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Remembering the Holocaust in classrooms

Latest update : 2008-02-28

President Sarkozy’s proposal to have pupils “adopt” the 11,500 French Jewish children killed during the Holocaust has touched off a wave of protests. France 24 looks at what the French think of the proposal.

Not a good idea. Such was the almost unanimous reaction to the French president's new proposals on teaching the Holocaust to youngsters. So much so that the government backed down. Speaking to the CRIF, France’s largest Jewish organization on Feb. 13, Nicolas Sarkozy said he would ask every child aged eleven to “adopt” one of the 11,000 French Jewish children who were deported and killed during the Holocaust. His speech prompted a wave of reactions from political, religious and educational representatives.


Among the first to express their discontent was centre-right political heavyweight Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor as well as a pioneering former Health minister and honorary president of the “Foundation for the Holocaust memory”. Her arguments were later echoed by the opposition. “We former concentration camp prisoners found it very difficult to talk about our experiences after the war; even with family members. Today we still try to spare our children and our grandchildren. Besides, many teachers teach these types of issues very well,” Veil told the weekly L’Express. 



“Trivializing the Holocaust”


Many fear that French communities will react badly to the experience. “Children are already very sensitive to social unrest. That’s why this measure is really problematic,” said philosophy professor Sophie Ernst during FRANCE 24's “Face-off” programme. “They are not immune to social conflicts and tensions. They follow the Arab-Israeli conflict on television. They belong to social groups that fight over issues such as colonisation, slavery or discrimination towards minorities. It’s a mistake to believe we can work on their feelings without taking any of these realities into account. We run the risk of trivializing the Holocaust.”


“How would a very Catholic or Muslim family react when teachers ask their child to carry the memory of a Jewish child?” asked Simone Veil. “People will start competing against one another over remembrance work,” said the philosopher Régis Debray in the Catholic daily “La Croix”. “This measure could spark claims in the banlieues [poor French suburbs] to 'adopt' Palestinian victims of Israeli strikes. And what about the Roma, the Armenians, and the blacks… In other words, instead of unifying us, I’m afraid this move will divide communities and religions. All of this seems unfortunate.”



Psychological impact on children


Teachers' unions were quick to bash the proposal. They believe the Holocaust is sufficiently studied in the school curriculum. As a XXth century event, the Holocaust is studied as early as primary school, points out the right-wing union Snlc-Csen. “Every time a politician becomes interested in an event, he feels the need to change the way it is taught. Trust teachers to do their work correctly and nurture the duty to remember the past,” Bernard Kuntz, a Snlc-Csen member, told the AFP.


Unions also question the psychological impact of the measure on children. “Children might feel guilty for the fate of a child they are not responsible for,” said the French teacher’s union, Snuipp-FSU. Another union, the Sgen-CFDT, stressed the danger that “children will develop morbid tendencies.”



“WWII is still taboo in France


To the French president’s relief, a couple of Jewish institutions have come out in support of his proposal. The Grand Rabbi of France said he “totally agreed” with Nicolas Sarkozy. “I do not believe that plunging into the life of a deported child is traumatizing,” Steven Sampson, from the US Centre for Jewish studies, told FRANCE 24. “Children see so much more violence on television. They are used to identifying with dead characters. I think the Second World War is still taboo in France.”


“It’s important to help pupils understand that these children, who were sitting under these same trees, on these same benches, were rejected by humanity because they were perceived as being different,” says French Rabbi Haïm Korsia.



Toning down the president’s assertions


Faced with such a backlash, the French government toned down the president’s demands. The government spokesperson, Laurent Wauquiez, explained that the president “opens the way, launches a debate but then leaves it open for those concerned.”


Veil finally accepted to join a consultation group to examine the ways one could apply Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal. Modifying President Sarkozy's initial proposal, Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said classrooms - not individual pupils – would adopt one of the 11,000 young Holocaust victims. And finally, National Assembly speaker Bernard Accoyer announced the creation of a commission “on memorial issues” by the end of March.    

Date created : 2008-02-20