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Historical Narratives in Tension: Holocaust Educators’ Perceptions of Victimhood

Congratulations to Dr. Danny M. Cohen on his successful completion of his dissertation entitled: Historical Narratives in Tension: Holocaust Educators’ Perceptions of Victimhood
Abstract:  While common conceptions of the Holocaust as a Jewish story endure, non-Jewish Holocaust victims have become nonessential characters at the margins of the Holocaust narrative. This marginalization prevents learners from fully grasping the Nazis’ intentions and prevents learners from applying lessons from history to different forms of oppression today. Current guidelines for Holocaust education rarely support educators to integrate non-Jewish victim narratives into their programs. Therefore, whether or not and how to address non-Jewish victims is left up to individual Holocaust educators. I designed a program of qualitative research to explore the claims and rationales educators use to make sense of Holocaust victimhood, the shifts in their arguments over time, and the complexities and tensions within and between their positions. By analyzing the knowledge and beliefs about Holocaust victimhood of 15 trainee docents at a new Holocaust museum in the United States, I found that educators made claims that mirrored the debates Holocaust historians and educators continue to have between the centrality of the Jewish narrative and the inclusion of non-Jewish victims. I characterized the arguments for these positions in four schematic narrative templates, abstracted historical narratives that are in tension with each other: The Nazis’ non-Jewish victims are no less central to Holocaust history than the Nazis’ Jewish victims; Understanding Holocaust history relies on integrating the central Jewish narrative with the narratives of non-Jewish victims; The Jewish narrative is central to Holocaust history and the non-Jewish victim narratives are supplementary; and The Holocaust does not include non-Jewish victim narratives and is therefore synonymous with the Jewish narrative. I argue that educators use specific knowledge and beliefs about Holocaust history to build these schematic narrative templates and they also use these schematic narrative templates to make specific and complex arguments about Holocaust history. I conclude by discussing how this research contributes theoretically to our understanding of how people use their knowledge and beliefs to make sense of history. Finally, I explain how this research contributes to our thinking about the design of educator training, and the design of learning environments, within the field of Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education.

Supervisor: Brian J. Reiser

Ph. D. Granting Department and Institution: Learning Sciences, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University (2011)

Currently, Danny is an appointed member of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission and is a lecturer at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, specializing in community programming and Holocaust education design.
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