Holocaust as history

11th March 2005 at 00:00
While studying the Holocaust will always involve moral issues it is important that students are genuinely taught its history, says Lucy Russell

Research commissioned for Laurence Rees's recent television series Auschwitz: the Nazis and the 'Final Solution' revealed that 50 per cent of people had never heard of Auschwitz. Of the 50 per cent who had, 98 per cent wrongly believed that the camp was built to exterminate Jews.

Auschwitz was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners. The gas chambers and the "Final solution" to the "Jewish problem" came later.

The Holocaust has been part of the national curriculum for history since its introduction in 1991. In theory, future citizens should be more aware of the history of the Holocaust. But it is difficult for many history teachers to teach the Holocaust as history. More than half of the history teachers I spoke to during my own research emphasised the importance of social and moral lessons in preference to teaching the history of the Holocaust.

I interviewed 10 history teachers in schools in south-east Kent. "Hank", a teacher from an all-girls' grammar school, admitted: "I probably spend three or four lessons on the Holocaust. The first gives some background and is historical, but the others are from a moral point of view."

"Marie", who taught in a secondary modern school, told me she only had two lessons to teach the Holocaust and so had just said "this happened". She shows a part of the film Schindler's List that depicts people going into gas chambers, but turns the volume down and instead played Enrique Iglesias's song "Hero" very loudly.

"I tell pupils just to listen to the words and not to sing along and it's actually quite powerful sort of stuff. It gets me every time. I can't watch it."

This teacher, aware of the history of the Holocaust, was moved to reflect on the plight of the Jews at Auschwitz. However, she had not even told her pupils the name of the camp. The Holocaust took place in Europe, within living memory; it is historically and geographically close. It is not surprising that history teachers find it difficult to isolate the history of the Holocaust from emotional and moral considerations. However, "Anne", who teaches at a technology college, commented that we don't teach history from a social and moral perspective for any other topic, "and we shouldn't be teaching it that way for the topic of the Holocaust".

By learning about the history of the Holocaust it is likely pupils will be moved to ask social and moral questions about what happened, and reflect on their own attitudes. It is important to make some time for this within history lessons. Confronted with the horror of the Holocaust, pupils may need time to discuss their thoughts and feelings.

However, the history needs to come first, not only so that those troubling statistics might be improved on in a future poll, but also because without the historical awareness of the Holocaust, pupils will not know what they are being asked to remember and reflect on. When "Marie" was asked if her pupils were affected in the same way as she was by the emotive activity she had described, she replied: "No, no. Most of them are more interested in the song."

* More about Lucy Russell's research can be read in "The Problems of Teaching the Holocaust in the History Classroom". Forum, 46 (3) 2004 www.triangle.co.ukfor

* www.bbc.co.ukhistorywargenocide

* Auschwitz: the Nazis 'The Final Solution', By Laurence Rees BBC Books pound;20 Lucy Russell recently completed her PhD thesis "Teaching the Holocaust in history: policy and classroom perspectives" at Goldsmiths College, where she is a visiting tutor Email: l.russell@gold.ac.uk

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