A lesson in tolerance;Curriculum

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Rex Bloomstein's graphic films and teaching materials on the Holocaust provide a grim warning about the perils of persecution. Raymond Ross reports

If you give people absolute power over others, terrible things will happen. The potential for cruelty is in all of us. Take a playground bully. Put him in a uniform in 15 years' time with absolute power and he will do terrible things. Ordinary people can."

The speaker, documentary film director Rex Bloomstein, is addressing an audience of school pupils, college students and teachers at Glasgow Film Theatre following a screening of his educational film Understanding the Holocaust.

One student from Stow College, Glasgow, suggests Bloomstein's film, containing some unique and graphic footage of the Final Solution, amounts to "propaganda" as it omits atrocities against non-Jews as well as resistance by them.

"I don't pretend others weren't victims, but my focus was the Jewish Holocaust," replies Bloomstein, who describes himself as a non-religious Jew. In response to the student's argument that he is trying to demonise ordinary German people of the time, he says: "The German nation was to a large extent compliant in the Holocaust. There were too few protests and too many ordinary Germans involved for it to be otherwise."

Bloomstein's film is part of an educational pack, Lessons of the Holocaust, which traces the roots of anti-Semitism back beyond the 19th century, when the phrase was coined, through the Reformation and the Crusades to the early Fathers of the Church.

"Upsetting as it may be for many Christians, the legacy of anti-Semitism began with the blaming of the Jews for Christ's death," says Bloomstein.

It is a subject he knows about. Among his many documentaries about figures as varied as Martin Luther King and Cliff Richard are many with Jewish themes, incuding Auschwitz and the Allies, The Longest Hatred and The Gathering, a film based on the world gathering of Holocaust victims.

Approached by the Spiro Institute for Jewish Education and the Holocaust Educational Trust, which wanted to use his film material, Bloomstein agreed instead to make a special teaching film, designed to be shown in parts, to suit a structured series of lessons, or in its entirety.

The result is Understanding the Holocaust, which comes with lesson plans, historical outlines and facsimiles of primary sources. These range from Nazi documents, rescuers' case studies and resistance testimonies, to newspaper articles and adapted resources - everything from Mein Kampf to Anne Frank's Diary, including literary extracts from Primo Levi and Czeslaw Milosz and studies of Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.

Bloomstein is deeply committed to Holocaust studies and warns his audience not to underestimate "the profound ignorance that exists even about the basic facts of the Second World War - and it happened only 60 years ago."

He does not wish the subject to be made compulsory, but says it has enormous relevance. "I'm passionate that teachers should be made aware of the subject and not be daunted by it," he says. "The pack is cross-curricular, aimed at religious education, history, modern studies and English, and it gives a great deal of help.

"I believe the past does inform the present and I see my job as motivating people," he says.

"You could say that the Holocaust is the most explored subject in history. It was so cataclysmic and profound, and the need to explore it may be part of the trauma."

Bloomstein believes the film and education pack can be used to explore racism in general - and in the context of the west of Scotland he includes sectarianism. With the recent murder of a 16-year-old Glasgow Celtic fan following the Cup Final in mind, he says: "We're talking about intolerance, and the sectarian divide symbolised by Rangers and Celtic is about that. Sectarianism is about fear and suspicion and not communicating. It's dangerous because people can manipulate it.

"The Holocaust is the supreme example of intolerance, of which religious intolerance is a part. It's crucial that we teach empathy and that people are not boxed in.

"If you destroy empathy with any group you are seeing them as sub-human and then you're on the slippery road to extreme violence. Friendly rivalry involves tolerance and reaching out."

"Lessons of the Holocaust", including video, pound;25 from BCM, Box 7892, London WC1N 3XX, tel: 0171 222 6822. Rex Bloomstein hopes to present a similar screening and discussion in Edinburgh in the autumn

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