`Holocaust denial in my eyes is a crime'

Teaching of topic still hindered by anti-Semitism, professor says

Teachers in some parts of the world are facing huge challenges when teaching young people about the Holocaust, encountering problems from extreme anti-Semitism to denial of the genocide, according to a leading Israeli academic.

Countries are keen to give prominence to the subject, but teachers on the ground are experiencing "huge difficulty teaching it in practice", said Zehavit Gross, professor of education at Bar-Ilan University's Churgin School of Education.

Professor Gross spoke as outrage erupted in the US over an 8th-grade assignment that asked students to explore whether the Holocaust was an actual event or "merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth".

The assignment, set by the Rialto Unified School District in California, drew condemnation from Jewish groups and its own school officials, who called it "horribly inappropriate". The district has apologised and said all 8th-graders will be sent on trips to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Professor Gross, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was "shocked" by the incident. "I read [about it] and could not believe my eyes," she told TES. "Holocaust denial in my eyes is a crime." The academic said that widespread problems surrounded teaching about the Holocaust in schools, with teachers having to deal with anti-Semitic and racist comments.

Together with Professor Doyle Stevick from the University of South Carolina, Professor Gross initiated and has overseen studies of Holocaust education in Australia, Austria, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Poland, Switzerland and the US, which have been published by Unesco. The academics will launch a book on the issue later this year.

Research in Sydney, Australia, cites a teacher whose pupils "drew swastikas on their desks and had posters of Hitler". They also made statements in class such as ``Hitler did the right thing'' and ``Hitler did not go far enough''.

Studies show that there are young people in Germany who "still admire" Hitler and the Nazis. This presented "major difficulties" for teaching Holocaust studies, Professor Gross said.

The contrast between the way in which European students viewed their continent as the cradle of Western culture and the brutality of the crimes committed there was a barrier to effective Holocaust education, she argued. "Educators in Europe are in a dilemma over how to reconcile these two antithetical memories," she said.

Teachers sometimes felt they should stop teaching about the Holocaust to avoid difficult situations, Professor Gross claimed, adding: "There is a need to train teachers to deal with surging waves of violence and racist remarks during mention of or reference to the Holocaust in non-Jewish schools."

She argued that the issue of "soft Holocaust denial" - relativising or decontextualising the Holocaust - was still a problem. Within German society there were also continuing issues over a tendency to talk about the Germans and the Nazis as "victims" and "perpetrators". This kind of discourse was "extremely dangerous", Professor Gross said.

The academic pointed to several solutions, including activities such as visiting memorial sites. And her research showed that Holocaust education was "more effective" if it took place within civic education rather than history classes, she said.

"We used to think that Holocaust education is mainly history education. But due to the racist reaction of the students I think that Holocaust education should be an integral part of civic education, because it enables [discussion of] actual issues like xenophobia and racism," she added.

Professor Gross' comments come just weeks before the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, a respected research centre, is due to release a study of Holocaust textbooks and curricula in 195 countries.

Alex Maws, head of education at the Holocaust Education Trust in the UK, said he was not aware of anti-Semitism among pupils being a big problem in the country, but he expressed concerns about schools having to squeeze Holocaust education into an already packed curriculum.

"Teachers do struggle to find time in their schemes of work to teach about the Holocaust in all its complexity," he said.

What else?

A collection of free resources to help you teach children about the Holocaust, including lesson plans, worksheets and assembly ideas.

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