Teaching the Holocaust

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Next week’s Holocaust Memorial Day is an occasion when we remember the victims of the Holocaust, as well as of other genocides around the world. Teacher Ben Fuller discusses how teachers can approach this challenging subject.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2014 is Journeys. In the last year I have been on a journey that has done a great deal to challenge my own understanding and appreciation of one of history’s darkest and most defining periods, and in turn, how I teach it. 

Indeed, by taking part in two site-based courses run by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) – in Poland and Germany – I have come to appreciate the importance of emphasising the journeys of individuals, groups and nations before the rise of Nazism, between 1933 and 1945, and beyond.

I am a teacher of history, politics and sociology at Tapton School in Sheffield, where I began as an NQT in 2012. We are a comprehensive secondary school with a 6th form in the heart of the steel city. We have a diverse community within Tapton, comprising pupils from across the city and indeed the world, with more than 40 languages spoken by pupils within the school.

My first opportunity to teach the Holocaust was as part of the year 9 curriculum which covers a great deal of 20th century history. I immediately realised that the size and scale of the Holocaust was going to provide serious pedagogical challenges. Fitting such a huge subject inside a space of four weeks, while ensuring I kept pupils engaged and covered the “right” elements of content would never be an easy task. 

The Holocaust has immense historical significance and considerable contemporary relevance, but it is not an easy subject to teach or to learn about. It raises crucial and timeless questions which resist simple answers, but this characteristic of complicating our thinking makes it educationally invaluable. 

For year 9 pupils a balance must be found between the breadth of the subject and the depth of study you can teach. The Holocaust should be contextualised to help pupils understand Jewish identity and culture in Europe before looking further at the development of persecution of the Jews in the 1930s, and the full extent of the Holocaust and the Final Solution during the 1940s. 

In other words, the narrative of the story is a long and complex one. This must then be augmented with detailed understanding of the different events, experiences and ways in which the Holocaust was enacted by its perpetrators and felt by different people in different places. 

Last year, with all this to fit in, I found myself focusing on a fairly narrow perspective of the Holocaust, in which Jews were portrayed as victims, their fate sealed in death camps at the hands of Nazis. The resource we primarily relied on was Schindler’s List.

The HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz course was the start of my journey. The course was an intensive learning experience comprising two training days and a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camps in Poland. 

The first training day involved hearing from Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper, a truly inspirational person, who shed light on the period in a way that brought it into unique focus. I realised that in teaching the Holocaust we must emphasise individual testimony to gain a more human appreciation of the subject. 

The second part of the course was a visit to Poland, where we visited the Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim, gaining insight into pre-war Jewish life in the area. Then we were guided through Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

It was one of the most memorable days of my life. To walk on a site of genocide is deeply emotional. The sheer numbers that a place like this deals with are almost incomprehensible.

Once again though, the feeling that I was left with was that this was a place where individual stories were played out. Our educator from the HET gave numerous accounts of inmates whose experiences enabled me to see Auschwitz in a new way. 

Auschwitz was at the end of a railway line and represented the end of life for more than one million Jews and others. But the stories of those individuals and families went back down the tracks to innumerable locations and situations. The story was of journeys, not of a destination. The third part of the course looked at Holocaust education and practical ways of developing our pedagogy.

Later in the year I enrolled on another HET course: the annual teacher study visit to Berlin. This comprised four days of intensive site visits, discussion and analysis of the Holocaust. Again the concept of “journeys” was at the heart of what we discussed. 

The difference from the Auschwitz experience was that in this case we were at the other end of the railway track, looking at the Holocaust from a range of different angles – the homes of influential Jewish enlightenment theorists and their influence on European culture; the decisions around the Final Solution; the experiences of Jews who were hidden in workshops in Berlin and their protectors; the platform of a station that would take groups of Jews to concentration camps across Europe; the synagogue that was destroyed; and the memorials and museums all over a city reflecting the journey that country has been on in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the need to remember what humanity as capable of doing.

This was a trip that challenged me on an intellectual level as well as an emotional one. Furthermore, it invited me to consider, once again, my priorities in teaching the Holocaust. 

I realised that in order to teach the Holocaust effectively, I should move away from a focus on the “destinations” of mass murder such as concentration and death camps, in favour of a broader view of the subject and questions around how the Holocaust came about and what the journey of the Holocaust was like for different individuals within it. 

Now I’m back in Sheffield and planning a new scheme of work for my school in line with what I have learned on my personal journey. This cannot be a simple topic, nor should it be.

Of course concentration camps and statistics of how many people suffered at the hands of the Nazis will still be a part of Holocaust education, but it need not be the only focus. A clearer understanding of the Jewish place in European society is needed to curb the tendency toward seeing them as outsiders.

A better appreciation of resistance and struggle against persecution by both Jews and non-Jews is needed to show that the Holocaust was not perpetrated on a passive group. 

The legacy of the Holocaust as a lesson from history is essential to bring relevance to the learning and help pupils develop as open-minded citizens who believe in questioning the society around them. 

More than anything, I feel it is vital to prioritise eye-witness testimony in the teaching of the Holocaust. To humanise a subject that deals with inhumanity is essential. 

The understanding (or even not understanding) of different people’s accounts brings history to life and enables pupils to truly engage with the subject, and personalises the experience. On Holocaust Memorial Day, I will encourage my students to focus on the complexity and diversity of these human journeys. And I will be grateful for the educational journey I have had the chance to take.

  • Ben Fuller who teaches history, politics and sociology at Tapton School in Sheffield.

Further information
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on January 27, the day that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland was liberated. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust can be found at www.hmd.org.uk while the HET’s website is www.het.org.uk

CAPTION: Never forget: Teachers visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp as part of a CPD course about teaching the Holocaust


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