrids. All four of the popular culture items that I will be presenting are entertainment industry hybrids. One is a comic book that became a movie, another a movie theme song that became a video, one a cartoon that became a movie, and another a movie that spawned a video game.

I'll begin with a comic book that became a movie.

X-Men opening scene (problematizing the survivor)

Madonna Die Another Day (non-Jews identifying with Jews)

South Park- the Movie: Canadians sent to Death Camps

(Holocaust as metaphor for persecution in comedy)

South Park is consistently number one or two on the cable ratings chart, and it has made cable history by beating out the major networks for the 10 pm time slot. It is seen by 46 million people each week. The film grossed over 50 million dollars in theatre release.

Playstation: Medal of Honor Underground (virtual reenactment)

(These were followed by an open discussion concerning the media)

So what do these various forms of media popular with teens tell us? In some ways they are frightening. They show us how the holocaust has become a "myth" -- a narrative of evil co-opted by superheroes, cartoons, and pop divas. They also show us how gamers fantasize about the holocaust -- particularly the Medal of Honor Underground footage in which one must join the French Resistance. Soon, I imagine, gamers will be liberating the concentration camps (they are already liberating American POW camps and escaping from them - see the game Prisoner of War) and perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not far from Playstation 2.

But the one thing for sure that they tell us is that the holocaust has not faded into irrevelance. Far from it -- the holocaust, nearly sixty years later, has become one of the most intriguing stories for teenagers. What should we do in a world where teens are blasting Nazis in cyberspace? Our role as educators is to get them to think critically about the portals they have chosen to enter, and then to lead them to the source material - the personal accounts, historical archives, etc. Once they are there, they will create their own literature, theology, and theater - and in doing so, they will keep alive the flame of memory that honors the lives of both those who died and those who survived.