An Interview with Simon Goldberg

Note to Readers: Simon Goldberg graduated from YC in 2012 with a major in History. He is the founder of the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM) at YU, and, for the past four years, has served as the Executive Director at Triangles of Truth, a non-profit organization that aims to honor Holocaust victims by giving charity in their names to help meet the humanitarian needs of current genocide refugees.


 He is currently living in Hong Kong, where he is the Jewish Studies department head at Elsa International High School and serves on the Education Committee of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre. He was named one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 in 2012.

To begin briefly with an issue of current relevance, President Obama visited Israel recently for the first time in his presidency. As is traditional in visits of foreign dignitaries and heads of state to Israel, the president made time in his 48-hour stay to pay respects at Yad Vashem. Do you think the automatic association of Israel with Holocaust commemoration is helpful for the national image?


I think we need to fight the perception that Israel exists as a direct result of the Holocaust. Too many people still believe this: Someone felt sorry for us and handed us a state. It’s an issue because it undermines Israel’s legitimacy. Other than that, the association is healthy, but we still have a ways to go in polishing our definition and expression of Holocaust commemoration: its purpose is not mourning. It has to be rooted in a reflection of the Sho’ah’s lessons. This transcends mourning. We’re not victims. Certainly the survivors that I’ve met in my life don’t want us to believe that we’re victims. They want us to be vigilant. To use the past as a source of strength; to inspire education and to cultivate social action.


How should Eric Lichtblau’s recent revelation in the The New York Times of evidence of 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps affect our perspective on Holocaust commemoration?


It takes me back to an exhibit I once saw in Berlin that attempted to illustrate the number of concentration camps by flagging one yellow triangle per camp on a map of Europe. Of course, all you could see were yellow triangles. Now we know that the Holocaust took shape in many more local communities and tucked-away corners of Europe. Look, there’s tremendous value in researching and publicizing these unknown histories, for two main reasons: First, as Elie Wiesel continues to teach us, when the memory of a victim’s name and story is lost, it’s as if they’ve died a second death. Our mission should be to acknowledge the lives and experiences of as many victims as we can possibly identify. But second, pedagogically, we highlight the importance of recognizing that it was not millions of “people” who died in the Holocaust, but millions of individuals. Calling these ghettos by their names and searching for their footprints enables us to underscore this message.

Do you think the generation of today’s YU students will have greater trouble educating their children about the Holocaust than their parents did in educating them? How will we deal with the passing of our survivor grandparents and relatives?


Absolutely. So the responsibility on our generation will be greater. It is already. The youngest you can be today and have a firsthand recollection of the events of the Holocaust is about seventy-five. This is a dying population. Survivors—who first and foremost are our family members—are dying every day, and the implications for education are deeply concerning. There’s simply no replacement for first-hand testimony. Not only that, the potency of diaries like Anne Frank’s decreases when it cannot be put side by side with the living, breathing testimony of a witness. It’s more difficult to grow sensitized. How do we deal? We find innovative ways to sensitize. I’m a very strong advocate of study trips to Europe. For young people to walk the grounds of former concentration and death camps—not only Auschwitz-Birkenau—and to see with their own eyes what remains of Hitler’s genocidal ambitions. For them to wrestle with the contradiction of grass growing atop mass graves. Could grass really be growing here? We need young people saying: “I was there. I saw this. And this is why it matters.”

If you were to change one thing about common Yom ha-Sho’ah practice, in Israel or the United States, what would it be?


Yom ha-Sho’ah is a day to mourn, but it’s also an opportunity to educate. We’re not doing this enough. The memory of the Holocaust is not something with which to “deal” one day a year. The routine of lighting six candles for six million, saying something or other about “Never Again,” and walking home feeling slightly more depressed may help assuage our guilt, but it’s not the point. I’d like to see communities use the week leading up to Yom ha-Sho’ah to showcase exhibits, arrange workshops that tackle at least one aspect of the Holocaust in-depth. A student at UC Santa Barbara, who spearheaded SHEM’s first chapter on the West Coast, is organizing a full Holocaust Remembrance Week that only begins with Yom ha-Sho’ah. This adds another dimension altogether to our rationalization of why, in fact, we remember: to inform our ability to act. As such, the conceptualization of Yom ha-Sho’ah ought to be couched in an awareness that invites its attendees to get out of their chairs, not sink in them.


What, according to you, should be the most important focuses of Holocaust education in our day schools? Do you think current curriculums are reflective of those focuses or do you see room for change?


There’s immense room for change. Before we talk about what curricula should look like, let’s discuss the fact that in most states in America there are no curricula whatsoever as they’re simply not mandated. We have to push for this by illustrating how critically learning about the Holocaust can inform citizenship. But in the classroom, when we teach students about the Holocaust, the great challenge is finding a way to personalize the history without diluting it. Personally, I think we must focus on other genocides in our study of the Holocaust. Those who oppose this practice argue that it detracts from students’ perception of the Holocaust’s uniqueness. I argue just the opposite: The only way to decipher what it is that’s unique about the Holocaust is by putting it side by side with other genocides, discussing the history of genocide, and where and how the Holocaust fits into that history and in many ways shapes it. We’re also experiencing a crisis of relevance, with more and more young people dissociating from the Holocaust in search of twenty-first century causes. Of course, the Holocaust remains a twenty-first century cause because the dangers it so strongly underscores are ever-threatening. We have to find ways to bring the history forward; placing it in a present-day context is one means toward that end. Another such means is through action-based learning: What actions does learning about the Holocaust inspire? Resistance to bigoted speech and to exercises of dehumanization, a proactive involvement in the strengthening of civil society, participation in activities that acknowledge and promote co-existence, co-responsibility, and so on.


What made you decide to be active in Holocaust and genocide education?


The knowledge that genocide is still being perpetrated in plain sight and we are epically failing to do much about it. I was on the National Mall with tens of thousands of people listening to harrowing accounts of survivors of the genocide in Darfur when it occurred to me that I could use my voice to help mitigate their suffering. Given what I knew about the Holocaust by the time I reached high school, this mission seemed like the most important thing in the world to me. It still does.


Can you describe what you are involved in currently, in your post-YU years? What are your goals for your work?


I’m in Hong Kong this year teaching Jewish Studies at Elsa International High School and helping to develop the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre as a mainstay for education and awareness of the Holocaust in East Asia. In this capacity I’ve worked with some incredible people to engage secondary school teachers and students from across the region in various learning opportunities. We’ve coordinated speaker visits, taken films and held discussions on the road, organized assemblies and Q&A sessions as well as commemorative events for both the Jewish and Chinese populations. I’ve also continued to direct and grow Triangles of Truth, the infrastructure and vision of which are expanding in exciting ways.


What are my goals for the future? To meet the challenges you asked me about earlier. To invite young people around the world—in the untapped corners of the world—to think about what the legacy of the twentieth century means to them, ought to mean them—how we, as a generation, can apply the lessons of the Holocaust and contemporary genocide to promote acceptance of others and sacrifice on behalf of others.

In all your work related to the Holocaust and genocide, what is one memory that stands out to you as meaningful?


I remember turning on my phone after a Shabbat a few years ago and learning from one of our rock-star student volunteers that the newly-minted Triangles of Truth video had been featured on YouTube’s homepage for that day. I was elated. We received tens of thousands of hits in a number of hours, and my inbox was exploding with requests from student leaders across the globe to launch their own Triangles of Truth fundraising campaigns. It was the beginning of the rest of our story, our first real breakthrough. Here’s to many more.