I have several Jewish religious school textbooks from the twentieth century. One, Highlights of Jewish History, by Mordecai Lewittes, illustrated by Sam Nisenson, comes in four volumes, with the fourth, (1957), covering the Middle Ages through the foundation of the state of Israel. There is no separate section on the Holocaust. Rather, in order to encourage a sense of pride, rather than despair, in children, the lesson on the greatest disaster in Jewish history is embedded in the story of the Jewish state. Students learn about the sufferings of the Jewish people, but also about heroic resistance to the Nazis, even when this resistance was doomed. After a section on the Jewish Brigade of British Mandate Palestine, the book introduces the freedom fighter Hannah Senesh, the embodiment in modern Jewish history of courage, selflessness, and women’s strength.
Senesh was a parachutist trained to land in enemy territory and rescue Jews. As Highlights reports:
“On March 13, 1944, Hannah and 4 men parachuted into Yugoslavia where they immediately established contact with Tito’s partisans who greeted them with the words, ‘Death to fascism; freedom to the people’ After completing her mission Hannah resolved to cross the border into Hungary in the hope of rescuing Jewish survivors…
After crossing the border into Hungary Hannah Senesh was betrayed by peasants. She was executed because of her refusal to reveal the secret code of the partisans.”
The tone is typical of one type of post-Holocaust Jewish education, emphasizing Jewish agency rather than victimhood. The details are powerful, even if they might cynically be viewed as dated today. (Yugoslavia is itself a tragic memory, and Tito’s legacy is mixed.) They are not. The partisans are fighting a specific enemy: fascism. They are risking their lives to save fellow Jews. They are, sadly but predictably, betrayed by the gentile population, who are themselves victims of Hitler.
Senesh is perhaps best known is for her beautiful poem, which is also included in the book:
“Blessed is the match that is consumed while kindling
Blessed is the flame which burns in the secret chambers
of our hearts,
Blessed are the hearts which, for honor’s sake, will
cease their beating,
Blessed is the match that is consumed while kindling
As the remaining survivors of the Shoah become few in number, it is even more imperative to design powerful and compelling materials for teaching today’s children and future generations. Fascism: it was terrible then, and it is terrible now. Anti-Semitism in all its endless varieties. Hatred of immigrants and refugees. How dated is this textbook, after all?