Teaching Guide
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Teaching Guide

A guide to teaching the Holocaust

Prepare yourself to teach the Holocaust effectively

Zvi Civins, the Educational Director of the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, quoted that in a recent survey 13% of British children thought “Auschwitz” was a beer!

The good news, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is that:

“Most students demonstrate a high level of interest in studying this history precisely because the subject raises questions of fairness, justice, individual identity, peer pressure, conformity, indifference, and obedience—issues that adolescents confront in their daily lives. Students are also affected by and challenged to comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust; they are particularly struck by the fact that so many people allowed this or any genocide to occur by failing either to resist or to protest.”

So why teach the Holocaust?

Teaching a topic such as the Holocaust is possibly the most rewarding teaching and learning that can take place in your class room. The very nature of the event lends itself to drawing a range of emotions from students, and can help them grow as citizens. However, in many cases the Holocaust is taught inappropriately, inaccurately, and without suitable provision for the age of students – who at times can be presented with disturbing material.

The key is – don’t be afraid to tackle the Holocaust as part your teaching programme! It is an important human story that informs both the past and the present. However, it is vital that as teaching professionals we are aware of the nature of the subject material, our own limitations, and the care that needs to be taken in teaching it effectively to young people.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website states that as a result of effective teaching of the Holocaust, students should come to realise that:

  • Democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained, but need to be appreciated, nurtured, and protected;
  • Silence and indifference to the suffering of others, or to the infringement of civil rights in any society can—however unintentionally—perpetuate the problems; and
  • The Holocaust was not an accident in history—it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately mass murder to occur.

As educators we need to teach the what before we embark on the why or how. In order for students of any level to make sense of the Holocaust, they need a solid grounding in facts and accurate history. The best way to do this is through the evidence – use a variety of artefacts and primary sources to clearly show the facts of what happened, and to emphasise the human story.

Zvi Civins also recommends starting with at least one lesson on the Jews: What are Jews? Why were the Jews oppressed, and who else was oppressed? How do the Jews fit into broader European history?

Civins also emphasises the importance of students understanding key terms: Genocide, Holocaust and Anti-Semitism. Students must have a solid grounding in these words before they can effectively engage with the history.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Holocaust teaching

Yad Vashem has an excellent website, and essential reading for understanding the do’s and don’ts of Holocaust teaching.

Their key ideas in summary are:

Emphasise the humanity

Try at all times to give a human face to all involved: perpetrators/victims/ bystanders/rescuers

Modern history

Emphasise that the Holocaust took place in modern times and in modern societies

Jewish Youth

Try and teach students about the 'youth' in the Holocaust: who were the Jewish youth? What are the similarities and differences between them, and the youth of today?

'Choiceless choices'

Present the idea of 'choiceless choices' – Holocaust victims had many moral dilemmas or choices, which were not really 'choices' at all

The process of History

Focus on the process of how the Holocaust unfolded – not just the results

Language

The Holocaust had a special language, often seen through primary sources. Also take note of the “language” of the Final Solution

The return to life

The stories of survivors and the difficult transition to life after the Holocaust, especially in Israel

Perpetrators, Bystanders, Resisters, Rescuers - what separated them?

Resisters are seen to have a higher 'emotional intelligence'. What does this mean?

Teach safely

Teachers need to present the Holocaust in a safe, age-appropriate way.

Where to begin

The key to any good unit on the narrative of the Holocaust is to concentrate on its evolution, after putting all the groups involved into historical context (ie: 20th century European, and particularly German, history). During and at the end of the unit, the Holocaust lends itself to many appropriate assessment opportunities.

Zvi Civnis recommends a 4 stage sequence for teaching a narrative of the Holocaust:

  1. Identification
  2. Killings in the East
  3. Camps
  4. The Final Solution

This is just a broad outline – be aware that there can be a lot of overlap (eg, ghetto’s and camps existed simultaneously). Also, don’t forget that lots of people suffered – not just Jews. Be sure to avoid playing comparative suffering. Each story stands on its own.

The teaching ideas and unit plans in this website are based broadly on the philosophy and sequence offered above, starting with a solid foundation of historical context.

Further teaching guidelines

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website and the Holocaust Task Force site have an excellent set of guidelines to be aware of before you start teaching – highly recommended reading. It is vital to have a firm idea of your own philosophy behind why you are teaching the Holocaust. A thoughtful reading of these guidelines can help:

USHMM Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust

These International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Holocaust Task Force guidelines provide support and direction to educators in the field of Holocaust education.

Why Teach About the Holocaust

What to Teach About the Holocaust

How to Teach About the Holocaust

Guidelines for Study Trips to Holocaust-Related Authentic and Non-Authentic Sites

Revised Guidelines on Visiting Holocaust-Related Sites

Preparing Holocaust Memorial Days: Suggestions for Educators

 

Read next: The Holocaust and the NZ curriculum

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