CPD - Lessons in the life and times of persecution and survival

20th November 2009 at 00:00
How a 10-day course in Jerusalem put the teaching of the Holocaust into perspective

Anthea Hunter admits she steered clear of teaching the Holocaust. She wasn't confident tackling such a sensitive topic and she was unsure about how to deliver age-appropriate lessons.

"I felt frightened, because I knew how badly it could be taught," says the principal teacher of social subjects at Lochgilphead High in Argyll and Bute. "I wanted to have the best advice and know about the most up-to-date pedagogy to be able to bring something as harrowing and important as this topic to children in a meaningful way."

After attending a 10-day course in Israel about Holocaust education, Ms Hunter is no longer intimidated. Instead, she is looking forward to introducing the Holocaust as a cross-curricular topic, bringing in RMPS and English.

The course she attended was funded by the Holocaust Educational Trust and based at Yad Vashem, the International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem.

The 22 UK teachers taking part went to lectures and workshops led by some of the world's leading Holocaust scholars on subjects such as anti- Semitism, the universal lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, and efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.

Participants also learned about Jewish life before and after the war, heard personal testimony from survivor Esther Shlesinger, and in the workshops they examined exactly how they could teach the Holocaust within their own contexts and curricula.

Ms Hunter came back to Scotland reinvigorated. To be a learner again was refreshing, she said, and the course was "second to none".

"The most important lesson I learned was how vital the individual stories and testimonies from survivors are to teaching this effectively," she said.

Edward Sutherland (above, on the Mount of Olives), the other Scottish teacher on the course, agreed this was one of the most powerful aspects. "The individual stories help you get beyond the numbers, such as six million Jews murdered, which are so hard to comprehend," said the principal teacher of RMPS and citizenship at Belmont Academy in South Ayrshire.

Particularly poignant, he felt, were the accounts of life in the Jewish ghettos (see panel). "With the death camps, it is possible to disassociate yourself and tell yourself this was about evil people doing evil things. Whereas, with the ghettos, ordinary people failed to love their neighbours."

He has used these stories in lessons to discuss moral issues with pupils, for example: "People can examine their own feelings and morality and question themselves: am I the sort of person who stands by when an injustice is done? Do I get involved even if I think it may be hopeless? Would I still be willing to help, and would there be a value in doing that?"

Pope Pius XII, elected in March 1939, faced such moral questions, he learned at a lecture on the churches and the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer, a historian and Holocaust expert in Jerusalem, who criticised Pius's inaction. "Bauer conceded that the Pope speaking up might not have had a great effect," remembered Mr Sutherland. "However, he argued it could have saved his soul."

Around 80 per cent of Jews settled in Israel after the war. It was important that the continuing professional development course took place there, to bring all that they had learned up to date, said Ms Hunter. "You get a very, very strong impression that these are the survivors and they will not be victims again," she said. "The people have a real sense of purpose, a definiteness - a pushiness even. They have a future and they are going to hang on to it. You can almost touch it."

In the streets of Jerusalem, Mr Sutherland recalled seeing a group of Muslim women walk past young Jewish boys playing. As they strolled by, they laughed at their antics. The image stayed with him, because it highlighted the complexity of human relationships.

"This really was an image of people who on a day-to-day basis were quite comfortable living side by side," he said. "You broaden your mind when you travel and your stereotypes are challenged."

Both teachers say the course has been life-changing. Ms Hunter has even applied the skills she learned to different topics. Her S2 class is studying the slave trade, but they are also looking at what life in Africa was like before - and, of course, they are bringing the history to life with individuals' stories.

www.het.org.uk

DAWID'S MESSAGE

The Warsaw ghetto, where the Nazis forced up to 500,000 Jewish people to live, was established in 1940, cut off by walls and fences from the rest of society.

Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Jewish historian, organised a large group of people who met on a Saturday and worked under the name "Oneg Shabbat" to record life and conditions behind ghetto walls. The group included academics, artists, teachers, secretaries and young people like Dawid Gruber, who was 19 in 1942, when he left his final message.

About 83,000 people died from starvation in the ghetto and another 300,000 were deported to death camps. All the while, the Oneg Shabbat writers continued to record.

When the mass deportations began, Dawid helped bury his testimony and that of the other writers in one of 10 tin boxes in the cellar of Borochow School.

In 1946, much of the hidden archive was uncovered with the help of three survivors. In among it was Dawid Gruber's message:

"What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground . I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth to the world. So the world may know all . May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened . May history attest for us."

www.hmd.org.uk.

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