Jewish Holocaust Histories and the Work of Chronological Narratives

Jordana Silverstein. Journal of Jewish Education. Volume 78, Issue 1. 2012.

Teaching about the Holocaust, for many Jewish teachers, is part of a project of coming to an understanding of this terrible moment in the modern Jewish past. For many teachers of the Holocaust in Jewish schools in Melbourne and New York, part of that project requires providing students with information about what happened. For one teacher in New York, “unless there is a redeeming reason as to why I should deviate from the timeline,” which, she said, there rarely is, a timeline of events serves an important function. As she stated in an interview, “I find that gives the girls a little bit more clarity.” This clarity of knowledge is something which many teachers strive for, often using, as will be explored in this article, the “timeline,” or chronological narrative, to help them do so.

In the article that follows I am particularly interested in reflecting on the teachings that occur at the level of the Jewish high school, in particular a sample of Jewish high schools in Melbourne, Australia, and New York City, USA. For teachers of the Holocaust in these settings there are particular issues which must be confronted. After all, it is a difficulty—how, within the boundaries of the high school history classroom, to pass on to Jewish students ideas and knowledge about the Holocaust? Involved in this are the problems not just of the fact that the school curriculum is constructed (and the limitations of the high school classroom) and of the need to find age-appropriate ways of conveying information to the students, but also the specific difficulties involved in understanding and transmitting histories of the Holocaust. This article examines one way in which teachers of the Holocaust in a selection of Jewish schools in Melbourne and New York attempt to teach their students the “truth” of the Holocaust, to provide their students with “clarity.” For the teachers in this study this is, primarily, a truth which is—somewhat unsurprisingly—accessed to a large degree through chronological fact-based narrations of the Holocaust. The use of chronological narratives is to be expected, and is in many ways necessary. But if we follow the words of some survivors, as I will return to at the end of this article, we can understand that chronological time does not necessarily sit well with the events of the Holocaust. That is, work needs to be done to fit the Holocaust into a chronological narrative. I am interested here not in suggesting that chronological narratives have no place—for of course they perform an important function—but in exploring this work that they do. Moreover, I am interested in asking what other narrative forms can be—and are being—deployed, and what work can they do.

Although it is not surprising that teachers of history use chronological narratives, for this mode of narration is a central feature of Western historiography, it is important that we examine why they do. And that reason, I am arguing, is that they are working to contain the Holocaust in order to make it knowable for the students. In doing so, they are attempting to construct, control, and contain the narrative of the Holocaust, against the fact that, as the survivor testimonies which they use show, the trauma of the Holocaust means that its stories cannot be contained (Felman & Laub, 1992). But they try, making it appear as though a known, pre-determined, chronologically moving narrative is what the Holocaust (always) was (Caruth, 1996, pp. 1-9).

We can thus gain an understanding of the purpose of this chronological model, and thereby appreciate the power that it holds: the capacity to aid in the working-through of the traumatic aftermath of the Holocaust for Jews in Melbourne and New York. For, as Marianne Hirsch (1997) has explained through her theorizing of postmemory, the traumas of the Holocaust—and their working-through—continue across time, space, and generations. By proposing this formulation I am not suggesting that the traumas of the Holocaust which the survivors carry are in any sense equivalent to the traumas which are captured, narrated, and passed on within Jewish Holocaust history curricula. Indeed, the aftermaths and continuations of trauma carry a wide variety of importantly different affects.

In order to properly understand the complex work which the chronological narrative does, a number of different threads will need to be explored: The ways that chronological narratives are normalized and, as Eric Santner (1992) argues (as will be further explored below), made into fetish objects; the types of chronological narratives which are deployed and the complex historical reasons for their adoption and deployment; and the ways in which the ordering of time can have a pacifying effect.


In 2006 I conducted interviews with a selection of teachers of the Holocaust in Jewish day schools in Melbourne and New York: both the schools and the teachers who participated did so on the basis of anonymity. Curricula were collected where available: four schools in Melbourne and three in New York supplied curricula. Interviews were conducted with teachers in five schools in Melbourne and seven schools in New York. Some of these schools were co-educational, and some were all-girls schools. No all-boys schools participated in the study: Teachers were either too busy to participate, did not return phone calls or emails, or explained that they do not teach about the Holocaust, as they teach only “modern Jewish history (nationhood to present)”. The Holocaust is primarily taught in these Jewish schools in both cities as a unit within history studies, and on average approximately a semester is spent learning about the Holocaust. The schools in New York that participated were chosen—out of the hundreds of Jewish schools in New York—through consultation with an educator of the Holocaust at a New York Jewish educational organisation. All Jewish schools in Melbourne were invited to participate. Not all schools approached in either city agreed to participate. From these interviews, and from curricula supplied by the teachers, where available, we can come to an understanding of some of the ways in which the Holocaust is being understood, and made comprehensible, in Jewish communities in the two cities at the beginning of the 21st century.

As the schools and teachers who participated did so on the condition of anonymity, not much can be publicly said about their denominational affiliations. I can say that all of the schools which participated were high schools and I include the following chart of the schools to provide a sense of the types of schools whose work is under consideration. These categorizations are based on information provided by teachers and which is available on the schools’ websites. Schools which begin with an “M” refer to schools in Melbourne, schools with a “NY” are schools in New York. The letter following the M/NY was assigned at random.

With regard to the material under examination in this article, there was little overall difference discernible between the different types of schools, nor between schools in the two cities. While in some ways this is surprising—indeed, for instance, there were some differences in the length of time spent on teaching the Holocaust (schools in Melbourne, in general, spent longer than schools in New York), and differences arose, for instance, when teachers at different denominational schools explained the ways in which they were prepared (or allowed) to discuss women’s experiences of the Holocaust—with regard to the question of the use of chronological narratives there was little difference within and between the two cities. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the reasons for this similarity fully, it basically results from a shared collective memory of the Holocaust, spurred on by the spread of various writings and films across the diaspora (Silverstein, 2009). What then results is an importantly transnational diasporic approach to Holocaust education.

Melbourne and New York were chosen for examination for this project due to their various similarities and differences. The Jewish communities in both cities contain large numbers of people directly affected by the Holocaust (that is, both have large populations of survivors and their descendants); both cities are located outside Israel and in Western, settler-colonial countries; and both cities are dominated by a similar politics of a particular mix of liberalism, conservatism, and Zionism. And so, while there are certainly considerable differences between the various communities within the two cities, there are aspects of their current incarnations which militate against these differences, particularly when considering the ways in which histories of the Holocaust are formulated, narrated, and taught in these Jewish high school classrooms.

The interviews undertaken for the broader project out of which this article arises occurred over a 10-month period in both Melbourne and New York. I sat with teachers at the schools for approximately one hour each, talking to them about their Holocaust pedagogy in a wide variety of ways. Questions asked ranged from the ways in which Jewish women’s experiences are taught; to the structure of the Holocaust studies course they run; to the ways in which teaching the Holocaust is used to teach the students about Jewish identity more generally; to which groups, individuals, camps, ghettos, and experiences are discussed in the classroom. These were, as can be seen, quite wide-ranging interviews. The interviews were used as part of a qualitative approach to researching Holocaust education in Jewish schools. These interviews were recorded, transcribed, and then, in terms of the methods of data analysis which occurred, were explored through the lens of textual or discourse analysis, in order to closely analyze and explore the ways in which teachers talk about their approaches to, and deployment of, Holocaust pedagogy. In addition to discourse analysis methods, I also used the methods of narrative analysis and content analysis, to come to a full understanding of the different structures of narrative, content, and signs which the teachers deployed. The use, and methodical analysis of discourses and narratives, was particularly important here as I explore the ways in which narratives are constructed and the meanings made of particular narrative structures. This project is, therefore, deliberately a close analysis of particular teachers’ (often not explicitly spoken) ideas.

While I approached this study with some notions of what I would find, these were largely overturned through the interview process. In particular, for our purposes, I expected to encounter a wider variety of approaches to the teaching of the Holocaust. One thing that was striking, I thought, was the fact that the chronological narrative has attained such a preeminent place in the narration of the Holocaust in Jewish high schools in these transnational spaces. While perhaps we could expect that teachers would experiment with different modes of narration and explanation—indeed, Simone Schweber’s (2004) study of Holocaust education in a series of American schools, coupled with Samuel Totten, Paul Bartrop, and Steven Jacobs’ (2004) edited collection of essays regarding university-level Holocaust education, demonstrate that there are many different methodological approaches to teaching Holocaust narratives—this was not the case in the schools under examination in this project. Once I recognized this, it became important to come to an understanding of why this was the case. The article which follows, and the framework offered (in particular) by Hayden White, which I present below, therefore was approached after the interviews as a way of coming to a better understanding of the data which I had accumulated.

While this may be a limited representation of the ways in which teachers teach about the Holocaust—we are not examining what went on, day-to-day, within the classroom, for example—these interviews and curricula serve as appropriate sources for this study. This is because I am interested in exploring the ways in which teachers think of and explain their approach, rather than the ways in which students absorbed the information. We can assume, to a certain extent I think, that teachers are able to pass on within the space of the interview and the curricula what they are teaching in the classroom. Moreover, my intention in this article is not to provide competing ideas of how the Holocaust could be best taught. Indeed, I deliberately offer no such prescriptions. Nor is it to suggest that the ways in which it is currently being taught are in any way lacking or requiring of change. Rather, the aim is to come to an understanding of how the (chronological) narratives which are being taught are inflected with the considerable, particular, trauma that comes from living in the aftermath of this genocide.

Histories of the Holocaust in the School Classroom

While in this article I am focusing on a particular aspect of the Holocaust histories which are presented in the selection of Jewish high school classrooms in Melbourne and New York, to understand fully the contexts for these chronological narratives we need to understand the way high school education about the Holocaust operates more generally, and in particular open ourselves up to considering the dominant place that chronological narratives occupy in narratives of the Holocaust. The literature on Holocaust education in non-Jewish schools is too voluminous to cover in full here; however, we will now undertake a brief move into the relevant literature, and thereby come to understand what makes the approach undertaken in this article particular to this project.

As Simone Schweber (2011) has pointed out in her thorough exploration of the state of Holocaust education, there has been a great deal of research into Holocaust pedagogy in state-run schools and on university and college campuses in America, Israel, and throughout Europe; yet, few scholars have focused on the particularities of this pedagogy in Jewish high school settings. This was taken as a motivation for this article: to come to understand Holocaust education in Jewish community settings. Moreover, as Schweber (2011) comments, there remains the gap in the available research which discusses the different approaches in Jewish schools of differing streams of Judaism (p. 468). While my project involved researching Holocaust pedagogy in schools with vastly different religious perspectives; this, it turned out, was not a determining factor when it came to the ways in which teachers utilize chronological narratives in their teaching.

One of the first, and most widely used, American high school Holocaust curricula was that written by Margot Stern Strom and William S. Parsons (1982), entitled Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior. While few of the teachers interviewed for my project indicated that they used Facing History and Ourselves, it has gained a wide degree of acceptance and currency amongst non-Jewish schools. As Deborah Lipstadt (1995) has noted, “it has become perhaps the most influential model for teaching the Holocaust in the United States” (p. 26). What then does this curriculum do? The curriculum, Strom and Parsons assert, is designed to encourage teachers to think seriously and responsibly about how to teach the Holocaust to their adolescent students, to help them “to think about thinking, to become aware of their own development” through the exploration of a series of complex historical, moral and philosophical questions (p. 14). This has been critiqued by, amongst others, Lipstadt (1995) and Lucy Dawidowicz (1992). It is interesting for us to consider the ways that this curriculum contrasts with the pedagogy under consideration in this study: whereas, as will be shown below, the pedagogy being examined herein is directed to a great extent by chronology, Facing History and Ourselves eschews a chronological approach. Without offering any conclusions, it is interesting and useful for us to ponder why there is this difference in chronological approach. This will be returned to below.

In undertaking a survey of 25 curricula, Dawidowicz (1992) provides us with a good basis to understand some of the ideas which shape the pedagogy under consideration in this article. She explains that they “undertake to do two things: first, to give pupils basic information and, second, to provide appropriate moral education. They are better at the first task than at the second, and better at describing what happened than explaining why it happened” (p. 69). Here we see an important crossover between these non-Jewish curricula and the Jewish forms of pedagogy under examination in this article: both emphasize empiricism.

Why then is it important for us to explore this empiricism in Holocaust pedagogy, being understood in this article as deployed through the use of chronological narratives? We can approach this first through a 2004 text written by Simone Schweber, who offers up an exploration and accompanying critique of Holocaust pedagogy in a selection of non-Jewish schools in the United States. Schweber (2004) searches in these schools for examples of “good” pedagogy, and finally confronts the fact that such a thing cannot easily be defined (p. 167). She calls instead for complexity, a call which is echoed throughout this article, as is the recognition that there is no one example of “good” Holocaust pedagogy, but rather a series of different ways in which teachers talk about the Holocaust with varying purposes and utilities. This complexity, however, is not yet evident in the schools under consideration in this article. This is something for us to ponder as we move through the examples discussed below: How could these approaches to chronology be altered by an opening up of Holocaust pedagogies?

Yet, through the work of Mary Beth Donnelly (2006), together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), who focused on Holocaust education in non-Jewish schools, we can understand some of the motivations which propel some teachers of the Holocaust, and some of the similarities between these teachers and the ones under consideration here. First, she explored the various motivations which teachers carry with them, finding that “the most common approach to Holocaust instruction in 2003-04 was from the perspective of human rights” (p. 52). Similarly, in the pedagogy in Jewish schools under consideration here, there were specific historical, political, and moral lessons being provided in a manner—through the chronological narrative—which would hopefully be easily comprehensible for the students. And secondly, Donnelly reported that the vast majority of teachers were reliant on their own knowledge, rather than resources provided from official institutions, associations, and museums. In a similar way, teachers in the Jewish schools reported in their interviews (and this was sustained when examining the available curricula) that they predominantly relied on their own knowledge, resources, and informal networks, rather than being educated by external official sources. Why is this relevant for the question of the deployment of chronological narratives? Simply, this demonstrates the dominance of this particular form of historical narration, and encourages us to inquire as to why this is the dominant form, and what work it does.

From this brief exploration of the relevant work on Holocaust pedagogy, it is evident that the place of the chronological narrative is both entrenched and being opened for discussion. Yet while the work which these scholars have undertaken is invaluable in helping us to grapple with some of the moral questions of Holocaust pedagogy, and some of the methodologies which these curricula deploy, there remains a gap in the literature around the purpose or function of chronology in Holocaust narration, particularly in Jewish high schools. This is where the current project seeks to intervene, and we therefore now turn to an exploration of the ways that chronological narratives are used in a selection of Jewish high schools in Melbourne and New York.

Chronological Narratives: The Events

The idea that history should be narrated through chronological narratives is not unique to the Holocaust. Indeed, the formulation of a historical narrative directed by progressively developing time is, Paul Ricoeur (1984) argues, necessary. While we will consider challenges to this idea below, it is important to understand that, as Ricoeur has stated, the “temporal character of human experience” is at stake in the narrative and the truth claims which it makes. Indeed, Ricoeur suggests, temporality—or time—directs and makes narratives meaningful (p. 3). Narrative and time, of some form, in this telling are inseparable. This section will explore a number of the ways in which this formulation is played out in the chronological narratives—as a particular incarnation of temporal narrative—constructed by teachers in the schools under consideration. In particular, the following elements will be drawn out: that these chronologies are formulated as a series of stages which appear as having naturally unfolded; that the chronologies which are taught in schools today are presented as occurring in the same manner as the Jewish people experienced them at the time; that chronologies are told as presentation, rather than representation, and that they are not subjected to analysis for it is proposed that they tell the truth of what occurred; and that time is made always progressive and coherent. In short, the underlying premise is that chronological narratives are normalized and thereby their construction is made invisible.

While many theorists of trauma have considered the ways in which the Holocaust can be written, spoken, and thought about, for our purposes here the most pertinent analysis comes through the work of Eric Santner (1992). Santner has complicated the usage of narratives to explicate and understand the Holocaust, suggesting that we can understand their use in terms of “narrative fetishism.” By this, he explains, he “mean[s] the construction and deployment of a narrative consciously or unconsciously designed to expunge the traces of the trauma or loss that called that narrative into being in the first place.” He contrasts the use of narrative as fetish with Freud’s idea of “the work of mourning,” explaining that both “are responses to loss, to a past that refuses to go away due to its traumatic impact” (p. 144). Whereas mourning work symbolizes the traumatic loss and thereby works through it, narrative fetishism, in Santner’s formulation, works to remove the trauma and its associated uncertainties by holding the narrative as preeminent: by fetishing the narrative as the definer of the Holocaust. In settling on a narrative which is continually reinscribed, that narrative is installed as the truth. The absences which are a part of the narrative are covered over and the history of the Holocaust comes to replace the Holocaust itself: to know the narrative, it is deemed, is to know the Holocaust. The Holocaust is thereby made coherent and knowable. Coherence and knowability in the form of a chronological narrative serve to cover over the trauma and the gaps, silences, and absences which constitute the traumatic subjects at the center of the Holocaust. With this in mind, we can now turn to the work of the teachers to understand the ways in which they construct and utilize chronological narratives in this manner, as explained by Santner, of narrative fetishism: as a means of managing a trauma through a focus on a particular narrative (style).

An approach which foregrounds a chronological narrative can be seen in the interview responses of most of the teachers, as well as in their curriculum documents. One teacher in Melbourne explained that:

we look at Jewish life in pre-war Europe; the rise of Nazism and the rise of Hitler; the ghettos; separate section on resistance. The Final Solution is a separate topic—we look at the camps, and the mobile killing units; a very little bit at the end of uplifting—we show a film at the end of 100 kids taken from Europe to Israel.

This ordering of the events of the Holocaust serves implicitly to create a chronological narrative. Within this schema, moreover, there is a (modernist) progression, a building up of horror, wherein the Final Solution is segmented off from other Nazi means of dealing with Jews—the ghettos—by a discussion of resistance. And this modernist progression ends in classic narrative style, with the, as one teacher articulated it, “uplifting” or “positive” note. The Final Solution is presented as the pinnacle of the progression of Nazi acts of horror, segmented between Jewish resistance and the end of the Holocaust and creation of the State of Israel.

A teacher in New York described and expanded on one such chronological narrative. In her teaching she begins with stories of antisemitism in Europe prior to the Holocaust, then discusses:

the rise of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s agenda against the Jews, the platform of the Nazi party, the SA, the development of the youth movement … and how Hitler developed his concentration camps to the SS, the 1-day boycott of Jewish shops and services, and the expulsion of Jews from universities, the development of the Gestapo, the public book burning in Berlin, the Nuremberg Laws, and explaining how there was a steady development of Nazism within Germany and Jews were not necessarily prepared for how it would peak eventually; they thought that this was an isolated circumstance.

She described the continued rise of Nazism, Kristallnacht, the Kindertransport, the political situation throughout Europe, the experiences of Jews in different parts of the Nazi Reich, the Einsatzgruppen, the massacre at Babi Yar, the Wannsee conference, the death camps and concentration camps, before coming to the Allies invading Europe and liberating the camps. Jewish responses to the Holocaust are then explored through an examination of music, writings, sculpture, and other forms of artistic response. This is a representative example of the chronological summary of the Holocaust which the vast majority of the history teachers interviewed present to their students.

At a Melbourne school, the curriculum divides the Holocaust into differentiated stages. There is a “prehistory” to the Holocaust which covers the period “From Biblical Times-1933” and then there are four stages as follows—“Stage 1: January 1933-September 1939”; “Stage 2: September 1939-August 1944”; “Stage 3: June 1941-May 1945”; “Stage 4: After the War-Post-Holocaust issues.” The dates in Stages 2 and 3 cross over because Stage 2 begins with the “Invasion of Poland,” and then explores the ghettos, primarily within Poland, whereas Stage 3 begins with the “Invasion of Russia” and then explains Einsatzgruppen, deportations, camps, and resistance. There is, therefore, some duplication in terms of dates, but the sense of the Holocaust being composed of chronologically defined stages remains. In labeling them as stages, a sense is created that each stage is discrete, each building on top of the previous one. A sense of time, and the events which occupy that time, as naturally and sequentially unfolding is created. Moreover, the effect is created whereby it can be understood that each stage comes together to create a whole: that the (first three) stages are smaller parts of one overall event (rather than, perhaps, a series of many events). This event is known by the name of the Holocaust.

This idea of the Holocaust being composed of a series of “stages” recurs in the curriculum of an Orthodox school in New York. The curriculum states that:

The Nazi campaign of discrimination, isolation, and mass murder of European Jews between 1933 and 1945 is without doubt the saddest and most difficult period of modern Jewish history. Both the Western and Eastern European Jewish communities were devastated by the deaths of 6 million Jews. A careful analysis of each stage of the Holocaust can help make some sense of how and why such a rich and diverse Jewish culture could be nearly annihilated within just a few years.

In this example, a chronological narrative is deemed to be necessary. By explaining that “a careful analysis of each stage of the Holocaust can help make some sense,” attention is drawn to the idea that the Holocaust was a series of sequential stages, and that the only possible way to make sense of it is to view and understand it as such. Only by sequentially moving through the stages—the chronology—can the whole be understood. The stages, and the histories they are made to bring, are thereby naturalized as the way to make understandable meaning out of the Holocaust.

The curriculum of a different school in Melbourne begins with a chronology, taken from Yesterdays and Then Tomorrows, published in 2002 by Yad Vashem (Rapoport, 2002). This six-page chronology is placed before the page numberings begin, hence functioning as a sort of prehistory, or a way of setting a (discursive) scene. It takes the students from 1933 and the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, to 1946 and the end of the Nuremberg Trials. A chronology such as this one works to establish the Holocaust as chronologically unfolding: the passage of time and the events which accompany it seem to flow on naturally. The vital information to be conveyed to the students becomes names, dates, and places, even when detached from their historical, social, and political context. By placing this at the very front of the curriculum it works to set the framework for the rest of the curriculum and the understandings of the Holocaust which it brings.

Similarly, across 22 pages of the curriculum of a school in New York, a chronological narrative of the events of the Holocaust is presented. The descriptions unfold, conveying a sense that even if decisions were made about events as time progressed, there was still always a clear, logical progression. Each event followed the previous, and led into the next. It appears to be suggesting that if we stand back, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, we can appreciate that this was the way it was: that there could have been no other way. Before the narrative of the events of 1933 to 1945, there is information about Jews in Eastern Europe before the war, and immediately following the narrative there is information about Jewish resistance, and non-Jewish rescuers and bystanders. The events of the Holocaust are thereby neatly segmented off from the rest of history: chronological time is normalized, and the ongoing effects of the Holocaust, which oftentimes permeate the present and rupture discrete chronological time, are evaded.

Another Melbourne teacher explained that the chronology he follows consists of

a look at the prelude to the Holocaust, from post World War I—Treaty of Versailles and so forth—Who were the Jews of Europe? We then look at the rise of Nazi Germany and Hitler, and the outbreak of the Holocaust, as well as World War II. I try to distinguish between the two, not just call them both the same thing. And then we move on and say what actually was the War Against the Jews—we use Yehuda Berkovitz’s title—and look at the ghettos, everything from Nuremberg, from Kristallnacht, all the way to 1945, including the resistance.

The importance of the chronological narrative in guiding the history of the Holocaust was reiterated in his locating of the Holocaust within an overall message of Jewish chronological history:

I can’t say that there’s a theme to the Holocaust. It’s part of Jewish history—it follows the Year 9 curriculum, which is the Middle Ages up to the Balfour Declaration, which follows the Year 8 curriculum, which is the Destruction of the Temple through the expulsion from Spain. We don’t sort of isolate it as we have to do the Holocaust—it’s part of the Jewish Studies program, it’s chronological, it has its own impact, its own meaning and so forth, its own uniqueness. But it is part of the whole.

That whole, for this teacher, is comprised of a chronological narrative. As he stated, in the teaching of this history “we are chronologically driven.” Another teacher at a different school made a similar comment, explaining that “we just do an historical overview—these are the facts. This is the chronology of events; this is how Jews found themselves caught up in it.”

This view of the chronological narrative as naturally unfolding, even for the subjects of that history as they are themselves involved in it, has been interrogated by Hayden White. In his essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White (1998) argues that the basis for historical narrations can be found in literature, as historical narration is closer to literary narration than to scientific research. He claims that history involves the narration of a story rather than the objective rehearsing of a set of verifiable facts which merely need to be discovered by the historian. White writes that “[i]t is frequently forgotten or, when remembered, denied that no given set of events attested by the historical record comprises a story manifestly finished and complete. … We do not live stories, even if we give our lives meaning by retrospectively casting them in the form of stories” (pp. 23-24; see also, for instance, Munslow, 2007; Munslow, 2010, pp. 168-81; Epple and Schaser 2009, pp. 7-19; Hirsch and Spitzer, 2010). That is, lives can only be narrated as complete and coherent stories after the event. This is the very opposite of the teacher’s assertion above. The teacher stated that she narrates the events as “how Jews found themselves caught up in it,” thereby making invisible narration’s retrospective work of making meaning. Moreover, there is never one story: to talk of “Jews finding themselves caught up in it” is to homogenize both Jews and “it,” the Holocaust. We can therefore understand that while the teacher asserts the naturalness of the narrative, the past does not contain the inevitability which this teacher proposes. The chronology is her formulation, narrated after the fact.

Similarly, a teacher in New York, describing the main topics of the Holocaust which she teaches, stated that “we do obviously the chronological events about what happened.” It is the apparent obviousness of this approach which is worthy of note. For this teacher, as for others, the obvious, truthful (and invisible) way in which to teach the Holocaust is as a chronological listing of events, with the “significance” of the events highlighted along the way. This making invisible of the constructedness of the chronology needs to be understood and interrogated as being part of a project of making particular narrative styles hegemonic (Terdiman, 1993, p. 19). Within the context of the writing of Holocaust histories, the historian Dan Stone (2003) has asserted that “[w]hen one treats historiographical texts as ‘primary sources’ … it is precisely language constituting reality that permits the historical text to appear, for the past itself is absent” (p. 18). The past is absent in the sense that the text being deciphered is a product of the present, and while it refers to the past events it describes, it uses language which defines the reality it seeks to describe. The present text comes to replace the past. As Stone wrote, “[t]he past is accessible only through our representations of it; that is a well-established point. It follows, then, that an understanding of the textual construction of those representations is essential” (p. 18). These histories of the Holocaust, formulated according to the structures of chronological narrative, need to be understood as constructions; their claims for naturalness (and, it follows, invisibility), deconstructed, and the meanings which the narrative attains through the particularities of its constructedness understood (see Munslow, 2006, in particular pp. 39-81).

Chronology: A Response to Uncertainty?

It seems that it is implicitly understood by teachers that a chronological narrative of the Holocaust is useful because it is able to convey the bare facts or information without any analysis. This is an understanding that we can gain not from anything explicitly stated by the teachers, but rather through a close understanding of their pedagogical approaches. That is, in the interviews conducted for this project, the teachers did not explicitly state that chronological narratives contain this explanatory power. Indeed, in the interviews I did not explicitly ask the teachers why they utilize chronological narratives. This was primarily because I was interested in treating the interviews through an unfolding process of discourse analysis, whereby meaning was made of the teachers’ words after the fact, rather than seeking to gain their personal insights into all matters. This lack of an explicit discussion does not mean, I do not think, that this understanding of the ways that teachers use chronological narratives does not hold. But, as will be shown below, this is the predominant way in which the historically based chronological narrative is understood: that the chronological narration of a set of facts provides an objective telling of history, a history without analysis. While I do not doubt that teachers supplement the chronological narratives with additional information and insights, it is important that we understand that, for these teachers (despite their lack of explicit acknowledgement of such), the chronological narrative serves the pedagogical function of providing the students with the basic information about the Holocaust.

The chronological narrative functions to present a history of the Holocaust as the verifiable, known, and absolute story, or “truth,” of what occurred, locating it within, in Marita Sturken’s (1998) terms, “the limited binary of truth and falsehood” (p. 117). It is understood as “presentation” rather than “re-presentation.” White (1992) explained this mode of thinking as follows:

[t]hus for traditional historical discourse there is presumed to be a crucial difference between an “interpretation” of “the facts” and a “story” told about them. … Whereas interpretations are typically thought of as commentaries on “the facts,” the stories told in narrative histories are presumed to inhere either in the events themselves (whence the notion of a “real story”) or in the facts derived from the critical study of evidence bearing upon those events (which yields the notion of the “true” story). (p. 39)

White (1992) is arguing here that it is commonly understood within Western historiography that the narrative representation of historical facts are a part of the facts themselves—that the facts are indistinguishable from the narrative. According to White, however, this is never the case, as by representing a set of facts in a particular way, a particular set of meanings is inscribed (p. 37).

We can see, then, the influence of dominant ideas in Western historiography on these narrations of the Holocaust. I do not wish to argue here that Western historiography is monolithic or easily defined; for, of course, it is not. Indeed, the body of literature encompassing Western historiographies and critiques of those historiographies are far too numerous to fully explore here. Importantly, however, the work being undertaken in this article is not to explore modern Western historiography, but rather to understand the ways in which Holocaust pedagogies in Jewish schools in Melbourne and New York today are formulated in accord with the central defining features of this historiography. These central ideas, according to George G. Iggers and Q. Edward Wang (2008), are that modern Western historiography includes a “linear approach and the idea of progress … and the search for causal explanations” (p. 22). That is, modern, chronological narratives are shaped by ideas of progress and linearity: their authors strive for coherence. Moreover, the idea of history which predominates in the teaching under examination was formulated by Leopold von Ranke. He argued that the task of history was “merely to show what essentially/actually happened.” His basic idea, as articulated by Iggers and Wang, was that “the starting point of historical studies must in fact be the rigorous examination of original sources. But Ranke was fully aware that history does not stop with facts, but that it must present a story” (Iggers & Wang 2008, p. 122). As David Carr (1998) explicates it, “[t]raditional narrative histories claim to tell us what really happened” (p. 137) by, as Mark Cousins (1982) explains, putting the event (which is to be excavated and understood) at the center of the narrative (p. 133). This idea of history (or the inaccessible past) and historiography (or work toward making known that past) necessitates the understanding that there is something which actually happened, and that it is the job of the historian (or history-teacher) to explain it. What happened can be understood simply by reading and bringing together various historical sources: The subjectivity of the historian is thereby irrelevant as the truth of the past lies in the historical evidence (Iggers & Wang 2008, pp. 123-124). As sketched above, this is the idea of historiography which the teachers deploy.

In these examples of Holocaust history-writing, the chronological narrative as construction is made invisible—despite its obvious, and inherent, visibility. This is believed to be the most ethical and appropriate response to the Holocaust: to enable their students to “know” what happened. The invisibility of the narrative, it seems to follow, means that the events can be understood to “speak for themselves.” Yet, as this article is demonstrating, the events can never do such a thing, and the existence of the narrative means that inevitably it is a construction wherein the History stands in for the past. The perception, it seems to be, is that gaining access to the past through the form of narrative which dominates the Western historiographical landscape works to suggest that students, and teachers, can attain an unadulterated knowledge of “what happened.”

Indeed, the thirst for knowledge of the Holocaust has been unquenched and unquenchable for many people. One teacher explained that she teaches the Holocaust because she wants to know what happened, as since she was in college she has wanted to gain more and more information. Another teacher echoed this. It seems that for the teachers and schools which participated in this project, their teaching is motivated by this drive to know the Holocaust. What needs to be questioned, however, is whether by learning facts, dates, names, and places, teachers and students can know the Holocaust, or, indeed, any period of history. What is it about mastering a chronological history, coupled with the survivor testimonies which teachers use to highlight the events, places, and people discussed throughout the chronology, of the Holocaust which is so compelling? This is a question that can be raised of historiography, history education, and Jewish history generally—I do not wish to suggest that Holocaust pedagogy is unique in facing this question. What is unique, however, is the resolution, or answer, to this question. An answer to this, I am arguing following Eric Santner’s (1992) work, as sketched above, can be found in the specific uncertainties which are produced as part of the traumatic aftermath of the Holocaust. By formulating a coherent narrative based on the predominant forms of historical narration in the Western world—including the Western Jewish world—these teachers feel they are able to hold onto something solid. That “something” is their history: History provides a bedrock upon which to locate uncertain identities, an uncertainty about the world, and the losses of living in it after the Holocaust.

Another part of the process of formulating these certain histories, and another factor which explains the predominance of the chronological narrative, requires, I would like—following Yosef Yerushalmi (1982)—to suggest, the adoption of the dominant historiographical methods utilized by the surrounding society. That is, chronological forms are used for the writing of American and Australian histories more generally, and thus that method has been picked up as a useful way of narrating Jewish Holocaust histories. Yerushalmi highlights this process in his discussion of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement (hereafter referred to as Wissenschaft). The purpose of the Wissenschaft movement—which was a part of the Haskalah, the European Jewish Enlightenment movement, in the 19th century—was to mold Jewish history within the same parameters of historiography practiced in the Christian and secular societies which surrounded these European Jews (Meyer, 1991, pp. 167-168). While non-Jews had written histories of Jews, the Wissenschaft movement involved the reclaiming of Jewish history (Meyer, 1991, p. 170). Yerushalmi argues that with the beginning of the Wissenschaft movement in the 1820s:

suddenly, there are no apologies [for writing histories of Jews]. History is no longer a handmaiden of dubious repute to be tolerated occasionally and with embarrassment. She confidently pushes her way to the very center and brazenly demands her due. For the first time it is not history that must prove its utility to Judaism, but Judaism that must prove its validity to history, by revealing and justifying itself historically. (p. 84)

Yerushalmi (1982) here is pointing to a similar (although not completely identical) consideration as is being discussed in this article: that at these particular historical junctures Jewish communities were struggling to find their place in the larger societies. In order to find a place, they adopted the historiographical methods of those dominant societies. This was confirmed when he wrote that the new approach to historiography—that of the Enlightenment idea of history as scientific, known and verifiable—did not come “prior to Jewish historical writing or historical thought.” Rather, Yerushalmi wrote,

[m]odern Jewish historiography began precipitously out of that assimilation from without and collapse from within which characterized the sudden emergence of Jews out of the ghetto. It originated, not as scholarly curiosity, but as ideology, one of a gamut of responses to the crisis of Jewish emancipation and the struggle to attain it. (p. 85)

This “assimilation,” it was explained, was not negative, but rather was a response with a considerable history within the lifespan of the Jewish people (Yerushalmi, 1982, p. 85).

Amos Funkenstein (1993; 1995), who has critiqued Yerushalmi’s ideas of Jewish history and memory, argued that it is necessary to not ask what is original (or autochthonous) in Jewishness and what is a result of assimilation, as such a question produces ahistorical answers. Instead, we need to view assimilation as a dialectic, where Jewishness is continually changing, both with and against the non-Jewish societies in which Jews live: in short, there is no “stable essence” to Jewishness, or Jewish writing. This informs the approach of this article, where the argument is not being made that there exists a “pure” Jewish historical narratorial content and style, but rather that Jewish (Holocaust) historiography is constantly changing, influenced to a large degree by surrounding non-Jewish historiographies. We can thereby locate this movement to narrate the history of the Holocaust within a larger modern Jewish historiographical movement to adopt the most dominant, and seemingly “natural,” of the West’s historiographical inventions, as a means of utilizing history to manage a range of uncertain feelings.

Chronological Narratives: Time

Fundamental to the chronological narrative, alongside the events, is the institution and normalization of particular constructions of time. The importance of the regulation of time—such as in its division into sequential “stages,” as undertaken by one of teachers discussed above—in order to regulate people and ideas in modern society was explored by E. P. Thompson. Thompson (1967) argued that time was regimented through the increased use of clocks in the 18th and 19th centuries, and with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, regulating the use of time in the workplace became a central mode of regulating the workforce. Time, in this understanding, is controlled and manipulated within industrial capitalism in order to regulate and pacify workers, during both their work and leisure time. The imposition of time schedules (including the teaching of history according to chronological time) intentionally regulates workers’ time: Time becomes a commodity, something which can be bought, sold, spent, and saved. And thus the owner of the time (variously the employer and the worker) can manage how the time is used. The use and understanding of time is made rigid and controlled. In arguing this, Thompson pointed to the ways in which time has been constructed in order to undertake a social and political task—regulating the social sphere in order to maximize its productive potential. Time in this formulation intentionally has a pacifying effect, creating social order and regulation.

Similarly, Richard Terdiman (1993) has argued that time is predominantly read as progressive—or chronological—in modern capitalist societies because of the necessities of production: Temporality is inscribed as continually directed forwards in order to aid and control the impulse for production. Representation, or—as is the case in this article—history, is shaped by a progressive narrative because of the progressive demands of the social world (p. 54). In this same sense, chronological historical narratives work to pacify the narrative, to create order and coherency in the histories of the Holocaust. This coherency, as Santner (1992) has shown, is a response to traumatic loss. History here is being emplotted through trauma, or tragedy (with, as was shown above, the possibility of progressing toward the redemptive, happy ending which is so often a feature of the modern tragedy).

This is important for the teachers because, in an important sense, the Holocaust is not one coherent, stable, known chronological, event. We can understand this through the testimonies of some survivors: Survivor testimony is a discursive space in which the past and the present traumatically intrude upon each other, rupturing the coherence which the chronological narratives institute. Indeed, this can be seen in some of the testimonies which teachers utilize. In one curriculum at a school in Melbourne, quotes from three survivors are presented to demonstrate the difficulties which liberation brought. The quotes are from Hadassah Bimko, Primo Levi, and Viktor Frankl, and the section in the curriculum begins with the words “For the survivors, the moment of liberation was hopeful yet fearful.” Bimko is quoted as writing that:

For the great part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen, there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.

Levi explains that:

The breach in the barbed wire gave us a concrete image of it. To anyone who stopped to think, it signified no more Germans, no more selections, no work, no blows, no roll calls, and, perhaps, later, the return. But we had to make an effort to convince ourselves of it, and no one had time to enjoy the thought. All around lay destruction and death.

And finally Frankl is quoted, stating that:

Timidly, we looked around and glanced at each other questioningly. Then we ventured a few steps out of the camp. This time no orders were shouted at us, nor was there any need to duck quickly to avoid a blow or a kick. “Freedom”—we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it.

Altogether, these quotes paint a picture of ambivalence, of a lack of sureness about what liberation meant, and what it would bring. Echoing this, the curriculum page ends with the words that “Some survivors felt empty, even guilty that they had survived while so many others had not. Others felt nothing.” Here we can catch a glimpse of the complexity, of the absence of coherency, which lies within survivor testimonies.

This continues in another curriculum document from a different school in Melbourne. There are brief quotes from five survivors who were liberated which are introduced with the following words:

For every survivor the day of liberation was engraved in his or her memory. The sight of those liberators affected every survivor. The overwhelming relief felt by them was accompanied by pain—so many loved ones had been killed, homes and possessions had been lost and Jewish life itself had been destroyed over much of Europe.

The final quote is from Maria Rebhun who was liberated from Lauenburg camp, in Pomerania. She said that:

We were in a daze. Barely moving, supporting the ones who were not able to make a step … we went to face new reality. Our minds were like a vacuum, our hearts empty of any desires. On the streets, ecstatic Russian soldiers offered us sweets and cigarettes amidst laughter and songs, but we were mute. Who are we? Where are we to go? Whom to turn to?

These excerpts from these three different curricula raise for us the problems of time: that when survivor testimonies are explored in depth, it becomes clear that the chronological ending of the Holocaust did not bring about its end in the memories of survivors. That, perhaps, there has been no chronological end to the Holocaust. Indeed, these moments in the curricula point to the ways in which oblique complexities can be, and are being, pointed to without an attempt being made to resolve them, in the way that the imposition of the chronological narrative does. It also points us to the important containing work which chronological narratives undertake: for we must always remember that the continuation of traumatic (post)memories is difficult to carry.

Lawrence Langer (1991), who has worked extensively with the testimonies in the Fortunoff Video Archive, draws our attention to the particular way in which survivors articulate their experiences in these narrow frameworks of recorded testimony. He writes that:

virtually all videotaped interviews begin in the same way, innocently conspiring to establish an atmosphere of familiarity: [interviewers ask the survivor to] tell us something about your childhood, family, school, community, friends—that is, about the normal world preceding the disaster. And most of them end in the same way too, implying a severance between the camp experience and what followed: tell us about your liberation (and your life afterwards). (p. 67)

In this way, according to Langer (1991), the interviewers often push the survivor into identifying an end to the Holocaust which provides, and produces, a sense of closure. However,

[t]he narrators’ imaginations remain chained to memories that have little to do with sequence or chronology. … Oral testimony violates our own need for conclusions, thereby imposing on us an angle of vision wrenching us from familiar assumptions that govern our response to normal narrative. (p. 57)

These testimonies can show us that time after trauma does not always follow a progressive, linear development, but rather can be disruptive and disjunctive. Time, as for instance Penelope Corfield (2007) has shown, need not always be coherent and regulatory. Yet, in order to gain control in a world imbued with anxiety, in order to produce an idea of the Holocaust as something which can be known, it is usefully constructed as such. Which is, as has been demonstrated above, part of the pedagogical imperative of Holocaust education in these schools.


This article has examined one aspect of the construction of histories of the Holocaust as presented at a selection of Jewish schools in New York and Melbourne in the early 2000s. In recent years much has been written by critical theorists, historians, psychoanalysts, and others about the ways in which the Holocaust has been and can be represented. Historiographical forms have been widely questioned and challenged, with theorists posing different ideas about what can be represented in different forms. In this article these discussions have been applied to the histories of the Holocaust being taught in the Jewish schools under consideration. At the overwhelming majority of these schools, the Holocaust is taught as part of a history curriculum, with teachers presenting a chronological narrative of the people, events, and places which they deem to have had the most profound and important role in shaping the Holocaust. As such, the historical record which they shape is influenced most predominantly by Western historical modes of narration and representation.

While we could perhaps naively suggest that this occurs as a means of simplifying the Holocaust to make it more comprehensible for students within the confines of the high school classroom, this does not—I do not believe—tell us the whole story. More significantly, through the exploration of the ways in which the histories are formulated into rigid and knowable chronological narratives, we can come to an understanding that this occurs in response to a desire on the part of the teachers to construct a stable idea of the Holocaust. By formulating and normalizing memories and histories of the Holocaust, the teachers are able to plant their feet on solid ground, to create a space which they can understand. In light of the lack of solidity in time which survivor testimonies point to, we can understand that this is an attempt to arrest the traumatic aftereffects of the Holocaust; to, as Eric Santner (1992) has shown through his conception of “narrative fetishism,” remove the trauma. Within the context of the high school classroom, this is an understandable impulse.

This article has explored this aspect of the education through the structure of the narratives which the teachers construct and present. By exploring and critiquing the ways in which teachers construct chronological narratives and utilize survivor testimony, this article has tried to open up the boundaries of these histories and memories. As has been shown, the presentation of Holocaust histories as carrying the “truth” of the Holocaust serves to suture a large and complex traumatic history. By narrating the Holocaust as knowable, and its important lessons as being located in historical facts and verifiable truths—which are carried by survivors—the teachers are trying to work against the rupture of what is traumatic and painful of the Holocaust. In presenting the important lessons of the Holocaust as coalescing in a set of knowable facts, the teachers work against an idea of history as provisional, of (traumatic) history as unknowable and unrepresentable, yet grapple with the problem of how to represent something (Ball, 2008). The taming of time into chronological form tries to tame the uncertainty. And we can thus understand—in large part—the work which chronological narratives are made to do within the Jewish high-school Holocaust history classroom.