Remembering for the future

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

As the survivors of Nazi persecution become fewer in number, it is important that their suffering is not forgotten.

This year, on January 27, the UK officially remembers the victims of genocide for the first time with the introduction of the Holocaust Memorial Day.

Teaching about the Holocaust is compulsory only at secondary school but it is touched on in the juniors through history (Britain since the 1930s), literature (The Diary of Anne Frank), RE and PHSE (bullying and intolerance).

Holocaust Memorial Day provides an opportunity for primary teachers to raise these issues in class or assembly.

On these pages, Paula Cowan discusses how adult perception and reaction to the Holocaust is different from that experienced by children and how teachers should prepare and react when teaching junior pupils.

The story of Father Jacob, inspired by a Norwegian poem and re-told on pages 16 and 17, is an ideal way to introduce the concept of religious tolerance to younger children.

Above, these children, in regulation shirts, were among the survivors of Nazi persecution who were found by Soviet troops at Auschwitz, 56 years ago this month

During the Kosovo crisis, I overheard two children, from Years 1 and 2, having the following conversation as they walked along the corridor: "Did you see that on the telly last night? All those tired people walking for miles? It's pure evil."

"What's evil?" asked the younger of the two. "It's when someone says to you 'Just go away, you're not wanted here'. You know... it's a bit like Cruella De Vil."

Young children develop notions of fairness and unfairness in everyday situations. They are exposed to situations calling for moral judgments, not just in their own experience but through the media. By studying the Holocaust, teachers can help children to understand complex and disturbing events, and to formulate and express their own reactions to them.

Young pupils often acquire knowledge of the Holocaust through newspaper articles, television programmes and feature films. Common misconceptions include: "The Germans murdered all the Jews", "All the Germans murdered Jews" and "The Germans killed Jews and no one else". The first object of Holocaust studies is to replace myths and misunderstandings with facts.

Studying the Holocaust also provides an opportunity for pupils to talk about their own experiences of racism. One teacher remembers a lesson in which an Asian girl talked forthrightly about being subjected to other children's racism. The class recognised parallels between the way Jews, and certain other groups, had been treated in Nazi Germany and the way some children were treated by others. They saw that it was a less extreme form of the same behaviour. However, not all pupils will be as open as the young person mentioned above. Some Jewish children may dislike being put in the limelight, while others may be keen to inform the class of their history.

While the Holocaust is an effective vehicle for discussing racism in general, its study should include explanation and discussion of anti-Semitism as a distinctive form of racism. Holocaust themes that are suitable for the primary range include the Kindertransport, Anne Frank, human rights, and the ole of rescuers and helpers. The topic of camps may seem inappropriate for discussion in this age group, but sometimes it cannot be avoided. Pupils may already know about them, and will want to talk about them in class.

Pupils are often deeply moved by displays of their artwork on the Holocaust. It is important that teachers take time to select a good location for this work. It may be inappropriate to display certain images in an open area for everyone to see, as this may send the wrong messages about the Holocaust to younger pupils.

Such displays are not intended for parents and visitors to comment, "That's really lovely". Placing them in a more quiet, private area is far more meaningful. It also sets the Holocaust apart from other work and reflects its significance.

Role-playing activities help pupils understand and feel what it was like to be treated differently from others. This can be done in groups, with pupils improvising an everyday situation. Examples include a Jewish woman going into a shop that she has used for years to find that the shopkeeper will no longer serve her, and a Jewish factory worker, one of the best employees, being fired. These highlight the ways in which unfairness and inequality arose in Nazi Germany.

Teaching the Holocaust also pulls the class together, and provides opportunities for developing the positive values of tolerance, empathy, awareness of anti-racism, and an understanding that the individual can make a difference.

Paula Cowan is a primary teacher and author of two Holocaust teaching packs: The Holocaust Memorial Teaching Pack, distributed to all primary schools in Scotland, and Children's Rights and the Holocaust (East Renfrewshire Council 2000)


Avoid stereotypical descriptions. Jews came from many European countries, speaking different languages and identifying with the culture of their country as well as with the Jewish religion.

* Use appropriate testimony, but remember that the experiences of Jews varied. Don't forget that some Jews did resist the Nazis. Some Gentiles, too, risked their lives to save others.

* Where possible, involve parents and inform them about the work covered; parents can be tapped for homework which involves tracing pupils' ancestry.

* Be prepared for difficult questions. For example: were all Germans against the Jews? Why did the world stand by and watch the Holocaust happen? Whatwho are the Jews?

* Do not expect pupils to share your response to the Holocaust. They may be more inured to it than you would have thought, or be totally absorbed by something you have not considered before. One child may be upset by a particular aspect that the rest of the class easily accept.

* Take time over pupils' responses. Pupils' ideas in artwork or writing may not be what you had planned.

* Build a stock of Holocaust literature in your class andor school library.

* Supervise pupils when they are researching this area on the Internet. There are many suitable sites for this age group, but it is also easy to access sites which contain racist, anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying material.

* The Government's website, www., offers further information aimed mainly at teachers, and a Holocaust Memorial Day education pack has been sent out to all schools.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today