It’s pretty common knowledge that education changes lives. It opens doors, improves health, promotes gender equality, decreases poverty, promotes civic involvement and has many other benefits. This is true for basic literacy campaigns as well as sex education, access to school for girls and institutions of higher education. Yet, what is taught in addition to how it is taught matters a great deal.
In a few days, I’ll begin a new semester teaching “The Jewish Experience in Central Europe” for Anglo-American University in Prague. As a scholar, a Jew and a feminist who recently moved to Prague (in the heart of Central Europe), this course hits home. It is also timely given rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Coincidentally, this is also the first time I’m teaching a course solely on Jewish history.
As part of my research and preparation, I accompanied another professor on his class’ trip to Terezín. The students first had a guided tour of the small fortress on the site. This place, while historically fascinating and meaningful to Czech history since it was built in the late 1700s by Empress Maria Theresa and housed the notorious assassin Gavrilo Princip, was a political, albeit awful, prison for dissidents and others both well before and during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It never housed more than 500 Jews, despite some 32,000 people being imprisoned there between 1940 and 1945. While an official Czech memorial to the Shoah is on the grounds just outside the fortress, the real Jewish experience at Terezín is the ghetto, a ten-minute walk down the road.
After the tour, the students walked over to the Ghetto Museum just inside the ghetto walls. We spent about forty-five minutes there before heading back to Prague. The part of the museum we saw was well done, documenting the history of the Ghetto, especially of the children, some of whom lived in the building it occupied. Yet, this building was a small part of the entire Ghetto Museum as I was to learn on a subsequent visit.
When I got home, I kept asking myself: what was the point of the trip? What did the students learn about the Jewish experience at Terezín? We spent most of our time at the small fortress, an important historical site the history of which ties into Jewish history, but it doesn’t really capture the unique experience of the ghetto down the street.
In fact, as I was to learn on that subsequent trip, students didn’t experience the salvaged prayer room, the reconstructed dorms, the columbarium and crematorium, the memorial on the Ohre river, the railroad ties, the exhibits on film and propaganda and the rooms dedicated to Jewish art, music, theater and literature. Surely, the students learned through the experience, but I’m not convinced they learned as much as they could have given a different kind of planning for their educational experience.
In many ways, then, it’s not just education, but the kind and quality of education that matters. The way Czech history tells the story of Terezín, as evidenced by the fact that the only guided tour in all of Terezín is located at the small fortress, highlights how the country and its people were used and abused by those in power for various strategic reasons prior to World War II. Czechs suffered through their imprisonment by means of torture, disease and often execution from the time the fortress was built, through World War I, during the Nazi occupation, and later during communism.
Yet, the history of Terezín for the Jew is not the story of the small fortress. It’s not the history of the Czech people; it is the history of a people the various nationalities of Central Europe never saw as members of their society. When I take my students there, I will teach them a different history lesson.
In fact, my entire course will be a different kind of history lesson. As I’m sure my readers know, the history of Jews in Central Europe includes centuries of persecution, suspicion, regulations, uncertainty, expulsion and planned annihilation. Yet, as I’ve done my preparation, I’ve realized just how important it is not to make the history of European anti-Semitism the central theme of the course. Even if for so many rightful and even prudent reasons, it could be.
Instead, my students will hopefully finish the course with an understanding of the ways in which Jewish women and men flourished as well as contributed to society, in spite of and (often) in the face of constant persecution. Of course, they will learn the history and horror that is anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, I want to stress with my students: that in the stifling space of the medieval ghetto, Jewish women and men creatively carved out their own flourishing, traditions that gave them life and hope; while living in the horror that was Terezín,
Jewish women and men wrote and performed operas, plays and symphonies; throughout history, Jewish women and men were important merchants, financiers, heads of companies and academics; Jewish women and men fought for civil rights and the betterment of society after the French Revolution and in Bolshevik Russia. Of course, they also need to know that Jewish society too was nowhere near perfect nor was it egalitarian by any stretch of the imagination.
Jewish women and men often replicated patriarchal structures within their own households and communities even while considered non-members and/or operating subversively within other patriarchal worlds. Yet, throughout the history of the medieval ghetto to today, Jewish women and men were active, responsible members of Central European societies in spite of the fact that they were expelled from cities and countries, denied rights and generally treated with suspicion and contempt. Perhaps this is the real experience, the counter narrative to traditional history: the Jewish people’s perseverance and flourishing in spite of it all.
To me, this is the way we need to teach this history not just of the Jews but others as well. History is not only a series of patriarchal wars, injustices and persecution, but also a story of successful, life-giving contributions and counter narratives from different people and communities, each with their own experiences of survival and resistance as well as victimization.
We need to understand the ways society affects and oppresses but we also need to understand the triumphs and successes of people oppressed by those societies. Perhaps, then, there will be less ignorance, misunderstanding and misinformation. By telling a counter narrative, we can change not just our lives but our world as well.