I was recently standing with a group of students from Suffolk on the railways lines at the arched entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, debating the question: “Why are we here?”
Some in the group focused on the word “here”, commenting on what we might learn specifically from Auschwitz. Others chose to respond to the “we” part of the question, sharing their views on why the Holocaust was relevant, in 2016, to them.
There are no right or wrong answers to questions like these, and the process of exploring them in your classroom can lead to real knowledge and understanding. However, I do believe there are right and wrong ways to teach about the Holocaust.
Get the facts right
First and foremost, teaching about the Holocaust must be grounded in historical facts. No classroom lesson – no matter how well intentioned – can engender critical thought about the meaning or implications of the Holocaust if it is not historically accurate.
However, research conducted by the UCL Institute of Education tells us that many teachers consider themselves to be self-taught when it comes to the Holocaust. Often, this means they have learned about it from popular culture rather than academic sources. As a result, their students can be unclear of some of the basic facts about Nazi ideology, where killings took place and who the perpetrators were.
Facts are important, but it is also important to encourage students to critically reflect. A key thing to remember is that the Holocaust was an entirely human event, which can be best understood through individual stories.
Fortunately, we have access to countless testimonies to help us understand what Jewish life and culture was like before the war; how Nazi persecution impacted on families and communities; and the complex moral decisions that led to people becoming perpetrators, bystanders or rescuers.
This abundance of testimony goes a long way towards correcting the historical myths and misconceptions that students may have picked up from popular works of fiction such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
“Humanising” the Holocaust through your teaching also means avoiding any use of shocking imagery of starving or dead people. The people depicted in these photographs would almost certainly never have consented to being photographed. Such images will serve only to traumatise young people and create a barrier to meaningful discussion.
Back on the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the students discussed the symbolism of a one-way track into a death camp. Then we turned in the opposite direction and looked at the tracks disappearing into the distance, reflecting for a moment on the numerous unanswerable questions about the all the people across Europe connected by these tracks, who in some way bore witness to the transports to Auschwitz.
When teaching about the Holocaust we must be comfortable with this sort of complexity and uncertainty. Our students’ learning is the result of grappling with difficult questions, but not necessarily always arriving at satisfying conclusions.
Alex Maws is a former teacher and current Head of Education at the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), a charity that delivers free CPD workshops and overseas visits. You can find out more at the HET website, where you can also download a free teaching pack: Exploring the Holocaust.