The stories of real families bring home the horror of the Holocaust
The Holocaust appears on most curricula and is taught in most countries, but it can be quite a mechanical learning experience. We don't often stop to think about why we teach it, what the relevance of the Holocaust is today and what learning outcomes we expect for students.
The best place to start is personal experience. By talking about your own experience of persecution, or by inviting visitors into school who can talk about how they have suffered, you can draw students in and make them realise that racism - and anti-Semitism in particular - is all too prevalent even in contemporary society. First-hand accounts join the dots between understanding a historical event and the relevance of that event to an individual today.
I suggest two ways of teaching the subject within this context: one for 11- to 13-year-olds and one for 14- to 16-year-olds.
Although it is absolutely necessary to reveal the truth of what happened in the Holocaust, I tend to avoid the more graphic descriptions and photographs when working with younger children. I usually start with the final scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the book and film of which is often studied in early secondary school. This provides an excellent introduction to the topic. Next, I talk about how the victims ended up in concentration camps and encourage students to imagine what it would have been like to be a Jew - and especially a German Jew - in 1930s Germany.
For older students, I show the scene of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto from the film Schindler's List. An accompanying worksheet asks students to describe exactly what is happening and how they feel while watching it.
For both groups, I then talk about my own family: how my mother and grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany in 1934 and how my great- grandmother survived the camps but would never talk about her experiences. I show family photographs, including a picture of my great aunt and uncle, who perished in Auschwitz - an event that affected my grandmother for the rest of her life. This could be where you or a visitor to your school tells a first-hand story of persecution.
Next, we discuss whether the lessons of the Holocaust have actually been learned. I point out that if they had been, acts of genocide would not have taken place in, for example, Rwanda and Bosnia.
The personal angle is not confined to the middle section of the class. Giving a personal context to all its elements really brings home the message of the lesson, and makes the Holocaust seem relevant and more real for students.
It is so important not to mechanise Holocaust teaching, but to bring it into the realm of personal experience that students can identify with. In this way, the lesson becomes one that children are able to learn from, not simply acknowledge and then forget.
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