Some 80 years ago the most catastrophic mass atrocity in modern history took place. Centuries of Jewish life and culture in Europe was almost completely wiped out in just 4 years. Fuelled with antisemitic ideology the Nazis set out to hunt down, humiliate, persecute, and ultimately murder every Jewish man, woman and child on the continent.
It was a heinous crime for which relatively few were ever held to account.
The fact that Nazi perpetrators were willingly assisted by ordinary local people is a sobering but critical factor to confront and comprehend. Some colluded through profiteering from Jewish property left behind after the Jewish owners were forcibly deported; others betrayed their Jewish friends and neighbours by handing them over to the authorities; still more were passive functionaries in the supply chain required to carry out mass murder on this scale. And then of course there were those “normal people” who actively and zealously participated in the acts of genocide themselves.
What would a young person’s education amount to if does not confront this appalling truth?
Learning about the Holocaust in this way – coming to understand it as a human act – can be profoundly disturbing but with careful handling and expert teaching, students at Key stage 3 can comprehend its hardest realities. From that informed place they can draw meaning and understanding that can ultimately guide their futures.
The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education has developed a new, research-informed modular programme of professional development, ‘What was the Holocaust, how do I teach it and why does it matter?’ that enables teachers to support students as they deal with powerful and sometimes disorientating feelings that can bubble up when faced with the reality of the Holocaust. It helps them to help their students to express themselves and to develop their emotional literacy.
The course also explore how and why the Holocaust happened through detailed historical study using documents, photographs, diary entries, personal testimony and uses advance teaching strategies to explain complexity and draw out profound learning. Central to this is an exploration of the rare but nonetheless inspirational actions of individuals who risked everything to help those who faced almost certain death.
Through studying the Holocaust students can better identify the warning signs of future atrocities and understand what sort of interventions might be available to prevent them. Indeed, in its broadest terms it can help them examine the world with greater insight.
This, together with compelling evidence of a dangerous rise in antisemitic incidents and other forms racism today, only lead us to conclude that teaching about the Holocaust must gain even greater urgency as an educational imperative.
Ruth-Anne Lenga, Associate Professor (Teaching) and Centre’s Programme Director.