The wider picture

Lucy Russell offers advice on teaching the Holocaust

The Holocaust is a compulsory topic at key stage 3, yet it is not easy to teach. Apart from the emotional impact of the subject, there are complex issues of xenophobia and anti-semitism.

While teaching in south-east Kent I noticed anti-German feeling in the schools I worked in. It seemed to have several sources: the notion, largely drawn from war films and comic book stories, that all Germans are Nazis; the tension from football matches between England and Germany; media stories and pupils' own experiences of asylum seekers arriving at Dover, which made them suspicious of foreigners.

Before the Second World War, Berlin was home to a large Jewish population; now it houses the largest Jewish museum in Europe. The exhibition remembers those who died and makes clear the contribution they and their families made to Germany.

The Holocaust is presented as part of a continuum of two millennia of German-Jewish history. Daniel Libeskind's new building and its contents express this phase in history as cutting across Jewish life and culture.

In history pupils are able to see their society in context; to understand the past makes sense of the present. Teaching the Holocaust as a postscript to the Second World War is limited and potentially misleading. Hitler did not create anti-Semitism; he tapped into a deep-rooted prejudice which was common in Europe. Teaching pupils about the treatment of Jews in medieval England helps dispel the myth that anti-Semitism was an exclusively German phenomenon.

With perhaps only two or three 50-minute lessons to teach the Holocaust, how is it possible to encourage pupils to understand the wider picture? By looking at the wider picture ourselves. For example, when teaching Year 7 about medieval realms and the plague, why not do a set lesson or homework on how the Jews were blamed for this?

The concept of democracy is important to understanding Nazi Germany, since the Nazis used democracy to take power. So, if you are teaching Year 8 about democracy in the Civil War or electoral reform in Britain, why not bring attention to Weimar Germany? For those already in Year 9, pupils can volunteer what they think they know about the Holocaust, providing an opportunity to assess their knowledge and challenge preconceptions.

But are pupils aged 13 and 14 mature enough to learn about the Holocaust in a meaningful way? I began to question this when I had to field questions such as "Why couldn't the Jews convert to another religion?" or "Why didn't they dye their hair blonde?" It is worth liaising with the RE department to ensure pupils have an understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Through preparation and taking a wider view of co-operation and conflict in the curriculum, many of the difficulties involved in teaching the Holocaust are overcome.

Lucy Russell is researching a PhD, Teaching the Holocaust in History; policy and classroom perspectives, at Goldsmiths College, University of LondonEmail: l.russell@gold.ac.uk

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