Where do you even start with regard to teaching the Holocaust in schools?
This question was recently posed to me and 24 other teachers from various subject backgrounds on a Holocaust Educational Trust teacher study visit as we stood, heavily wrapped up against the cold, at the top of the “Hill of the Three Crosses” overlooking the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
It was certainly a good enough question to achieve the impossible – silencing a group of teachers. No-one said anything and all you could hear was the wind whistling through the railings. Where do you start with a subject that is so serious, so large, so alien to what we imagine humanity to be capable of?
Over the following four days on this site-based course, we reflected on what we can learn from Holocaust sites and on pedagogical approaches for our classroom teaching.
Why Lithuania? In Vilnius, you still notice the spaces, the gaps, what Jeremy Leigh, our course leader, called “the ripples of history”. Lithuania was where the line was first crossed. All the decisions that led to this point (state-sanctioned discrimination, Kristallnacht, the establishment of concentration camps) had been awful for the people forced to endure it.
But here, in Lithuania, was where the mass-murder of European Jewry began. The murder of Lithuanian Jewry is an uncomfortable point for the Lithuanian people. Much of the killing that took place was carried out by Lithuanians (neighbour on neighbour), overseen by Nazis.
When you visit a site where atrocities were committed you experience conflicting emotions. The killing pits of Panerai forest, for example, were scenes of unimaginable horror. In 1941 you would have seen perpetrators numbing themselves with vodka as they shot hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Yet, when you visit today, it is a beautiful forest with some very imposing memorials.
I tried to imagine the horrors but I couldn’t. I struggled to feel a sense of gravitas appropriate to the situation, but couldn’t. It was only when Jeremy handed out some texts and played a recording of a religious song that I felt something. Music and words fill the gap where the people once were.
This theme continued the next day, outside the Judenrat headquarters in the Vilnius ghetto, where we read from a play that depicted Jakob Gens, the Jewish leader in the ghetto, justifying the surrender of Jews to the Nazis for the greater good of the remaining community. We had to take a character each and perform it outside the building where these decisions were made. It was another moment that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
If you are on site visits with students regarding the Holocaust, you have to do more than just look at the scenery. You have to actively engage with what happened. The buildings and forests cannot tell the story. Only the words of the people who were there can do that.
Each night, I thought more and more about how I could make sense of all this in a classroom. Much of the Holocaust’s events are the stuff of horror and nightmare. I mainly teach year 7 students undertaking a humanities project-based curriculum. The danger for me would be to focus on the horrors when my students are too young to be exposed to them, let alone comprehend them.
So I started to focus more on the ethical decisions, such as those made by Jakob Gens, and on the inspiring stories of those who resisted the Nazis. After all, despite all of the killing, perhaps the most incredible story of all is that some people did survive and some chose to try to provide aid and rescue.
We were introduced to Rachel Kostanian, the director of the Green House State Museum, a small museum tucked away off the main roads in an old wooden building. She revealed that her desire to educate about the Holocaust was driven by “rage”, which revealed the passion she still felt for her friends and family who did not survive.
Another inspirational figure was the 34-year-old executive director of the Jewish community in Vilnius, Simon Gurevicius, who was like a one-man whirlwind of positivity. The fact is that, despite everything, a Jewish community of 5,000 people still exists in Lithuania, which is trying to re-establish its traditions and sense of identity.
The highlight of the teacher study visit for me was meeting 92-year-old Fania Yocheles Branstofsky. A tiny old woman who, in her early 20s, fought as a partisan in the forests with Abba Kovner. Listening to her reminded me of the importance of survivor testimony, and real stories in teaching the Holocaust. This is, after all, a story of human beings, not statistics.
As a result of the visit, I have planned a unit of study for my students which allows them to research the details of the stories from the Holocaust. We will look at the ethical mazes negotiated by people like Jakob Gens, Abba Kovner, Fania Branstofsky and others. We will also look at the stories of resistance, including examining source material as well as poetry, works of art and drama.
Further informationFor details of the CPD and resources offered by the Holocaust Educational Trust, visit www.het.org.uk
Christopher Hirst is from Stretford High School in Manchester.
CAPTION: Powerful: The teachers stop for a photo in Vilnius during their study visit to Lithuania