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Introduction to Reflections on the Holocaust

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. In this introduction, Julia Zarankin, the volume's editor, discusses how this collection of essays exemplifies the spirit of Humanity in Action's educational programs.  

The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action (HIA) fellows, senior fellows, board members and lecturers who have participated in its educational programs from 1997 to 2010. HIA programs focus on the obligation to understand genocide, particularly the Holocaust, and other mass atrocities in the 20th and 21st centuries and connect them to the complex challenges of diversity in contem- porary societies. Interdisciplinary and intellectually rigorous, these programs explore past and present models of resistance to injustice and emphasize the responsibility of future leaders to be active citizens and accountable decision-makers.

During the HIA annual summer programs, fellows have written essays about his- torical and contemporary issues focused on minorities. Since a study of the Holocaust provides the historic base for the HIA programs in Denmark, France, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, a number of international teams of Fellows have conducted re- search and written about Holocaust education, memorialization and restitution issues.

HIA fellows write essays under unusual and particularly challenging circumstances. Fellows are given one week to research and write an investigative essay in international teams. At least one American and one European fellow write the essay together, which invites a host of linguistic and stylistic challenges to negotiate. The structure and intensity of the HIA summer program force fellows to jump into their topics with little preparation but a great deal of enthusiasm, as they gather information and interview experts, including survivors, librarians, professors, human rights activists, curators, politicians, etc. Very few fellows begin the writing process with background knowledge or expertise in the topic they ultimately choose to write about. The essays  are the culmination of a month of (often heated) discussion about minority rights, diversity, challenges of democratic practices, human rights and the relevance of the past.

Each essay in this volume reflects upon the difficult necessity of understanding, teaching and memorializing the Holocaust. In addition, the essays consider our responsibility, as citizens living under democracies, to draw moral and ethical lessons from the Holocaust, as well as other mass genocides.

The volume presents a collection of distinct voices writing in a variety of genres. Not all of the essays in this volume are formal in nature; we have included transcripts of HIA lectures, reportage, and personal reflections. The essays approach  the Holocaust by examining questions of representation, education and anthropology. Eighty percent of the articles in the volume were written as reports, by students in their 20s who participated in the HIA summer programs in Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands. These essays raise worthwhile and provocative questions; many issues in these reports are worthy of further consideration, research and analysis. The HIA fellows who wrote these reports have, for the most part, gone on to incorporate human rights activism in their professional lives. The last three essays are written by HIA lecturers of a different generation, each of whom focuses on larger ideas that underlie genocide: Ed van Thijn, Konstanty Gebert and Anders Jerichow write from  the perspective of journalists and politicians whose life work has focused on advocating for human rights.

The first part of the volume, "Museums, Monuments and Memorials," explores the complexity behind visiting Holocaust memorials. In "A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: The Intention and Effects of German's New Memorial to the Murdered Jews," Sharon Chin, Fabian Franke and Sheri Halpern (HIA fellows from 2005) examine the tensions behind the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. In a personal reflection, Julia Zarankin recounts her journey to Auschwitz on a study trip for HIA senior fellows in 2008.

Tomasz Cebulski was the guide who led the group of HIA senior fellows through Auschwitz. He has been leading tours of the concentration camp for the past ten years and grappling with the question of what constitutes an ethical visit. His essay, 'A Visitor's Manual," is an explication and a step-by-step manual for ethically visiting the world’s most famous death camp. Tomasz greets tourists who arrive at Auschwitz with varying degrees of historical knowledge, and different motives for visiting the death camps: some come to mourn, some to commemorate relatives, others to learn, some simply to sightsee, but most come to witness. In addition to providing an astonishing number of historical facts and figures, he teaches visitors how to approach and examine a concentration camp, and reminds his group members that statistics do not explain the core underlying more disturbing questions of genocide. It is our job, as citizens, to ponder and address those questions long after the tour is over. Judith Goldstein’s "Visting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum" was originally written as a memo to HIA fellows to prepare them for what they were about to witness in DC. She stresses the importance of examining the Holocaust as a devastating event that provides historical and moral foundations for facing critical contemporary issues.

The second group of essays confronts the challenges of educating and remember- ing the Holocaust in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Denmark. Jacob Boersema and Noam Schimmel’s essay "Challenging Dutch Holocaust Education: Towards a Curriculum Based on Moral Choices and Empathetic Capacity" (HIA fellows 2001) offers practical solutions for improving Dutch holocaust education. Kelly Bunch, Matthew Canfield and Birte Schöler (HIA fellows 2005) consider the difficulties facing German Holocaust education in "The Responsibility of Knowledge: Developing Holocaust Education for the Third Generation." Vera Jotanovic and Juliana Schnur (HIA fellows 2008) analyze political use and misuse of French Holocaust education mandates in "Untangling Emotional History: How President Sarkozy's Failed Memory Initiative Illuminates France's Continuing Struggle with the Holocaust." Saskia Hansen and Julia Zarankin (HIA fellows 1997) explore the cultural subtext behind Danish resistance to writing and teaching students about the Danish rescue of the Jews in 1943, in "Heroism in Danish Culture and Self-Understanding: The Problems of Writing the Rescue." Matthijs Kronemeijer and Darren Teshima (HIA fellows 2000) unearth the layers beneath the myth of Dutch citizens as resistance fighters and do-gooders during WWII in "A Founding Myth for the Netherlands: The Second World War and the Victimization of Dutch Jews."

The volume’s final three essays deal with ideas; they offer the reader models of how to draw lessons from the Holocaust to put humanity into action. Ed van Thijn, a child survivor, connects HIA goals with personal experience in "Sixty-Five Years Later: The Meaning of Humanity in Action." Konstanty Gebert’s transcript of "The Banality of Genocide," a lecture he gave at the First International HIA Conference, highlights the dangers of becoming bystanders. Finally, Anders Jerichow’s "The Educational Imperative" leaves the reader with ideas of our role in preventing future genocides.

These essays do not set out to find answers. Instead, in the spirit of HIA, they challenge the reader to ask questions, to think critically, and act courageously. This volume of essays highlights the dangers of standing by, tolerating injustice, and turning a blind eye.

HIA is grateful for the support of the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, especially the Department of War Victims and Remembrance, for the publication of this volume.

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About the Author

Julia Zarankin received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. She taught Russian literature and culture at Stanford and the University of Missouri. Julia currently works as a writer, editor and writing coach in Toronto. In addition, she frequently lectures to later life learners about Russian and Soviet culture at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. She has served on the planning committee of Holocaust Education Week in Toronto.


Zarankin, Julia. "Introduction." In Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Julia Zarankin, 6-9. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.

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