Teaching the Holocaust in Hong Kong

Inaugurated this week, the Hong Kong Tolerance and Holocaust Centre puts the atrocities of the Shoah into context by using Chinese national examples, such as the Rape of Nanking

The Holocaust center library. (photo credit: Erica Lyons)
The Holocaust center library. (photo credit: Erica Lyons)

HONG KONG — In a nation of over one billion souls such as China, six million deaths simply don’t have the same impact they do for Jews; for China, this number represents only a fraction of civilian deaths during World War II. And while Jews have lived in China free from anti-Semitism since the ninth century, and the field of Judaic studies is growing exponentially, there is a dearth of information available on the Holocaust.

In an effort to correct this knowledge gap, this week the Hong Kong Jewish community founded the Hong Kong Tolerance and Holocaust Centre, the first of its kind in China. The official inauguration of the center was held on Monday with former Israeli chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau as the guest of honor.

The center’s educational efforts in China will not be without hurdles. The central challenge: How to keep the Holocaust central while presenting material in a way that is relevant and meaningful to Chinese students and educators.

The center’s chairman Jeremy Amias spoke about the struggle of balancing the relevance of these regional atrocities without making a faulty comparison, and the need to keep the Holocaust central to the group’s mission

The solution: Put the Jewish Holocaust into context — make it come alive, if you will — by utilizing China’s national stories. The Rape of Nanking, and the infamous Unit 731 in Harbin which was used for medical experimentation on military personnel and civilians, are apt analogies for this purpose, as are the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields in nearby Cambodia. In his address, the center’s chairman, Jeremy Amias, spoke about the struggle to employ these regional atrocities as relevant pedagogical tools without drawing comparisons that are necessarily faulty.

The center, still in its infancy, is the latest in a series of numerous strides taken recently by the Jewish community in an effort to raise Holocaust awareness in Hong Kong and in greater China. In November 2007, several members of the Hong Kong Jewish community organized an Anne Frank exhibit in English and in Mandarin. Nearly 12,000 local and international students were led by 60 community volunteers through the exhibit, which they often left in utter silence trying to process the enormity of it all. A reporter from a local media outlet shuddered, placed his camera on the ground, and said with tears in his eyes, “I am so sorry for what happened to your people. I never knew this.” The exhibit later toured the mainland, with a showing in Guangzhou and Hainan in 2011.

Another initiative was a Holocaust education workshop in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem led by Glenn Timmerman, a professor at the University of Macau, for 23 Chinese educators from Macau, Hong Kong and Mainland China in 2010. Additionally, Holocaust memorial ceremonies in Hong Kong have drawn local students, high-ranking government officials and consul generals representing North American and European countries.

Finding the Hong Kong Tolerance and Holocaust Centre a home in Elsa High School, the only Jewish secondary school in the region, was appropriate given the center’s mission to focus on the education of both teachers and students. Rachel Friedmann, the principal of Elsa High School, commented on her sheer amazement at watching Rabbi Lau, a Polish survivor of Buchenwald, shaking hands with the consul general of Poland at the opening of a Holocaust center in a Jewish school in Hong Kong.

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