In everybody's interest

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Issues radiate from Holocaust studies that broaden all our learning, writes Lucy Russell

As I stood in front of a class of 13 to 14-year-olds teaching the Nuremberg Laws, I began to wonder what exactly I was trying to achieve. It was a difficult lesson. Pupils had not grasped what it meant to be Jewish. I was fielding questions such as: "Why didn't the Jews convert to another religion?"

The Holocaust is one of four named historical events that must be taught in key stage 3. In making 1914-1989 the focus for Year 9, I wonder if we don't imply that the events we teach about in this period are the most significant in history.

The Holocaust appears to have special status on the national curriculum for history. I am interested in how teachers respond to students' questions about other examples of genocide, and about South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

Teacher and students may discuss what it is that makes the Holocaust "stand alone" as a "unique" historical event as well as "stand out" as an example among others of appalling scales of genocide. Such reflection in the discipline of history is not uncommon, since the subject has long had to justify its place on the school curriculum.

Paul Salmons, co-ordinator of Holocaust education at the The Imperial War Museum, explains how the museum's cross-curricular scheme of work pack, Reflections, combines history with English.

"One role-play lesson looks at the limitations of survivors' language in trying to explain things beyond our everyday experience. The survivors have to say: 'I was cold in Birkenau, we didn't have enough to eat - we were hungry and thirsty' and those terms to us mean something because we've been cold and we've been hungry. But they don't come close to explaining what those people actually felt."

There are debates and controversies surrounding the term "Holocaust", as there are around the terms "Bystanders", "Perpetrators" and "Victims".

Another lesson from Reflections explores how both prisoners and guards came up with new slang terms and expressions. Why did they do that and what does it tell us about their social setting?

Paul Salmons says: "It's not just what our discipline can tell us about the Holocaust, it's what the Holocaust can tell us about our discipline." Just one example in support of history's integral role in a rich curriculum.

Reflections can be ordered from the Imperial War Museum, pound;30 plus pound;2.50 pamp;pTel: 01223 499345www.iwm.org.ukeducationholocaustindex.htmThe students' book Torn Apart - a guide to understanding the Holocaust pound;2.20 each plus pamp;p; pound;1.90 each if ordered in class sets Lucy Russell is researching a PhD, Teaching the Holocaust in History; policy and classroom perspectives, at Goldsmiths' College, London Email: l.russell@gold.ac.uk

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