The TikTok #HolocaustChallenge Shows The Importance Of Teaching Kids Empathy

By Meghan Dillon··  6 min read
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tiktok holocaust challenge shows the importance of teaching kids empathy

TikTok is an app for short, funny videos, and trendy dances. Most TikTok trends are innocent, but the most recent trend known as the #HolocaustChallenge is anything but.

The trend features teens role-playing (often using special effects makeup) as Holocaust victims telling their stories to someone who just arrived in heaven. To portray a genocide that killed six million Jews and countless other marginalized groups of people as a skit is insulting to both Holocaust survivors and any descendants of survivors and victims. This challenge has shown how important it is to teach children and teens empathy.

The Importance of Holocaust Education and Empathy

It’s very important to learn history so we can learn from the successes and mistakes of the past. Since the Holocaust is one of the most tragic events in recent history, it’s important to learn about it. Since it’s a very sensitive subject, there are plenty of resources and guidelines for educators and parents.

Reading about people’s experiences of the Holocaust in history class had a big impact on me.

For myself and many other Millennials, learning about the Holocaust and empathy went hand in hand since most of us have grandparents who grew up during the time of the Holocaust. I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time in middle school and couldn’t get over how Anne Frank was only a few years younger than my grandparents. It’s easy for any young girl to see themselves and their friends in Anne, but knowing that she grew up at the same time as my grandparents helped me empathize with her story even more because she didn’t feel like some historical figure who died a long time ago.

It’s easy for any young girl to see themselves and their friends in Anne Frank.

I watched Schindler’s List in my freshman social studies class in high school. Since my classmates and I were under 17, we had to get our parents to sign a permission slip to watch the R-rated movie in class. I distinctly remember handing the slip to my mom and her telling me that it was one of the most emotionally moving movies she’d ever seen.

Years later, I remember it well. There wasn’t a single dry eye in the classroom as we watched the story of an industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust. Watching Schindler’s List and reading primary sources of Holocaust victims and survivors was the perfect way to learn about it because it went beyond facts and figures — it gave names and faces to the six million people who were brutally murdered.

Empathy needs to be taught along with the facts, so Holocaust victims aren’t just statistics.

I’m not sure how the teens in these TikToks were taught about the Holocaust, but I would be shocked and appalled if it were similar to the way I was taught. They clearly know the basics, but they don’t have any empathy towards the victims and survivors. It’s important to teach the Holocaust from an empathetic perspective, so the victims and survivors become more than statistics.

Some teens tried to use the trend for educational purposes, as one 17-year-old girl from New Jersey told Insider, "I've always been interested in the history of the Holocaust and just wanted to make a creative video informing people about it on TikTok. It was never intended to be offensive." She took the video down after receiving backlash.

Some teens tried to use the trend for educational purposes. Others, not so much.

Though some claim to have had good intentions, some of the videos are absolutely appalling. One includes a girl acting out a firing squad style execution as “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars plays in the background.

Some of the causes behind this trend are thought to be a world desensitized to violence and the fact that many teens don’t know anyone who was alive during the Holocaust. 

We're Becoming a World without Holocaust Survivors

The Holocaust ended in 1945, meaning the youngest people alive at the end will be 75 at the end of this year. The only living survivors of the Holocaust and those who were alive during the Holocaust were children when it happened. With the U.S. life expectancy at 80.3 years (82.5 for women and 78 for men), they won’t be around for much longer. (To put it into perspective, President Trump was born the year after the Holocaust ended, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden was three years old.)

It’s easier for older generations to empathize with survivors because most knew someone who was alive then.

It was easier for Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials to empathize with survivors of the Holocaust because most knew someone (like a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent) who was alive during the Holocaust or was a Holocaust survivor.

Many teenagers (who are a part of Gen Z) don’t have that opportunity. A study published in 2018 showed that 2/3 of millennials don't know what Auschwitz is. 4 in 10 millennials don't even know that Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

This isn’t a far-away tragedy of the past. This is recent history.

A Desensitized World

As a culture, we’re very desensitized to violence. With a 24-hour news cycle and violent media as the norm, it’s easy to brush off something horrific as normal. Michael Pittaro, Ph.D., writes, “Nearly every single day, we, as a global society, are exposed to what seems like a constant barrage of violence, negativity, intolerance, and hatred in one form or another on the major news networks, and especially on social media.”

Today’s teenagers have never known a world without 24-hour news coverage of war and terrorism.

Teenagers have grown up in social media. Since the majority of them weren’t alive on 9/11 (and certainly none of them remember it), they’ve never known a world without 24-hour news coverage of war and terrorism. Our culture’s desensitization to violence, in general, is related to teens brushing tragedies like the Holocaust aside.

Closing Thoughts

It’s crucial to learn history to make sure that future generations don’t make the same mistakes as past generations. Since the Holocaust is one of the most horrific events in recent history, it’s important for kids and teens to learn about it. If your teenager is learning about the Holocaust in school, or if you choose to homeschool your kids, it’s very important to talk about this topic with an empathetic perspective.

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