Volume: 4, Issue: 3


“Culture of memory” as a precondition to develop tolerance: a phenomenon of Holocaust and instructional process of Holocaust Education in Russian schools
Каменчук, И.Л. [about] , Листвина, Е.В. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Holocaust education, tolerance, a culture of memory, historic memory, individual memory, axiological memory, history textbooks.
SYNOPSIS: The authors define the term “a culture of memory,” and show its connection with the concept of tolerance and the necessity to develop tolerance in school students today. A number of practical examples are derived from the activities of the Saratov Institute of Training and Retraining of Educational Workers. 

Memory resists time.”
Dmitry Likhachev

One should always reflect on the past and consider the future both objectively and subjectively. This dual approach will enable an individual to understand how, on what grounds, and why the past is perceived and interpreted in a particular way.  History should always live in our memory.  It acts as a guide in our thinking and ideas, and should lead to soul searching.  History also acts as a mechanism to determine what is a useless waste of time and what is worthy of pursuit. No human being, no society or culture, can survive without keeping its memory alive and active.  A culture of memory is a very valuable part of one’s overall culture, and it is also a solid basis for developing tolerance.

Snkhchyan, a student from the small town of Burny in the Engels district of the Saratov region, who won the international contest “Memory of the Holocaust is a Way to Tolerance!” poignantly wrote, “When people devoid themselves of any memories of kindness and mercy, when they coldly pass by somebody’s pain or injustice, they immediately open the door to evil, violence, and hatred. This is the way to kill the best in our hearts. Evil and indifference allowed into our souls will always play back against us.”

Snkhchyan’s words seem to capture the essence of the famous Russian thinker Yuri Lotman, who wrote, “Culture is equal memory.”  This idea could be used as a basis for any stage of one’s personal formation process. Cultural memory, in the words of Maurice Halbwachs, dictates certain orientations, which hold together an individual memory of one’s basic recollections.  Thus, the renowned French thinker meant both individual and collective memory [1].

The so-called collective memory is capable of keeping general recollections together with consistent themes, experiences, and perceptions. We must recognize that individuals of a shared sociocultural group who have endured a tragic event often develop a certain understanding of those events.  More importantly, they preserve vivid memories of these events.  Survivors of the Holocaust, particularly Jews, are one such example.   As Adorno once noted, each generation is involved in “studying its own past.” In our opinion, teachers today should not only try their best to keep intergenerational links strong, but also make these links stronger in order to transfer values important to every society.  Tolerance should definitely be placed among these values.

The Holocaust, which was supposed to gradually fade into the background of our memories, is, on the contrary, manifesting itself in a livelier manner. Public, historic memory keeps returning to the Holocaust again and again. It is especially important for those countries where several generations were heavily affected and devastated by it.

In this respect, tolerance means a rejection of social and historic indifference. Even more, tolerance is quite constructive and, because of that, it demands a student’s active and thoughtful reaction towards complicated historic and ethical questions. Usually, however, such questions reveal themselves in an everyday life experience and not in school studies.

For a country like Russia, with its multicultural and multiethnic population, goals toward developing a tolerant conscience and behavior are essential.  In so doing, this tolerance leads to the acceptance of different ways of life and peaceful co-existence among the various cultures and ethnicities.  Further, tolerance is an active resistance against extremism.  Russia still experiences a number of religious and ethnic phobias directed against populations from the Caucasus, China, and as always, anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, these phobias have spread in to the minds of our students and reached our schools, where students clearly demonstrate discrimination and national prejudices towards the aforementioned groups. It is no wonder that many modern Russian researchers talk about the urgent need to develop tolerance among students (see: Asmolov, Dzhurinsky, Grigoriev). 

In our personal experience, we have confirmations of this type of behavior.   In 2010, students from the Saratov region were asked to respond to how they felt about the slogan, “Russia is just for Russians.” Only 39% answered that they were angry with this statement and would like to fight against it [2].

While talking about how to develop tolerance in school students, we strongly recommend attention to teaching world history, especially historical instances which demonstrate the consequences of intolerance and hatred to other people.  Such topics should include the religious wars of the Middle Ages, World War II when fascists were prepared to destroy whole nations in the 20th century, and Stalin’s gulags.  Further, students must learn about genocide against the Armenian population in Turkey in 1915, deportation of the Chechen and German population from their homelands in the Soviet Russia, and the physical extermination of the half of the world’s Jewish population – these are not just episodes from the history of different nations, but events of worldwide importance, which have had an impact on the whole of mankind. Unfortunately, we still hear statements like, “It is not our history. Why should Russians bother about the genocide of Armenians or Jews?! We should not overwhelm students with “extra” knowledge and overload school programs.”

These attitudes are very wrong and only diminish a movement toward tolerance. There is no doubt that nations remember their “own” catastrophes but every educated individual should also know the catastrophes from the world history. It is like a bell which “tolls for each of us” and a reminder from a historian Mikhail Gefter that “there is no genocide against one nation, there is genocide against all of us.” Any limitation of human rights because of one’s membership of a certain class, religion, or ethnicity is a direct road to genocide.

The topic of the Holocaust is very new for Russian schools.  It was absent from our history textbooks until 2004.  To cover this gap in knowledge, we should bring as many meaningful facts about the Holocaust as possible into modern history textbooks.  In contrast to 1991, when nothing was widely shown or said about the Holocaust, today it has not only become part of history textbooks but also a topic for the Unified State Exams. Twenty years ago Mikhail Gefter said something very important, and it has gained even more sense today: “We are suffering now because for decades the topic of Holocaust was “closed” for us. We knew the facts, but a “numb” memory is a weak, unstable helper. We should start talking on this topic, we should be very open to discussing it, and we should not fear any questions to discuss. We should be firm to overcome tragedies and horror which some people created.” [3]

The importance of the topic of Holocaust on the state level was announced in 2000 at the International Holocaust Forum in Stockholm.  Vice Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko said that “together with the belated Russian acceptance of the role of the Holocaust in the world history, it has a political and historical sense and clearly demonstrates that from now on Russia is part of a larger world community where the Holocaust is considered a global and not just a national tragedy.” [4] Practically since that time, Russia has turned its attention to creating a national curriculum oriented toward the development of tolerance and prevention of nationalistic extremism in Russian society.

One of the important reasons for studying the Holocaust in schools is the necessity to predict human rights’ violations because of racial, religious, or ethnic differences. Here is what school students write in their essays: “Unfortunately, very few people are aware of Holocaust; history textbooks provide very little information about it though it is the worst tragedy of the 20th century. We cannot allow it to happen again!” (Alena Krylova, Grade 11, School No 12, Balashov, Saratov Region); “A number of deaths, human tragedies, and cruelty caused horror in me. But at the same time I feel happy that we live in peace today. We should talk about the Holocaust for us to never experience it again.” (Vsevolod Kaimashnikov, Grade 11, School-Liceum No 15, Saratov).

There is a clear contradiction between an increasing amount of information and the necessity to study it in a profound and conscientious manner.  This contradiction can be resolved only if both programs and textbooks depict a holistic image of the world and are oriented towards every human being.  Modern Russian history textbooks are much more in favor of political history in comparison with social history, and discussions of everyday human lives are very scarce; though there are some positive changes.  Because World War II is as much a lesson in social dynamics as it is political in nature, a new approach to the structure and content of history books needs revision.  The treatment of history in general, and World War II in particular (especially as related to the Holocaust studies), must possess an objective versus a narrow view.

For example, the textbook History of Russia: The 20th – beginning of the 21st Century for Grade 9, written by O. Volobuev and A. Nenarokov (Publishing House “Drofa”) defines the Holocaust as a “mass extermination of Jews in an occupied territory. The symbolic place of this extermination became Baby Yar near Kiev. Millions of civilians and military prisoners were dying of hunger and in gas chambers.” Unfortunately, the authors do not specify the attributes of the Holocaust in the occupied regions of Russia.  

Another textbook on Russian history, published by the same publishing house, but written by two different authors – A. Kiselev and V. Popov, devotes a whole chapter to the history of World War II (5 subchapters) where the Holocaust is not even mentioned.  

Information about the Holocaust in the Russian textbook on the history of the 20th-21st centuries for high school students written by A. Chubaryan is more objective. In the subchapter, “War and Society,” the Holocaust is defined as “an extermination of the Jewish population by Nazis. The largest of the “death factories” was Auschwitz. Only there, over 1.1 million people were killed (Soviet military prisoners, resistance fighters, Jews and Gypsies).” This textbook also has a glossary of terms where “Holocaust” is described as “a massacre of a large part of the European Jewish population (over 6 million people or 60 percent of the Jewish population) during the systematic persecution and extermination completed by Nazis and their supporters in Germany and occupied German territories from 1943-45” [5]. In the same textbook, while talking about the dawn of the National Socialists in Germany, it says that one of the Nazi’s main objectives was “the final determination of the Jewish issue,” while at the same time they [the Nazis] announced that all Slavic population in the world was “underdeveloped” and destined to be exterminated as well. Unfortunately, the authors of the textbook did not dare explain the real meaning of the Nazi’s euphemism “final determination.”

Long silence about the Holocaust in Russia has created a gap in modern history textbooks, and today they still do not fully meet the needs of the State and society. For example, even those textbooks that talk about the Holocaust do not underline the Nazi’s goal to exterminate the whole nation.  Furthermore, there is no information about those heroes who put their lives at risk trying to save Jews. Our research shows that all of the textbooks are depersonalized and in this way they undermine the possibility for reflective thinking and the ability for students to express their own attitude about the world and themselves. These textbooks use “emotional coloring” of the facts only occasionally.   As a result, students’ thinking is heavily deprived of any emotions.  Such an approach complicates understanding and reflection on the events and tragedies of the Holocaust.  This depersonalization also blocks the learner from the process of identifying his or her value’s formation and biases when reading or studying history.

As a consequence, fascism has been restored in Russia.  ‘Keeping one’s memory sharp’ is a prerequisite for remaining humane.  Unfortunately, we tend to forget the past, and thus, humanity, at times, wanes.  No social, national, or spiritual tragedy appears out of nowhere. The world is constructed as a hierarchical harmony; our mind operates on a preferential basis. This statement is neither a contradiction nor an absurdity —no one makes us accept certain values. Even if we are pushed to believe in something, in our mind we are still free to believe that circles could be squares and mountains can come without valleys. These are the words of Polish religious philosopher Youssef Tishner, who experienced fascism at the age of eight, and who is the creator of the concept of an axiological I. He wrote, “In our mind, when we are thinking about values, there is always a considerable component of freedom. You cannot see a value. No one has the ability to understand it completely. The higher the value, the more freedom we have to accept it. As if the value tells me: ‘If you want, you can choose me.’ Everything meaningful is in this small phrase ‘if you want.’” Tishner believes that every thought about a human being and every human philosophy is interwoven with a certain type of ethos — similar to an axiological atmosphere which is a product of human intuition and human dignity. This axiological atmosphere is also a symbol of the spirituality of the people and the nation. [6]
The connection between the Holocaust studies and lessons in tolerance is not possible unless there are mediating constructed components—an axiological mindset and a desire not to forget the past.  The difficulty to build this type of moral and reflective construction is why we consider the role of the teacher so important in the process of tolerance formation.  We do not believe that students’ worldviews can be developed in a new way with only the help of new textbooks. In the world today, teachers are obliged to help students think and reflect on both the achievements and crimes of humanity, as well as to develop their own attitudes towards the surrounding world and its people.

Teaching about the Holocaust in history and social studies classes is no easy task.  Teachers need special training in both content and psychology.  Not only what is taught about the Holocaust, but also how it is taught is important.  In 2010, Irina Kamenchuk, a faculty member of the Saratov Institute of Training and Retraining of Educational Workers, was trained by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem, established in 1953, is an organization dedicated to the Holocaust education for the prevention of further genocide.  After this training, Kamenchuk developed a lecture and seminar program, “Developing Tolerance While Studying Holocaust,” to train teachers in effective Holocaust and tolerance studies. Assisting Kamenchuk in this endeavor is Eugenia Listvina, Professor from Saratov State University.  Like Kamenchuk, Listvina was trained by Yad Vashem in 2012 and acts as a key lecturer for the program.  While working with teachers, we use the experience that we both personally developed during seminars in Moscow (organized by the Holocaust Center) and the Museum of Wannsee Conference in Berlin, and training from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

While working with teachers we use numerous photo and video materials, historic documents, statistics, extracts from movies and documentary films, letters, drawings, and personal diaries. We also use video materials which were produced by the foundation of Historic Video Proofs “Shoah,” which allows students to reflect upon the inner world of Holocaust survivors.  This video series also affords students insights into little known details about the Holocaust and helps students to come to understand that the tragedy of one individual is a tragedy of the whole of humanity. We also introduce our teachers to the book “History of Germany of the 20th Century in a New Dimension: Sources, Statistics, and Literary Documents,” published in cooperation between the Institute of the World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany.  This book comprises of a number of unique documents on important topics, such as: genocide and its roots; the rise of the National-Socialist Party in Germany and its policy; and acceptance of guilt and responsibility on behalf of the German population for the crimes committed during World War II.

Starting from 2006, the Saratov Institute of Training and Retraining has been organizing different activities devoted to International Holocaust Memory Day, which involves teachers and students from different schools as well as university faculty and students together with representatives from different NGOs from all over the Saratov region.

We consider the success of this program evident by our students’ achievements at the international contest “A Memory of the Holocaust — A Way to Tolerance” organized by the Holocaust Center.  


  1. Halbwachs, Maurice (2005) Collective and Historic memory. In: Emergency Supply. # 2-3, 40-41.
  2. This data has been provided by S. Zhogov, teacher of history and social studies, School No. 12, Balashov, Saratov region.
  3. Gefter, Mikhail (1995). The Echo of Holocaust.  Moscow: Center and a Foundation “Holocaust.”
  4.  Anti-Semitism: Conceptual Hatred. A set of articles devoted to Simon Wiesenthal (2009). Eds I. Altman, Sh. Samuels, M. Weitsman. Moscow: Center and a Foundation “Holocaust.”
  5. History of Russia of the 20th – beginning of the 21st century:  Grade 11 (2011). Ed. A. Chubayan. Moscow: Prosveshcheniye.
  6. Tishner, Yu. (2005). Selected Works: Mind in the Category of Value. Moscow.

1 Kamenchuk, Irina L. [In Russian: Ирина Леонтьевна Каменчук], Chief Methodologist, Department of Philosophy and Methodology of Science, Saratov Institute of Training and Retraining of Educational Workers, Saratov; Listvina, Eugenia V. [In Russian: Евгения Викторовна Листвина], PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy of Culture and Cultural Studies, Saratov State University named after Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Saratov.

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