02.04.2012 | Mumin Shakirov, Aleksandr Kulygin

Russian twins’ game show response raises questions about Holocaust education



The photo is from the website of the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz – Birkenau  

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MOSCOW -- A beautiful set of twins from a village in Russia’s Vladimir Oblast has become a national sensation for all the wrong reasons. 

Appearing recently on a television game show late last year, Ksenia and Yevgenia Karatygina had the chance to win 500 rubles ($17) by answering the question: "What was the Holocaust?"

After some hesitation, discussion, and a frank admission that the term "says nothing" to them, Yevgenia answered.

"We think that the Holocaust is wallpaper paste, " she said.

video of the exchange has since gone viral on YouTube, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers.

The personable and articulate twins, who now study at Moscow’s Kosygin Technical University, explained that history and geography were never that interesting to them in school. Yevgenia Kartygina said she was more interested in poetry.

"To be honest, such subjects in school were pretty dull, " Yevgenia said. "Not because the teacher was bad -- he knew what he was talking about. But I didn’t want to devote my life to that -- I wasn’t planning to study at some institute connected with history. So during those lessons, I was doing my own thing. I was writing poems. Now we are writing music -- we are into music."

As a result, however, neither sister could say what Auschwitz was nor had any idea that more than 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

The word Holocaust wasn’t used in Soviet-era textbooks, although the Nazi persecution of Jews and Slavs in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. was taught in schools. But the details were scant. The situation has only gradually improved in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Just this month, the Russian Education Ministry announced that Holocaust education would be added as a mandatory part of the curriculum and that textbooks and materials on the subject are now being developed.

In 2009, Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust memorial organization, received a $4 million grant to promote Holocaust education among Russian-speakers, a program that is being implemented in cooperation with Moscow’sHolocaust Center.

For eight years now, UNESCO has sponsored an essay competition for Russian-speaking university students.

Read the 2011 winners of the UNESCO competition in English here

However, as late as 2007, a group of experts from the Russian Academy of Sciences studied 34 textbooks and other materials used in Russian schools that were created after 1991 and found that "some subjects are either suppressed or interpreted most tendentiously." "In some textbooks, the Holocaust is not mentioned at all, " a summary of the report states.

Jewish and other human rights activists have long seen a link between the interpretation of the Holocaust and manifestations of anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.

In an infamous incident in May 2002, a Russian woman named Tatyana Sapunova was severely injured when she attempted to remove a booby-trapped sign with an anti-Semitic slogan.

Months later, after undergoing extensive treatment at a hospital in Israel, Sapunova met in the Kremlin with then-President Vladimir Putin. Putin said at that meeting: "In any country, the development of extremism undermines the very basis of a nation’s being, while for a country like Russia, it is absolutely disastrous because it is a multiethnic, multconfessional country. If we let this bacillus of chauvinism and national or religious intolerance develop, we will ruin our country."

Meanwhile, the Karatyginas continue to live, work, and study in Moscow. They are getting good grades and earning their way through school not only by appearing on game shows but also by distributing advertising leaflets and babysitting.

Ksenia doesn’t know what the future holds, but Yevgenia hopes to get into the Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts and become an actress. Both are looking to the future with optimism.

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