Key players in a haunting tragedy

15th September 1995 at 01:00
Fifty years on, the lessons of the Holocaust still hold. But how should they be taught? Reva Klein looks to the ordinary people involved, boths victims and perpetrators.

The sombre speeches, the gut-wrenching archive footage, the personal testimonies in commemoration of the liberation of the concentration camps 50 years ago have come and gone. But for teachers, the issue cannot be dropped. Despite half a century's distance, the Holocaust continues to haunt. Since it's a requirement of history key stage 3, most teachers in this country have welcomed the free video of Schindler's List, distributed to every secondary school in the country by the Holocaust Educational Trust, as something like manna from heaven. It can easily fill, with a factual introduction, the three sessions that most teachers spend on the Holocaust. But is it enough? Is it the right way to deal with the subject?

Experts say no. At an international conference on Holocaust education organised recently by the Spiro Institute for the Study of Jewish History and Culture, educationists from around Europe spoke passionately of the important lessons that the Holocaust holds for young Europeans today.

Dienke Hondius, who runs the international department of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, warns of the dangers of over-simplifying a complex history, of presenting the events in purely factual terms of cause and effect, of looking at the genocide of the Jews without contextualising it in terms of then and now. "The Dutch approach is to remember the victims, teach the history and warn against racism, discrimination and violation of human rights. At the Anne Frank House, we've always tried to promote this perspective, on the request of Otto Frank, Anne's father."

Holland's approach mirrors the best practice in other parts of formerly occupied Europe. Similarly, Holland's history of avoidance of the subject holds parallels with Germany, Poland and France. "For the first 15 years after the war," explains Dienke, "there was silence from the survivors. They had been made unwelcome when they returned after the war and it was clear that, until 1973, people didn't want to hear about their persecution. It was part of the process of coming to terms with occupation, deportations and the genocide that had taken place."

In Holland now, there is a drive to "rehumanise" the key players - the victims, the perpetrators, the resistance fighters, the persecutors. By seeing that they were ordinary people who had different responses, young people will be able to make parallels with that world and the world that they inhabit. This signifies a major turning point.

Until recently, there has been a major division between those who have insisted on presenting the Holocaust as a unique event in history and those who have preferred to look at it as part of a terrible continuum of humanity's inhumanity. But in the past five or so years, with Iraq's systematic destruction of the Kurds, the Serbs' "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims in Bosnia and the tribal bloodbaths in Rwanda, more and more educationists have realised that the Holocaust was both unique in its scale and mechanisation - but is also part of a wider history, whose lessons we dare not teach.

Britain is still behind continental Europeans in its development of those lessons, but there are strong, enlightened role models. Shirley Murgraff is a pioneer of Holocaust education in this country, the author of the much-praised schools pack that accompanied the trail-blazing "Auschwitz" exhibition of the early 1980s and now a teacher trainer in Holocaust education. In her practice, she has developed a way of getting across the complexities and the immediacy of the Holocaust in ways that will have meaning for young people today.

"It's important from the outset to make it clear that the Holocaust was entirely intentional, that it was no accident at all. It happened in a world like ours today, in western Europe, full of civilised people. And there were a great many who stood by and let it happen."

One way to engage a class of 13 and 14-year-olds is, she suggests, to open with current affairs. "You can start off with something that interests them like football disasters, such as Heysel and Hillsborough, widening it gradually to other disasters, looking at the difference between intentionality and the accidental. The teacher can ask questions about the public response to such events - fear, sadness - and how survivors feel. The official response may be an enquiry or an invesitgation, sometimes set up by public demand."

From there, parallels are made with the different processes that led to the final destruction of the Jews during the war: the progressive stripping away of rights, the ghettoisation and, finally, the round-ups, deportations and camps, where mainly Jews and gypsies were starved, worked and gassed to death.

Shirley Murgraff, among others, believes that the subject should be taught across the curriculum for full impact and coherence. "It's possible to do this with the national curriculum. Every department has to make a detailed plan for the year, which makes co-ordination easier. Holocaust studies should be planned in a co-ordinated way between history, religious education and English. "

She throws cold water on at least one British favourite, too. "Why read The Diary of Anne Frank to top juniors or Year 7s? It's not appropriate. It's a sophisticated book written by a young teenager and means very little to younger children, with whom it's more important to be raising the issues than actually learning about the Holocaust. It makes better sense to teach 'Anne Frank' at key stage 3 when it's being covered in history."

From the interest that the 50th anniversary has generated and the many requests to the Spiro Institute for Holocaust survivors to speak at schools around the country, it appears that the subject is being given much attention and analysis. Says Shirley Murgraff: "If Europe had taken Holocaust education seriously from 1945 on, perhaps Bosnia wouldn't have happened. For 2,000 years, we've ignored anti-semitism, which is arguably the oldest form of racism in human history and arguably the only form of racism that has been universal over time and geographical location. Let us not repeat the mistakes. There is no issue more important than conquering racism for the future of humanity. "

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