The vital lessons Holocaust survivors and researchers want Australians to learn

The first national, large-scale survey of Holocaust knowledge and awareness has prompted calls for more consistency in Holocaust education across the country.

Holocaust survivor Nina Bassat.

Holocaust survivor Nina Bassat. Source: SBS

As a child survivor of the Holocaust who migrated to Australia, Nina Bassat views her life's story as a "triumph of survival".

Ms Bassat was born in Lwow, Poland in April 1939, before World War Two began. Her father was taken away by Ukrainian militia on Petlura Day, 25 days after the Germans entered her home city in 1941, and never seen again. 

She and her mother were interned in the Lwow Ghetto for 18 months and then hidden for the remainder of the war by a Ukrainian family, who passed her off as a niece.

Several years later, she arrived in Melbourne, where she went on to rebuild her life and a family. 

Ms Bassat says that while she remembers "odd bits and pieces" of the war years, her memories are shaped by stories shared by her mother, who was "open" and "a fantastic raconteur". 

"And so, I think, really, when you talk to a child survivor, you're not talking to someone who personally remembers trauma, and horror and disaster. It's someone who was unbelievably fortunate to survive that trauma, because 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered and 100,000 Jewish children survived," she told SBS News.

"So our story - and when I say 'our' I'm not trying to be presumptuous and speak on behalf of all child survivors - but those of us that I know, our story is more a story of survival, and the triumph of survival." 

But she insists the Holocaust story - the Nazi regime's persecution and murder of six million Jews along with other minorities - and its message extends far wider than her own.
"Every survivor has a story, and every survivor's story is interesting. But what is really interesting is what we can draw from it, and where we can be of some use," she says. 

National survey prompts calls for better education

Ms Bassat is on the advisory board of Australia's first national, large-scale survey of Holocaust knowledge and awareness, which found critical gaps in knowledge among the general public, along with overwhelming agreement that “we can learn lessons for today”. 

Released on Thursday to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it has prompted calls for more consistency in Holocaust studies across the country. 

The survey was conducted by Deakin University researchers in September and commissioned by the Gandel Foundation, one of the country’s largest independent philanthropic funds. 

It posed 70 questions, and saw 3,522 responses from adults across all states and territories. 

“There have been surveys undertaken overseas - in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Austria. But this is the first and largest-scale survey of its kind in Australia,” one of the lead researchers, Associate Professor Steven Cooke, told SBS News. 

Researchers said one of the key objectives was to understand the level of “Holocaust awareness” among Australians. 

Although the survey found “broad, high levels” of Holocaust awareness, there are some critical gaps in knowledge, Dr Cooke says. 

It found almost one quarter (24 per cent) of those surveyed aged 18 years and over had little or no knowledge of the Holocaust, with that number rising to 30 per cent among millennials.

'The Holocaust is part of our story'

More than 80 per cent of respondents were also unaware of Australia’s own connections to the Holocaust, including the protest by Indigenous leader and human rights activist William Cooper against the Nazis’ Kristallnacht in 1938. 

“We often tend to focus on the events that happened in Europe, and miss out on some of the really intimate connections that the Holocaust has with some of those other national stories,” Dr Cooke said. 

“We need to acknowledge that the Holocaust is part of our story.” 

Holocaust survivor Nina Bassat.
Holocaust survivor Nina Bassat. Source: SBS

The survey also found that, on average, those with a comparatively higher level of Holocaust awareness had “warmer feelings” towards minority or disadvantaged groups, such as religious minorities, asylum seekers and Indigenous people. 

For Ms Bassat, this association is crucial to understanding the “universality” of the Holocaust. 

“Whilst we as Jews have to understand and remember and tell the story, because there is so much Holocaust denial, whilst we have to do that, we have to focus on universal aspects such as greater awareness of human rights,” she said. 

“Because, people who understand the Holocaust and are touched by it are also far more aware of the human rights of other minority groups and Indigenous people.

“That's one aspect of universality. The other aspect of it, both from the survivors and from those who saved survivors, is people can draw from an enormous inspiration as to courage and resilience and of what the human spirit is capable. That message is so vital.”

Calls for more consistent Holocaust studies

Despite the gaps in knowledge, the survey was broadly affirming for Brisbane teacher Lauren Hovelroud, who is passionate about Holocaust education. 

She is also an alumni of the Gandel Holocaust Studies Program for Australian educators. 

Ms Hovelroud is encouraged by the overwhelming agreement among respondents that “we can learn lessons for today from what happened in the Holocaust”.

“I think what we should take away from it is not concern, but primarily of it being really affirming,” she told SBS News. 

“I think [that finding] is a powerful point of reference for us - not just for me as an educator, but for all Australians, to say, ‘this is something that is still relevant today.’”

She said the survey also affirms the role of education, with 66 per cent believing it should be compulsory for schools to teach about the Holocaust, and almost 80 per cent valuing Holocaust memorials and museums. 

“From an educator's point of view, this survey will be valuable for us to push for not new change, but continued change in this space,” she said. 

The existing national curriculum for year 10 history requires students to examine significant events of World War II, including the Holocaust. It may also be covered in other history programs, such as in year nine. 

State and territory governments and non-government school authorities are responsible for the implementation of the curriculum within their schools. 

Both Ms Hovelroud and Dr Cooke said there is a great degree of variation in how that plays out across the states and territories. 

Last year, the Victorian government announced Holocaust education would become compulsory for years nine and 10 students in state schools. 

Among the researchers’ eight recommendations in the report is the introduction of a consistent approach to Holocaust education across the country, along with proper and accredited teacher training.

“We'd like to see the approach taken in Victoria rolled out across the country,” Dr Cooke said. 

CEO of the Gandel Foundation Vedran Drakulic said work remains to be done in this space. 

“A lot has been achieved in recent times to strengthen Holocaust education, most notably the federal government’s significant funding to redevelop existing and build new Holocaust museums and centres in all Australian capital cities, and the Victorian government’s introduction of mandatory Holocaust education in Years 9 and 10, combined with the development of teacher tools and resources and proper, structured teacher training,” he said. 

“But much work still remains to be done. While this survey shows that Australians on average know a fair bit about the Holocaust, there are still critical gaps in that knowledge and awareness, including among the younger generation."

'We can never forget the horror'

In a statement, the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment said it "welcomes the report released by the Gandel Foundation and will consider the recommendations and findings". 

Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert said it is an important piece of work that "helps show just how important education is". "

"We can never forget the horror of the Holocaust and today we affirm that commitment to the Australian Jewish community and the Jewish community across the world," he said in the statement to SBS News.

"We owe it to those who died or lost loved ones to ensure this dark period of history is never forgotten and never repeated, and educating future generations has a key role to play in achieving this.

"It is important that we continue to increase awareness of the Holocaust across our community and I will continue to work with the Australian Jewish community to ensure every Australian gets the opportunity to understand this tragic chapter of human history."

Ms Hovelroud is calling on greater connection and engagement among schools, historical museums and community groups to help Holocaust survivors to share their voice. 

“I think this survey is timely because we still have that window where we can make some valuable steps, and also those survivors can see that change as well. I feel that is something that could be really powerful … to show that to our students and young people,” she said. 

For Ms Bassat, there is also only one way forward: age-appropriate education. 

“I think when you speak about the Holocaust to the younger children, you give them the message that I live with, which is the triumph of survival, and the courage and the resilience that it took to survive.”

9 min read
Published 27 January 2022 at 9:42am
By Emma Brancatisano
Source: SBS