The Holocaust: Humanising the inhuman

Written by: Emma King | Published:
Survivor's story: Arek Hersh would have been in year 7 when he was taken to the first of three concentration camps he survived (image: Charlotte Graham Photography)

Teaching the Holocaust effectively and communicating the harrowing reality of what happened is a challenge for all schools. Drawing on the work of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, Emma King looks at how we can make it real for students

The Holocaust was without doubt one of the most disturbing and harrowing events of the 20th century; the indisputable proof of man’s inhumanity to man.

Victims were forced from their homes, stripped of their identities and entire Jewish communities destroyed. Six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in death camps or shot and their bodies burned by the Nazis and their collaborators. Many others were put through forced labour in concentration camps in brutal conditions of terror, hunger and without basic hygiene.

Before the “Final Solution” was implemented and as persecution intensified, some parents sought refuge for their children and attempted to send them abroad to live with strangers hoping that they would be safe. By the end of the Second World War 1.5 million children had been murdered in gas chambers or gas vans or shot. Some were subjected to horrific medical experiments.

One of the challenges that teaching the Holocaust brings is how to make such inconceivably barbaric acts seem real today. We can read the facts, listen to testimony, but we cannot replicate the fear, uncertainty, choices which had to be made, nor the hunger, the smell of burning bodies and the struggle for life. How can teachers communicate the reality of the Holocaust, that this happened to ordinary people leading ordinary lives who never for one moment regarded themselves as different?

Most pupils have little or no concept of systematic and state-sponsored mass murder on such a scale. The curriculum does include the Holocaust but often the challenge is how to bring the pages of a history book to life in a way that means something to young people living in 21st century Britain.

Making it real

The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, based within the campus of the University of Huddersfield, uses filmed survivor testimony in the interactive exhibition Through Our Eyes, which focuses on the stories of 16 Holocaust survivors and refugees who fled from or survived the atrocities perpetrated by Nazis and their collaborators across Europe to make new lives in Yorkshire.

An enduring focus is on humanising the Holocaust and communicating that it happened to real, ordinary people, whose experiences form the backbone of the exhibition. In order to achieve this, a great emphasis is on interaction with real items and even real people, with survivors who can speak about their stories.

An original striped concentration camp uniform – the “striped pyjamas” in the title of John Boyne’s international best-seller – is displayed along with original bowls and spoons and clogs handed to those incarcerated in the concentration camps. So too are personal possessions of those who fled Nazi Germany including a dressing gown cord owned by Trude Silman’s mother, the only thing she has left of her mother who was killed in the Holocaust.

Visitors can watch film footage, sit on a bench deemed “Nur für Juden” (only for Jews), read the papers of the refugees who fled the Nazis, and listen to interviews via interactive touchscreens around the exhibition. It may even be possible to meet or hear a talk by one of the survivors, who share their memories in the hope that future generations will learn from their stories and create a better world.

One such survivor is Trude Silman, whose parents were both murdered in the Holocaust; her father was killed in Auschwitz, her mother is one of the two million people still missing. “In essence, I’m still searching for her,” she said.

To Trude and her fellow survivors, the learning centre is a vital resource for teachers, a tangible record of the terrible events in history that exists so that future generations might understand.

The Holocaust was too horrific to be consigned to a page in a history book, therefore the exhibition serves as a palpable reminder of what happened. It tackles prejudice, racism, anti-semitism and other forms of persecution, which still exist to this day.

“Terrible things have happened in history for thousands of years,” said Trude, “but for many, these are now consigned to the history books. What happened to us was real, it happened to real people whose families were torn apart; we lost our parents and had to make our own lives without them.

“Tragically, we see similar situations today with refugees who are forced to flee their homelands. We are all human, we all have the same needs for food, shelter and a loving family, regardless of colour or creed. If the events of the Holocaust are not taught properly, then my family died for nothing.”


Essential to effective teaching of the Holocaust is identifying the right material for the right age group. The centre has age-specific Active Learning Sessions – from upper key stage 2 to A level and beyond – that can be adapted to target different areas of the national curriculum.

The key stage 2 workshops focus on the stories of different survivors. Pupils explore in detail their experiences and timeline and have a discussion about children who may have experienced something similar today.

At key stage 3, pupils explore themes such as impossible choices, propaganda and the media, and special things. The focus is on how the Holocaust affected real people, the progression from persecution to genocide, and why the Holocaust happened. The sessions include current issues such as racism, manipulation of the media and refugees.

Other sessions include Special Things, when we use survivors’ own possessions to show that precious does not always equate to monetary value. Every Picture Tells a Story encourages pupils to look beyond an image – particularly relevant against the backdrop of today’s fake news.

Teacher Kate Marshall, from Holy Family RC and CofE College in Lancashire, has visited the centre with pupils twice since it opened a year ago. She said: “The exhibition brings the words off the page of a history book and shows that these were actual events that happened to real people, some of whom weren’t much different in age to the children themselves.

“The Holocaust tends to be taught at Holy Family towards the end of year 8, close to the time when children do their options, and is relevant for both history and RE classes. RE is compulsory here but history is an option and learning about the Holocaust has helped generate interest in both subjects.”

Teaching the Holocaust: Best practice principles

  • Make it factually correct: The novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is sometimes used as a tool to teach the Holocaust in English and history. However, the story is fiction, not fact; nor is it based on a true story. The book contains historical inaccuracies and stereotypes making it unsuitable to use as a basis on which to teach the Holocaust.
  • Make it human: The victims of the Holocaust were real, ordinary people – families with children who never considered themselves different.
  • Make it age-appropriate: By following individual stories, younger children can learn about the Holocaust without being traumatised by explicit material. Older students can consider wider issues such as the role of Nazi propaganda.

A survivor’s story: Arek Hersh

Arek Hersh would have been in year 7 when he was taken to the first of three concentration camps he survived.

Now a published author and accomplished speaker, he is passionate that the Holocaust be taught effectively and regularly visits schools and universities to talk about his experiences, even revealing his prisoner number tattooed on his arm in Auschwitz. There he lost his name and became a number as the ultimate symbol of dehumanisation.

Arek was born in Poland, one of five children whose father was a bootmaker for the Polish army. His childhood was happy– he recalls skating on icy rivers in winter and performing as a soloist with a choir.

Aged 10, however, as Hitler’s power increased, Arek’s life began to change. His Jewish school closed and German soldiers took away men and older boys for work.

One fateful night, the authorities came for Arek’s father. He managed to escape so they tried to take his older brother – he too escaped so instead they took Arek – he was just 11 years old.

Incredibly, he survived not just this but also time in the notorious Łódź Ghetto where, alongside 160,000 others, Arek endured inhumane conditions and near starvation.

In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz. Stripped of his precious family photos and clothes, he was shaved and tattooed with a number, B-7608, his identity obliterated.

As the allies advanced and it became clear that Germany was losing the war and to hide evidence of their crimes against humanity, surviving prisoners were evacuated by the Nazis on death marches. Stragglers were shot while others perished in freezing conditions of minus 25 degrees Celsius.

To stave off starvation, Arek ate grass and even his own shoe leather. Those who survived his particular death march from Auschwitz were taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp and eventually loaded onto open railway wagons for a month-long rail journey to Theresienstadt in what was then known as Czechoslovakia.

Of the 3,000 people who boarded the train, just 600 survived the journey and were liberated from Theresienstadt by the Soviet Army on May 8, 1945.

After a period of convalescence, Arek was among 732 orphaned children flown to the UK, known as “The Boys”, living first in Windermere then Liverpool and Manchester where they learned skills and received English lessons.

Arek learned the trade of an auto electrician and settled in the North of England. He was unable to speak about his experiences until 1995, when he wrote his book A Detail of History.

In 2009, he was awarded an MBE for voluntary service to Holocaust education. He is a member of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, one of their speakers and features in the Through Our Eyes exhibition at the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre

  • Emma King is director of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield.

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