Explaining genocide

4th July 1997 at 01:00
The Holocaust was an industrialised crime perpetrated by a 'civilised', highly developed society. The immensity of the horror has rendered the subject almost inexplicable in the eyes of many. Reva Klein applauds an extraordinary pack that attempts to teach the unteachable

A blonde girl with bobbed hair peers at the camera with a bemused look on her face. She is sitting in a classroom of boys and girls aged 11 or 12, all watching one of their classmates writing on the blackboard.

But this girl and her classmates aren't the ordinary pupils that they seem to be. They are social pariahs who have been kicked out of their schools and thrown together in a "special" school. Their fathers have lost their jobs and their businesses; their mothers are regularly spat at and ridiculed in the street. These people have been stripped of their civil rights and officially declared sub-human.

The children are German Jews. The picture was taken in the mid-1930s, soon after the Nuremberg Race Laws were enacted by ostensibly civilised people, who played chess and read Goethe and at weekends would have family picnics in the woods.

The laws meant that carefree, bicycle-riding, football-playing children suddenly became outcasts, excluded from a society in which they had been active participants. It was one of the first steps towards their annihilation, along with the majority of Europe's Jews.

The classroom scene is one of the opening shots of an extraordinary video entitled Lessons of the Holocaust, part of a new schools pack bearing the same name. Developed by the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Spiro Institute, a charity devoted to Jewish history and culture, it is probably the most comprehensive package of resources on the Holocaust ever produced for schools in Britain.

For decades, historians and educationists have grappled with the difficulties of teaching the history of the Holocaust to schoolchildren. How do you make an almost unimaginable horror seem real? Is it possible to present events of more than 50 years ago in a way that has resonances for young people today?

The publication of Lessons of the Holocaust, which comes in the United Nations Year Against Racism, is one of the few resources produced this year that brings together everything needed to teach what has been, for many, the unteachable.

Exploring racism is always difficult. Explaining the Holocaust is particularly hard, because educationists are aware of the fine line between presenting it as a unique event and an historical phenomenon with universal resonances and implications. The pack, while concentrating on the Jewish experience of racism from early times to 1945, manages to hold a mirror up to the contemporary world and its prejudices and stereotypes.

The pack is made up of a video, an annotated text by Professor Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a wide selection of resources and lesson plans. It sheds light on who the Jews of Europe were, how German anti-Semitism developed, the crisis in Germany after the First World War, Nazi ideology and practice, and the response of the rest of the world to the progressive destruction of Jews' rights and, eventually, lives.

Most challenging for teachers will be the cuttings from British newspapers of the period. The Times of July 16, 1938, for instance, ran several articles on the International Refugee Conference at Evian. Particularly noteworthy is the leader, which argues for acceptance of the expulsion of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, as is the paper's contempt for Jewish and Zionist demands that British immigration quotas in Palestine be lifted to save the lives of refugees. They weren't, and boat loads of Jews were sent back to Europe to their deaths. Of all the nations represented at Evian, only Holland, Denmark and the Dominican Republic were prepared to take in a specific number of refugees.

Other replica documents include maps, rescuers' case studies, resistance testimonies and excerpts from novels and poems. Flashcards have a picture on one side and questions for the teacher to ask on the other.

The pack is designed to meet the national curriculum requirements for key stages 3 and 4 as well as A-level and undergraduate courses. The film, written by Professor Wistrich and produced by award-winning documentary film-maker Rex Bloomstein, comes in either an uninterrupted version or in ten five-minute sections, which fit into lesson plans.

Lessons of the Holocaust is an accessible resource that, as the lesson plans show, can be used across the curriculum. There are suggestions for activities and discussions in religious studies, geography and literature, ranging from George Eliot's Daniel Deronda to Primo Levi's If This Is a Man.

As Trudy Gold, co-ordinator of the pack and education director at the Spiro Institute, says: "We've shown the Holocaust to be a modern, industrialised crime perpetrated by a civilised, highly developed society. And while we've taken the Jewish experience, the Holocaust is essentially about what's possible and applicable to any people, anywhere."

* see "my best lesson", page 15


* Lessons of the Holocaust is available from The Holocaust Educational Trust priced Pounds 25 (plus Pounds 4 pp) Tel: 0171 222 6822

* Survivors of the Holocaust is a schools pack focusing on the experiences of survivors who escaped to the UK. Published by and available from Jewish Care in conjunction with the Holocaust Survivors Centre. Tel: 0181 458 3282

* The Library of Holocaust Testimonies is a series of books containing personal accounts of survivors who fled Europe as children. Published by Vallentine Mitchell.

Tel: 0181 599 8866

* From Prejudice to Genocide - Learning about the Holocaust by Carrie Supple is published by Trentham Books. Written for GCSE-level students, it looks at the history of anti-Semitism; the Armenian genocide of 1915; the impact of Nazism on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and people with disabilities; resistance to the Holocaust, collaboration, and the stories of four survivors.

* Where Shall We Go? A video of four survivors' testimonies, presented through questions asked by young people in Tyneside. Available from Swingbridge Video, Norden House, 41 Stowell St, Newcastle NE1 4YB * The Holocaust - The Jewish Tragedy by Martin Gilbert is published by FontanaCollins. The definitive book on the Holocaust. For teachers' background * Facing History and Ourselves - the Holocaust and Human Behaviour by Margot Stern Strom and W Parsons is an acclaimed schools pack on prejudice and racism. Available from FHAO, 26 Kennard Rd, Brookline, Ma. 02146, USA

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