Building better communities

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Joyce Miller describes a resource developed in Bradford that focuses on the Holocaust as a way of looking at racism and tackling community issues.

We must have been a strange sight when we arrived in the small Polish town of Bendzin early one morning in 1996. Our group of staff and students from West Midland universities and two elderly survivors of the Holocaust were on a study tour led by Stephen Smith, the founder and director of the Holocaust Centre, Beth Shalom. We had come to this town, only an hour's drive from Auschwitz, because Nathan Pivnik, one of the survivors, had been born and gone to school there. Now in his seventies, this was his first visit to the land of his birth and it was clearly a deeply emotional experience for him.

Within minutes of getting off the coach, we were surrounded by men, some drunk, despite the early hour. The mood became increasingly difficult and aggressive. One of the men exposed himself. Another started to prod Nathan in the chest, shouting at him: "Why have you lot come back? If you think you're getting your property back, you've another think coming! Why don't you get back to Auschwitz where you belong?' We moved on quickly, shaken by their anger and anti-Semitism.

It was a depressing tour of the town. There were no Jews remaining in Bendzin, despite the 25,000-strong community that had once flourished there. We found two memorials. The first was a poignant notice, identifying the site of the Jewish orphanage from which 250 children had been taken to their deaths. The other was a concrete cube, with a menorah on each side, marking the place where one of the town's synagogues had stood. And that was it. Quietly and without prompting, our students began to find small stones and place them on the cube. A Jewish act of respect for the dead, though none of them was Jewish.

It was time to go, but Nathan wanted to do one more thing - to visit the Jewish school where he had been educated. We advised him against it, but he insisted and led the way.

His school was a large red brick building and the voices of primary-aged children could be heard from outside. He dashed in before any of us could stop him. We waited 5, 10, 20 minutes in the bitterly cold wind.

Eventually, he reappeared, his face wreathed in smiles, "Come in! Come in! They want to meet you!"

We all piled into a classroom where the children stood up to welcome us, sang us a song and told us about their history project. They had been studying the Holocaust and the Jewish heritage of the town and they were delighted to have a "real" Jew and survivor to talk to.

We left that town with much lighter hearts than we would have believed possible. If ever I had needed evidence that Holocaust education is essential for young people growing up, wherever they might live, it struck me very forcibly that day.

Working to promote equality and cohesion in schools in Britain is no easy task, there is evidence of racism, including anti-Semitism, all around us, and increasing activity by right-wing organisations. In some areas it is, perhaps, even more necessary than others, and for those of us who work in the northern towns where "disturbances" occurred in 2001, our task is very important indeed.

The recommendations of the report about Bradford, by the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Lord Ouseley, included the need for the citizenship curriculum set out by the QCA to be enhanced so that these issues could be addressed directly.

Since then, we have worked on secondary citizenship and developed it in various ways. For example, we have added equality and cohesion to the attainment targets. We have also developed a number of study units, taking the QCA's exemplars and making them more relevant for our situation (

The most recent phase has been to develop a key stage 4 Holocaust pack, so students can build on the work they had done in KS3 history. Choosing the Holocaust as a focus provides us with two, perhaps slightly contradictory, opportunities.

By looking at the worst example of racism in human history - and the Holocaust is the logical consequence of racism - we remove it from the immediate and the local and enable students to look objectively at the fundamental concepts we want them to address, such as equality, human rights, stereotyping and racism. At the same time, anti-Semitism is an ever-present reality among some groups and the Holocaust is one of the ways in which that can be challenged.

The work we have done explores the Holocaust through four main themes: victims, perpetrators, bystanders and heroes. In each case we also ask students and teachers to look at the local and current significance: who are the victims of racism in Bradford today; why is there is a rise in neo-Nazism; what are right-wing groups saying, and what criticisms of them are being made; who is doing anything about racism today; which organisations and individuals are working to promote a more fair and just society; and, importantly, what is their vision of Bradford for the future?

There are choices to be made about our own community. Do we want apartheid, repatriation, assimilation or positive pluralism, in which communities appreciate each other's strengths and recognise their commonalities while respecting their differences?

We have, of course, tried to ensure that this pack can easily be used by teachers and therefore lesson plans are included with all the resources they will need to teach it.

We have included a variety of teaching strategies, and different learning styles are catered for. In collaboration with a local city learning centre we have provided a CD-Rom, include moving testimony from a survivor, with historical background, and all the curriculum materials needed for the study unit, so teachers can adapt them for their own circumstances.

It is often said in relation to the Holocaust, "never again", but the reality is that genocide is happening, again and again, across the world and the potential for racially motivated violence in our society should never be underestimated. There are no simple answers to any of this, but at least we have to try.

* The KS4 Holocaust pack, including CD-Rom, is available from the Interfaith Education Centre, Bradford, and costs pound;20.


Tel: 01274 731674 Joyce Miller is head of Diversity and Cohesion at Education Bradford

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