(JTA) — You’d think that in a country so closely identified with Anne Frank — perhaps the Holocaust’s best-known victim — cultivating memory of the genocide wouldn’t be a steep challenge.
That’s why a recent survey, suggesting what the authors called a “disturbing” lack of knowledge in the Netherlands about the Holocaust, set off alarm bells. “Survey shows lack of Holocaust awareness in the Netherlands,” wrote the Associated Press. “In the Netherlands, a majority do not know the Holocaust affected their country,” was the JTA headline. “The Holocaust is a myth, a quarter of Dutch younger generation agree,” per the Jerusalem Post.
“Survey after survey, we continue to witness a decline in Holocaust knowledge and awareness. Equally disturbing is the trend towards Holocaust denial and distortion,” Gideon Taylor, the president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which conducted the study, said in a statement.
Like other recent studies by Claims Conference, the latest survey has been challenged by some scholars, who say the sample size is small, or the survey is too blunt a tool for examining what a country’s residents do or don’t know about their history. Even one of the experts who conducted the survey chose to focus on the positive findings: “I am encouraged by the number of respondents to this survey that believe Holocaust education is important,” Emile Schrijver, the general director of Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, told JTA.
One of the scholars who says the survey doesn’t capture the subtleties of Holocaust education and commemoration in the Netherlands is Jazmine Contreras, an assistant professor of history at Goucher College in Maryland. Contreras studies the historical memory of the Holocaust and Second World War in Holland. In a Twitter thread earlier this week, she agreed with those who say that “the headline that’s being plastered everywhere exaggerates the idea that young people in NL know nothing about the Holocaust.”
At the same time, she notes that while the Netherlands takes Holocaust education and commemoration seriously, it has a long way to go in reckoning with a past that includes collaboration with the Nazis, postwar antisemitism, a small but vocal far right and a sense of national victimhood that often downplays the experience of Jews during the Shoah.
“It’s such a complex issue,” Contreras told me. “There’s no one answer to how the Holocaust is remembered in the Netherlands.”
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I took the opportunity to speak with Contreras not only about Dutch memory, but how the Netherlands may serve as an example of how countries deal with Holocaust memory and the national stories they tell.
Our interview was edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Tell me a little bit about when you saw the survey, and perhaps how it didn’t mesh with what you know about the Netherlands?
Jazmine Contreras: My major problem is that every single outlet is picking up this story and running a headline like, “Youth in the Netherlands don’t even know the Holocaust happened there. They cannot tell you how many people were killed, how many were deported.” And I think that’s really problematic because it paints a really simplistic picture of Holocaust memory and Holocaust education in that country.
There are multiple programs, in Amsterdam, in other cities, in Westerbork, the former transit camp. They have an ongoing program that brings survivors and the second generation to colleges, to middle schools and primary schools all across the country. And they also have in Amsterdam a program called Oorlog in Mijn Buurt, “War in My Neighborhood,” and basically young people become the “memory bearers” — that’s the kind of language they use — and interview people who grew up and experience the war in their neighborhood, and then speak as if they were the person who experienced it, in the first person.
You also have events around the May 4 commemoration remembering the Dutch who died in war and in peacekeeping operations, and a program called Open Jewish Houses [when owners of formerly Jewish property open their homes to strangers to talk about the Jews who used to live there]. It’s really amazing: I’ve actually been able to visit these formerly Jewish homes and hear the stories. And, of course, the Anne Frank House has its own slew of programming, and teachers talk a lot about the Holocaust and take students to synagogues in places like Groningen, where they have a brand new exhibit at the synagogue. They are taking thousands at this point. The new National Holocaust Names Memorial is in the center of Amsterdam.
I think, again, this idea that children are growing up without having exposure to Holocaust memory, or knowledge of what happened in the Netherlands, is a bit skewed. I think we get into a dangerous area if we’re painting the country with a broad brush and saying nobody knows anything about the Holocaust.
Have you anecdotal evidence or seen studies of Dutch kids about whether they’re getting the education they need?
Anecdotally, yes. I was invited to attend a children’s commemoration that they do at the Hollandsche Schouwburg theater in Amsterdam, which is the former Dutch theater that was used as a major deportation site. And it’s children who put on a commemoration themselves. Again, not every child is participating in this, but if they’re not participating in the children’s commemoration, then they’re doing the “War in My Neighborhood” program, or they’re doing Open Jewish Houses, or they’re taking field trips. That’s pretty impressive to me, and it’s pretty meaningful. They want to help participate in it in the future. They want to come back because it leaves a lasting impression for them.
Let’s back up a bit. Anne Frank dominates everyone’s thinking about Holland and the Holocaust. And I guess the story that’s told is that she was protected by her neighbors until, of course, the Nazis proved too powerful, found her and sent her away. What’s right and what’s wrong about that narrative?
Don’t forget that Anne Frank was a German Jewish refugee who came to the Netherlands. And I think that part of the story is also really interesting and left out. She’s this Dutch icon, but she was a German Jewish refugee who came to the Netherlands, and the Dutch Jewish community was single-handedly responsible for funding, at Westerbork, what was first a refugee center. I think that’s really complicated because now we also have a discourse about present-day refugees and the Holocaust.