Teaching the Shoah in the UK

Rather than viewing the Holocaust as part of our living history, many see it as an event that happened abroad many years ago.

teachers 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
teachers 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer is head of post–16 education at the Brakenhale School in Berkshire.
The Holocaust is a topic that has challenged me as an educator for many years. A key challenge for me personally is my students’ response to historical events. Rather than viewing the Holocaust as part of our living history, many see it as an event that happened abroad many years ago, which allows them to disconnect from the human aspect of genocide. At best, the perpetrators are viewed as inhuman sociopaths or comic-book villains, and not as real people who did evil things. This, again, allows my students to put some distance between themselves and the Shoah.
Another challenge for me is simply time.
Traditionally the Holocaust is taught as part of the history syllabus, or perhaps in religious studies, citizenship or even English lessons. In recent years, though, there has been a compression of the timetable in some secondary schools, resulting in some students covering three years of study in two. Thus all subjects at this level face a lack of time.
Teachers’ lack of specialist knowledge can also result in a too-narrow focus on the death camps, and in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau, at the expense of the other Reinhard camps, life in the ghettos, or even pre-war Jewish life. The sheer scale, scope and pan-European nature of the Holocaust can prove to be a real challenge for teachers to convey effectively.
Since 1988, the Holocaust Educational Trust has been supporting British teachers in the delivery of Shoah education. Perhaps most importantly, the trust has developed a number of programs that have enabled the Holocaust to become more relevant to students and teachers in UK schools.
They arrange for survivors to deliver testimonies to school children, and this is now done alongside the government-funded Lessons from Auschwitz Project, which enables two students from British schools to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and share their experiences with their fellow students on their return. Hearing and learning from their peers has proved to be truly inspiring.
RECOGNIZING THE challenges involved with Holocaust education, however, is not enough.
Teachers need to receive proper training in how to communicate one of the most sensitive topics on the curriculum. I was grateful for the opportunity to take part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s annual teacher training course at Yad Vashem this summer, which is designed to enable teachers, whatever their subject area, to engage with leading academics in a way not previously possible.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, it challenges participants to take a critical look at the way they deliver Holocaust education.
One of the key lessons that participants took on board was the need to humanize the stories that appear in the textbooks, and to challenge their students to think about how they or a member of their family might feel if placed in a similar situation.
Speaking personally, I will be changing the way I deliver my history lessons by creating individual story packs that retell in great detail the circumstances of individual victims, so that my students can relate more easily to the topic. Also, as part of my responsibility for the 16-18 age group, I intend to develop a program that will apply to the wider curriculum, looking, for example, at the impact of the Holocaust on art, literature, drama and music. It is my hope that this will also give my students a glimpse into the human impact of the Holocaust in a personal and practical way.
I can only say that this program has had a profoundly positive impact on me as a person and as an educator. The staff at the Holocaust Educational Trust and Yad Vashem can be very proud of their work, and I am happy to be able to commit myself to improving Holocaust education in my own school. It is my hope that many other teachers across the UK will now take the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and experience a similar training program.