Remembering the past


History teacher Caroline West was unable to predict the impact that the Holocaust Educational Trust's annual training course at Yad Vashem in Israel would have on her and her teaching.

How do you tackle the most horrific event in history during your early years as a teacher? How is it possible to teach the historical facts of the Holocaust without your students getting “Holocaust fatigue”? How can a teacher choose which events to cover and which to leave out of their lessons on the Holocaust? These are but a few of the questions I asked myself during my NQT year.

Seeking both practical classroom advice and to expand my knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, I enrolled in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s annual teacher training course at Yad Vashem in Israel. I could not have predicted the impact the course had on me.

I was struck by the calibre and range of lecturers. We learned about the development of the Final Solution from Professor Yehuda Bauer and about efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice from Dr Efraim Zuroff, to name just two of the eminent scholars we encountered. 

It was impossible not to feel the passion of each speaker and their drive to expand our knowledge so that we can responsibly teach the Holocaust within our classrooms and beyond. 

Our group was incredibly moved when Esther Schlesinger, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, spoke to us about her experiences during the Holocaust. What became clear to me is the importance of survivor testimony in the classroom and any study of the Holocaust. 

Esther spoke of events that she could remember but never of events that she could not. It is our responsibility to teach the facts, widen our students’ knowledge but never to distort the reality of what happened during this period in time. 

Survivor testimony can also help illuminate our understanding of perpetrators and bystanders, and it can also be used to explore the utility of sources. Soon, there will be no survivors left to talk about their experiences of the Holocaust but their memories will live on through their written and video testimony in the classroom.

A question that I will never have to ask myself again is “how do I stop students getting Holocaust fatigue?”. After returning from Yad Vashem I feel embarrassed that this question ever crossed my mind. 

A term could easily be spent by students exploring questions such as “how was it humanly possible?” and “who were the victims of the Holocaust?”. I do not have the challenge of being restrained by time. I would, however, urge colleagues who are to structure their lessons around the story of an individual to use testimony, paintings and appropriate photographs.

I cannot write about my experience in Israel without spending some time speaking about Yad Vashem itself. Established in 1953 by the State of Israel, Yad Vashem collects archival materials, teaches about the Holocaust and includes many unique memorials. The Holocaust History Museum is by far the most all-encompassing museum I have ever had the opportunity to step foot in. Spending in total one day looking at original artefacts, testimonies and photographs was merely scratching the surface.

The memorials on site at Yad Vashem and the History Museum truly embodied the purpose of Yad Vashem; to give the victims of the Holocaust a name. It is also our responsibility as educators to rehumanise those who suffered. Teachers in our group spoke about their own experiences of Holocaust education, using film or photographs of dead bodies.

We learnt that we should not be showing our students such footage, but rather giving victims a name through testimony and learning about life before and after the Holocaust.

The Hall of Names had a profound effect on me and others in the group. Situated at the end of the museum, it represents an ongoing effort to collect the names and personal details of millions of victims. Black files line a dome-shaped room, with space reserved for names of victims which have not yet been submitted. It not only served as a reminder that research into the Holocaust will continue for years to come but also of the importance of presenting information in an appropriate way within the classroom. 

The Hall of Names will be the closest I will ever come to understanding the scale of the Holocaust and I cannot hope to achieve this in a classroom. Neither is it my job to prescribe the responses and emotions that my students should feel.

I cannot take my students to Yad Vashem. However, I can invite a survivor into my classroom and let students ask questions I could never hope to answer. Furthermore, I can responsibly collect testimony, paintings and photographs from the Holocaust Educational Trust’s resources and from Yad Vashem to create a historically accurate and engaging scheme of work.

This experience has not only widened my knowledge of the Holocaust through hearing world-renowned historians and authors but has taught me the true responsibility we hold as educators. 

The Holocaust was a unique event in history but that does not mean that it may never happen again. Underneath our group photograph given to us by Yad Vashem was the phrase “Remembering the Past, Shaping the Future”. 

This phrase encapsulates the lessons I have learnt over the course of the 10 days in Israel and the lessons I will take with me into the classroom.

  • Caroline West is a history teacher at the Hermitage Academy in Durham.

Further information

CAPTION: Teachers gather at a Yad Vashem memorial dedicated to the communities across Europe destroyed by the Holocaust


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