Teaching the Holocaust in China

Tue, 06/03/2014 - 5:00pm

By Xu Xin

Holocaust education is uniquely situated in China, a country without an antisemitic tradition, and thousands of miles from where the Holocaust happened. The paucity of direct contact with Jews throughout Chinese history has impeded early awareness of the Holocaust, but the last 20 years have seen great progress with Holocaust education programs there. But how and why?

Holocaust education in China is closely linked to Judaic studies. With the advancement of Judaic studies, many scholars realized that the Holocaust is an issue directly linked with the Jewish people since World War II. Judaic studies lead to the study of antisemitism. The study of antisemitism leads to Holocaust studies. With the deepening of Judaic studies, Holocaust education deepened, too.

A marked change occurred in the 1980s with the open-door policy and economic reform in China. Jewish studies, which started in the late 1980s and early 1990s in China, accelerated after diplomatic relations were established between China and Israel in 1992. Jewish studies became popular. In addition to conferences, exhibitions, and courses, many books and articles on various Jewish and Israeli subjects appeared in Chinese. Holocaust studies also appeared in Chinese academic circles. Holocaust education appears in Chinese college education with the deepening awareness that “the Holocaust fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilization, and the unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning,” as stated in the Stockholm declaration of 2000.

Under the leadership of the Glazer Institute for Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University, a “learning Jewish culture” project was launched in 1990 to promote the study of Jewish subjects among Chinese college students. At the outset, the Holocaust was only a small part of the regular courses on Jewish culture, but students’ interest in learning more about the Holocaust grew. In 2000, the Institute started to offer its students an entire course on the Holocaust, titled “The Holocaust through Videos.”

In order to introduce Holocaust education throughout China, a teacher’s training seminar was held at Nanjing University in 2005, co-sponsored by the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, now known as International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah; London Jewish Cultural Centre; and the Glazer Institute. As Chinese scholars learned about the Holocaust and how to teach it, they also shared with the non-Chinese participants their expertise on the Nanjing massacre. Parallels were drawn between the two atrocities. The seminar elicited great attention from the Chinese side and promoted education, remembrance, and research about the Holocaust in colleges throughout China. Participants learned at the seminar not only the facts but also the skills necessary to disseminate their knowledge at their universities. To run a seminar on the Holocaust with the background of the Nanjing massacre proved to be effective and useful to present reliable, unprejudiced, and accurate knowledge of the Holocaust to Chinese scholars who are either teaching courses on world history or Western civilization at Chinese universities and colleges, or doing research. It becomes easier for Chinese to see some of the unprecedented individuals of the Holocaust, as well as makes the Holocaust tangible and concrete to the participants. Moreover, it provides a rare and unique opportunity for Chinese scholars to learn about the Holocaust and sufferings of the Jewish people during World War II in a systematic way without going abroad, and to teach the Holocaust-related courses in China.

It is not accurate to say that interest in Holocaust studies in China stems from the Chinese’ own attempt to highlight their own sufferings. However, Holocaust studies certainly helps the Chinese to be more aware of their own sufferings and to learn different ways to look into and remember the Nanjing massacre, in particular, and persecutions of the Chinese during World War II, in general. The recent cooperation between the USC Shoah Foundation and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in collecting testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Nanjing massacre is but a good example.  

Historically speaking, written records play an important role in the development of civilization. Nevertheless, with the development of modern technology, written records seem not enough to contain history. Audio-visual records become a new, powerful means for recording history, as they keep both sound and images. For instance, audio-visual testimonies of the Holocaust and other genocides give a voice to the survivors and other witnesses, allowing them to speak directly about their personal experiences. The majority of Chinese has almost no chance to meet in person the survivors or witnesses of Holocaust. The Visual History Archive at USC Shoah Foundation, when available, will create a chance for the Chinese population to “see” those people and listen to their experiences directly.

Holocaust studies also highlights human rights issues in China. What Hitler did is considered a crime against humanity. It raises a number of questions concerning humanity: How could a group of human beings commit these crimes against another group of human beings? Why did the rest of the world stand by in silence when the Holocaust took place? What is human nature? And wherehow? Did the preservation of human rights disappear during World War II? Those questions were raised and discussed in the Holocaust courses. The study of the Holocaust obviously helps to encourage more human rights discussions among Chinese.

Holocaust studies also provides many useful lessons for Chinese to combat the denial of the Nanjing massacre. As with Holocaust denial in the West, some Japanese historians attack the authenticity and objectivity of evidence and testimony regarding the historic events. It is also hoped that examination of an outside perspective can help those nations directly affected by the Holocaust learn to better understand their own history.

The Glazer Institute, as a partner of this testimony program, is pleased to have the opportunity to work with both the USC Shoah Foundation and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Twenty years after the creation of the Shoah Foundation, the partnership to share eyewitness testimony is a significant contribution to knowledge and education.