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Teaching the Holocaust

Most students in the UK study the Holocaust at some point, usually as part of KS3 History, Citizenship or Religious Studies, but Holocaust Education is much more than that.

View over the top of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin

The case for Holocaust Education

As Paul Salmons of University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education puts it:

If we are not prepared to consider what went wrong in modern society that allowed state persecution of political opponents; mass murder of the disabled; European genocide of the Roma (Gypsies); and ultimately led to an attempt to murder every last Jewish man, woman and child, then how can we consider ourselves to be educated people at all?

The Centre recently published research findings showing that there were gaps in students’ knowledge and understanding, despite 85% of them having studied the Holocaust in a variety of subject areas or at different stages during their time at school.

The research team noted that:

The Holocaust is a difficult and emotive subject to teach. Accordingly, teachers need considerable support in helping students develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of this subject across a range of historical and spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) perspectives. 

The Centre’s website hosts a collection of resources for teachers, as well as research findings and other material. In addition, the Centre manages the Beacon Schools Programme for schools in England. These act as dynamic hubs coordinating a network of local schools so that they can develop and deliver best practice in Holocaust education.

Authentic Learning

The Centre believes that ‘authentic learning’ is important in teaching the Holocaust. Staff also believe that the curriculum should extend to other atrocities and genocides, so that we can learn from all crimes against humanity.

The Centre provides a wide range of CPD programmes, free of charge, across the country, including ITE, full day and twilight CPD, and a free online MA module. The only such professional development programmes to be directly informed by large-scale, national research studies, they are uniquely responsive to actual classroom needs, challenges and issues and have been shown to transform teaching and learning about the Holocaust.

Details are on the Centre’s website, and teachers are also invited to contact directly to discuss their particular needs and to request bespoke programmes for themselves and teachers in the locality.

Capturing Testimony

Capturing the testimony of Holocaust survivors and witnesses is essential – as time passes,  it becomes more important to ensure that there are video and audio recordings of these. UK broadcasters and in particular the BBC enables access to a wide range of materials, some of which are listed below.

Holocaust education resources available under the ERA Licence – A Selection

Testimony from Holocaust survivors is a particularly effective means of communicating with students. Of course, most of these survivors have now died and therefore video and audio recordings are more important than ever in capturing their experiences. One of those featured is Martin Kapel, who came to England via the Kindertransport. He talks about how Germany, as a highly sophisticated and cultured country, could have descended into barbarism and how important it is to study history: “Those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it.”

This collection from the World Service’s ‘Witness’ series has some really excellent audio clips but also some film clips accompanied by first-hand testimony and commentary.  These are typically 5 – 15 mins long. Particularly interesting for teachers of Holocaust education are the following:

In early December 1938, the first Kindertransport set off for London. It was the beginning of a great rescue operation and a race against time.  The trains were packed with children, ten thousand over nine months. One of them was eight-year-old Oliver Gebhardt  and he gives his account as an eighty-year-old survivor.

At just 16 years old, Kitty Hart-Moxon arrived in Auschwitz with her mother. In her second year, she was tasked with sorting out the belongings of those brought to the camp before they were killed in the gas chambers. Kitty spoke to Witness about her 2 year imprisonment at Auschwitz and what helped her to survive Auschwitz.

Sobibor was a slave labour camp in Poland where hundreds of Jewish prisoners staged a revolt and escaped in October 1943. Most of them were caught and shot, but around 50 made it to the end of the war. This is the story of Thomas Blatt, one of the survivors.

In 1943, a German diplomat alerted a Danish MP to the Nazi’s plan to arrest and deport the Danish Jewish community to concentration camps, where they would join the other Jews of occupied Europe. This warning reached the leaders of the Danish Jewish community who were urged to leave or go into hiding. Sweden remained neutral during the Second World War and was offering a safe haven for refugees.  Bent Melchior and his family fled from the Nazis in a boat in the dead of night. He spoke to Witness about the mass escape of Denmark’s Jews.

Janina David was a nine-year-old girl when Germany invaded Poland. As Jews, she and her family were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, but she later escaped and remains one of its few survivors.

In April 1943, the Germans began a drive to finally empty Warsaw of Jews. Before the war, a third of the city had been Jewish but the Nazis were determined to erase all trace of them.  Krystyna Budnicka hid in a sewer beneath the ghetto and is one of the very few Jews who survived the Uprising.

An organised massacre of Ukrainian Jews began on 29 September 1941. Most of those from the capital, Kiev, were  taken to a place on the outskirts of the city called Babi Yar, and shot.  A three-year-old girl called Raissa Maistrenko escaped the shooting.

Howard Triest was a German Jew who acted as a translator during the questioning of those on trial. Both of his parents died at Auschwitz.

In April 2015, Eva Kor, who survived the Holocaust, publicly forgave ex-Auschwitz accountant Oskar Groening. The documentary tells their stories, and explores the impact of her forgiveness.  “I believe that forgiveness is such a powerful thing,” she says.

Clip from ITV news about the youngest known Holocaust survivor who says: “I’ve always been known as the miracle baby’’.

Natasha Kaplinsky interviewed 20 survivors and concentration camp liberators.  Here are two of their stories.