Prague, 26 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ask children on the streets of Minsk what they know about Auschwitz and the Holocaust and you are liable to get some disturbing answers.
One 13-year-old girl has this to say: "I think Auschwitz is a type of hoofed animal."
Her friend does somewhat better -- but her answer is far from complete: "It was some sort of camp during the Great Patriotic War. They burned Jews there."
"I have no idea what the Holocaust is. I have never heard anything about something like the Holocaust."
A third girl answers: "We could tell you more if they taught us something about it in school."
Belarus may be a disturbing example, especially considering the country’s history of Jewish settlement prior to World War II and the country’s devastation during the conflict. But it is hardly unique.
In 1944, the word "genocide" was coined to describe the Nazis’ attempt to liquidate the Jews, Roma, and other groups in their entirety. Four years later, the word was officially adopted in the United Nations Convention Against Genocide.
Yet for decades, in the former Soviet Union, all war dead were only identified as Soviet citizens. The Holocaust was mentioned only in passing, if it all. Today, several former Soviet countries are trying to remedy the situation, making the teaching of the Holocaust an obligatory subject in school.
But progress so far depends more on the initiative of individual teachers. Textbooks are lacking, and so is general interest among students. Kazakh history teacher Amina Tortayeva describes the situation at her school in Almaty: "We do not have a special course on that. There are many courses on the war period and we give some kind of information on that ourselves. But in our textbooks there is nothing written about the Holocaust. So I cannot say we have full knowledge on that issue."
Her students do not perform much better than their counterparts in Minsk.
RFE/RL correspondent: "Have you heard about the Holocaust?"
Student: "No, not at all. Holocaust? I have no idea what the Holocaust is. I have never heard anything about something like the Holocaust."
Irina Belareva, a high-school teacher in Moscow, says it falls to the teacher to decide whether the Holocaust is taught or not as a specific subject in Russia. "If you take the school curriculum, specific discussion of the Holocaust is not required," she said. "I talk about it, but to a large extent, it depends, of course, on the teacher."
Even in Armenia, whose people suffered their own genocide a quarter of a century before the Jews, knowledge among young people of the extent, methods, and reasons for the Nazi Holocaust is shallow at best.
Our correspondent in Yerevan quizzed several young people about what they know about those events. The most comprehensive -- if factually incorrect -- answer came from a 19-year-old boy: "The Holocaust was perpetrated by Hitler. One-and-a half million people died. Hitler sought the extermination of the Jews because I think Jews in Germany had very high positions. That’s why he exterminated them and expropriated their property."
For years after World War II, discussion of the Holocaust in schools in Western Europe was also minimal. Events were too raw. Survivors wanted to forget their trauma. And the issue of collaboration with the Nazis by parts of the population in many countries cast a shadow over a fuller discussion of the war.
It was not until relatively recently that schools in Western Europe began to teach the Holocaust in a comprehensive way. Germany, understandably, has one of the best programs. Students learn about the Holocaust and other aspects of the war in history classes, civics lessons, and postwar literature studies. Visits to former concentration camps as well as talks with survivors are also frequently used.
Chana Moshenska, who runs educational programs at the Centre for German-Jewish Studies at Britain's University of Sussex, says discussions with survivors are one of the most effective ways to get children interested in learning about the period. "One way that does work -- but having said that, it’s only going to work for a short time -- is survivor testimony," she said. "I think survivor testimony is the most powerful way that young people can relate to what actually happened in the Holocaust. Now, obviously, that's time-limited because survivors are getting older. They haven't got the energy to speak and soon they won't be able to speak in public. But when they come and speak, what young people see is someone who looks like grandma or grandpa. And that has an enormous impact. And then, quite often, these are people who experienced the Holocaust when they were teenagers. And they're able to say, 'When I was 15, this is what I was doing,' or 'This is what happened to my little brother, this is what happened to my mother.' And that has an enormous impact on young people."
RFE/RL analyst Michael Shafir is an expert on the period and served on the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.
He notes that Eastern Europe bears the twin burden of the Nazi and Communist eras, making open discussion about past crimes, ethics and responsibility -- especially with children -- doubly difficult, although he believes, doubly necessary.
"Unlike Western Europe, East-Central Europe must not overcome one difficult past, but two difficult pasts," he said. "That, of course, of whatever happened during World War II and its communist past. Now, in both these cases there is a tendency to transform not only villains but mainly collaborators or even stand-by witnesses into martyrs and heroes."
Students -- be they in Russia or Britain -- can be easily interested in investigating the past, if a personal connection is made. Fifteen-year-old Tatyana tells our Moscow correspondent she knows about the Holocaust and she related it to the experience of her grandfather in the Soviet gulag. "It concerns me a lot because my grandfather, under Stalin, was sent to the [Soviet gulag] camps," she said. "When I was 10 years old, I read his diary. He left a diary about it all and it had a strong impact on me."
Shafir says the sooner the East comes to grips with the truth of its past, the better. "Genocide" was coined to describe the Nazi Holocaust, but it is a word that has unfortunately had to be used since, to describe more recent events in Cambodia and Rwanda. Shafir says genocide is likely to be repeated until the lessons of the Holocaust are learned by children today: "It is important to convey to anyone that the Holocaust was not something that Germans did unto Jews. It is important to convey that this is something that anyone can do unto anyone else. That is the tragedy of the Holocaust."
People’s willingness to forget crimes of the past was a lesson not lost on Hitler himself. Sending his troops into Poland in 1939, he ordered them to be merciless, saying: Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?"
(RFE/RL’s Armenian, Belarus, Kazakh, and Russian services contributed to this report.)