Understanding the Holocaust

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Genocide is merely social exclusion taken to an extreme. Its is vital that children have the skills to empathise with the victims of social exclusion as real people if they are to understand how terrible it is when discrimination spirals out of control. Stephen Smith discusses the teaching of a difficult subject.

The Holocaust was not a single event in history. It was a long and complex set of events which unfolded imperceptibly over 50 years and persecuted its victims over a 12-year period, across more than 20 countries. It twisted through the vicissitudes of the labyrinthine world of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

The Holocaust involved the development of a genocidal ideology aimed at a variety of groups of people − the Jews, the gypsies, the disabled, to name but a few. Persecutory policies were different for each group at different periods across the time frame; they also varied from country to country, even camp to camp. The system of persecution was a vast network of departments, individual bureaucrats and field units, each with their intersecting, often confusing, responsibilities. The roles of leadership, democracy, society, Church and State, the professions, the civil service have all taxed the minds of the most brilliant historians. Details of the destruction of the Jews, their history, culture, language and traditions, which spanned a thousand years in Europe, were erased.

The lack of evidence leaves a gaping hole in our knowledge. Yet the mass of documentation from the period is too vast to process fully. Just finding the names of the Jewish victims (of which there are now nearly five million) has taken 60 years and a global search – that is before we know much about them as people. The demands of this history have left historians with much to do to document the facts. The Holocaust has confounded philosophers, theologians, psychologists, criminologists and social scientists of many disciplines. It is a complex, demanding set of events with challenging questions about its causes and confounding hypotheses about its consequences. It defies description, still has little explanation and has left more questions than answers. As Charlotte Delbo, one of the brilliant victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau pointed out, it is ‘a useless knowledge’ to acquire.

And yet we dare to teach this history to our children.

In schools across the country, and indeed across the world, the Holocaust is taught as part of religion, history, citizenship, English, German, theology and philosophy. Where and when the Holocaust is taught depends on the national curriculum, sometimes the personal preference of a teacher or maybe even the governing body.

The British Government has made a long-term commitment to teaching about the Holocaust in England and Wales through provisions in the curriculum, by introducing a new teacher-training programme at the Institute of Education, through Holocaust Memorial Day support for educators, and by supporting visits outside the classroom.  From a history once lost in the annals of the Second World War − and the amnesia of a continent struggling to face up to its past – the Holocaust is now front and centre. It is too prominent, some will argue, and with some justified concerns.

Criticism of the current teaching of the Holocaust focuses on the surfeit of Second World War material which young people encounter right through the curriculum and beyond. Debate about the most appropriate way of teaching sensitive and difficult issues in the classroom is brought sharply into focus when the Holocaust enters the room. Teaching pupils about death is difficult enough – but 13-year-olds grappling with the meaning and mechanics of mass murder is in a different league of complexity.

So where do we start? As with every other subject, we begin with the first principles of the subject, building a platform of basic knowledge.  The idea is to empower students to keep learning long after they leave the classroom, to use the building blocks of the subject wisely and understand how to orientate themselves within the subject matter.

Because of the Holocaust’s significance, the mistake is often made to begin by thinking we teach it ‘to learn its (moral) lessons’. Indeed, there may well be applied learning, but we do not teach mathematics because we need good accountants. We teach mathematics because a grasp of numeracy is an important skill in its own right.
Some of our pupils will become accountants, most will not.  Similarly, we teach about the Holocaust because it happened in human history and it is important to know about it, in its own right.

The Holocaust happened in the past.

The first skill that we are teaching and hopefully extending in our pupils is how to use sources to build a picture of that particular past. We want them to see that when extraordinary events take place in history, they often emerge out of a convergence of quite ordinary events.

We want them to piece together the steps, which unfold slowly, even imperceptibly at times. We want them to see how decisions and policies impact on the way that events happen and how they affect people on all sides of the scenario.

The Holocaust was not inevitable.

The second skill we want pupils to develop is the ability to analyse complex social and political circumstances, and to begin to develop questions about the options that existed for people on all sides of the events. What options the German populace had and the choices they were faced with; whether the Jews or other victim groups had a way out; what other countries could have done, if anything – these are all questions for pupils to develop, and to understand that there are not always easy explanations.

The Holocaust happened to real people. 
The third skill we want pupils to develop is to read history through the experiences of those who went through it. The Holocaust created piles of corpses, which are often used in textbooks and documentaries.  Such images tell us nothing about the human beings piled there − other than the ignominy of their death. We need to be very clear with our pupils that the Holocaust was not just a political history with interesting imagery.
Exploring how the ideology of National Socialism had profound effects on its victims as individuals, and the devastating impact on their lives, is a way of approaching the subject and of relating more closely to the historical reality. The victims of the Nazis were identified by groups, but suffered as individuals.

To teach this subject sensitively, we have a responsibility to bring our pupils closer to the victims. We also need to bring them closer to the perpetrators, too. Few of the perpetrators were fanatic psychopaths; it is indeed their ordinariness which makes them so extraordinary. Care is required, however. The perpetrators might appear quite approachable and successful, and so the use of appropriate resources is a must.

The Holocaust does have applied lessons.

The fourth skill we aim to develop is to begin to think about the moral, political, philosophical and social applications of studying the Holocaust. The Holocaust represented a slide towards an inhumane society, whose values were badly skewed. Learning more about the values that contribute to a stable society is part of the learning outcomes we can encourage. Genocide is typified by mass killing, but in practice it is social exclusion taken to its extreme.

Understanding the marginalisation of those perceived to be ‘different’ is a real part of the continuum of genocide. At one end of the continuum is low-level prejudice and divided communities.  At the other end, is ideological killing on a mass scale.

These skills can be built over time and started relatively young without damage. At the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, the first introduction to the Holocaust is through the learning centre for primary-aged children and its permanent exhibition, ‘The Journey’. Children from year 5 are introduced to the concepts of the Nazi period through the fictional character of Leo Stein. Through his diary, Leo confronts the uncertainty, the bullying, the exclusion in class, the fear in the streets, the impact of hatred on his family’s life.  Young children see and hear age-appropriate material and are not introduced to the conditions of the concentration camps.  The enquiries include: What experience did Jewish children have when the Nazis were in power? How did they feel as their world changed?  What choices did their parents have?  Who was persecuting them? Why? Through this enquiry, they acquire knowledge about how it feels to lose your home, be transported to a different country and live as a refugee. Then they start to form opinions about why this experience was avoidable and wrong.

As children move from primary to secondary school, the Holocaust Centre’s approach towards the subject changes.  School groups studying history, religion, citizenship and English visit our permanent memorial museum, listen to a survivor of the Holocaust and begin to form more mature questions about the experience. Keeping the key skills of using sources and developing a keener sense of the past remain central, but developing a personal connection with a survivor helps the student to relate the reality to real life.

The personal values we want pupils to think about can only be addressed once they can relate to the past. Developing a sense of orientation and evaluating what matters to the pupils is the first step to thinking about what to do with those values.

Making the cognitive link between past actions and present-day situations and attitudes within society is more difficult than it might appear. It is clearly possible to demonstrate that it was wrong to persecute Jews during the Nazi period. But because pupils understand such persecution was wrong, it does not follow that they make the link and understand that, for instance, homophobia is also a form of social exclusion which hurts its victims, and is also wrong. Pupils may even understand that anti-Semitism is wrong, but still maintain homophobic or islamophobic ideas and language. If teaching about the Holocaust is to have any impact on social values or community cohesion, applying its inherent message about equality and respect for human rights has to be brought out in discussion. Pupils need to be able to go to frst principles to work out that homophobia is not identical to, but is a part of, the same family of prejudices, which include anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and religious hatred. Developing a dialogical method to allow pupils to navigate the subject and raise issues safely with teachers and peers is the key to success.

The first principle for educators teaching about the Holocaust is to do no harm. To know about the Holocaust is to confront the vicious extremes of human behaviour. It is a dangerous history and must be handled with care. At the same time, if it is taught merely to demonstrate that ‘we should be nice to one another’, then we miss its challenge and may inadvertently undermine the possibility of pupils taking it seriously later in their lives.

This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Stand up to Hatred’. Young people are being encouraged to think about how the Nazi environment of hatred went unchecked until it reached its ultimate extreme. They are being encouraged to think about how hatred manifests itself in society today, how to identify it, and how they can contribute to preventing its increase. This model works as pupils develop new skills, but do so in a way which is reflective, does not detract from the historical significance of the events and gives an opportunity to put their learning into practice.

Delbo’s comment that Auschwitz is a ‘useless knowledge’ still holds. Auschwitz was useless. It was an exercise in wanton destruction. Auschwitz only has some use for us if we understand its uselessness and teach about its causes and its consequences in a sensitive way. Our aim is not to provide the answers to Auschwitz, but rather to provide pupils with some key questions and the skills to begin the long road of enquiry, which, if we do our job well, will not end at school. 

Dr Stephen D Smith MBE, Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and founder of the Holocaust Centre.

For lesson plans, case studies, an activity board and a numbered list, click here:

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