"Safely In and Safely Out"- advice on how to teach the Holocaust

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    Karenza Passmore
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    Recently I was privileged to take part in the Council of Christians and Jews Seminar Tour to Jerusalem in Israel. Our 10 day programme only scratched the surface of what could have been experienced and learned. I could cite with enthusiasm any of the sessions we attended but, as a teacher, one in particular stood out for me.

    Shulamit Imber is the Educational Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. A passionate holocaust educator, Shulamit offered three principles for teaching the holocaust to children. Each principle is worth sharing and, taken as a whole, they give a powerful pedagogy for UK teachers to consider. Shulamit supports teachers from all disciplines but here I have tried to make her recommendations specific to an RE context.

    Principle 1: teachers need to offer a picture of Jewish life and communities prior to the Holocaust before they tackle the event itself. This is best done through the stories of Jewish young people. Many played football, enjoyed music, belonged to Jewish youth organisations, went to the synagogue, prayed, studied and were motivated to make the world a better place. They lived in another period of history but pre-1933 Jewish children shared many of the aspirations and interests of our young people today. Without an understanding of this context how can we demonstrate what was taken from the Jews and destroyed?

    Principle 2: it is important to give the victims of the Holocaust an identity without focusing on the Nazi narrative or by exposing our students to undue trauma. We know that in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1942 nearly 500,000 Jews were imprisoned. One third of the population of the city was crammed into less than 3% of the housing. Living in appalling conditions, on a maximum of 184 calories a day, 100,000 individuals died from sickness, starvation and depression. These are the facts of oppression but incredibly, 400,000 Jewish people survived under these conditions. In the face of such an attack on their humanity how did these Jewish people respond? How did they continue to find meaning in their lives? Was faith a factor? Was God absent or present for them?

    We can explore these questions only by exploring the real life stories of those affected and Yad Vashem has testimony to share. What does a Jewish doctor do in the Warsaw Ghetto when vital medical supplies run too low to enable him to save all of his patients? How does he choose who should live or die? Who does he turn to for help? What does he do when the dilemma is constant and the “choices choiceless”? Rare testimony can help us rebuild the past from the inside. This approach does not ignore or underestimate the suffering or the cruelty. Nor does it assume a happy ending – almost all of the people who survived the Ghetto were murdered – but it does shift attention back to the victims rather than the perpetrators. It gives them back their voice and their humanity.

    In exploring the Holocaust through the eyes of the victims, Shulamit offered a qualifying condition: these dilemmas should be only be offered to our students as an exercise in empathy, not judgement. They are not exploring what the victims could or should have done – to ask our autonomous, free students to role play scenarios in search of solutions or in order to make moral judgements is completely inappropriate.  No, these dilemmas are tools to engender empathy with the Jewish individuals who continued to try to act as intellectual, moral and spiritual beings in a world of chaos. They found ways of being resilient human beings even when there were no humane solutions.

    Principle 3: the story should not end with destruction. Most Jews are murdered but some survived. How did these Jews return to life after liberation? In a world where entire communities had been destroyed, where most survivors could only find absence, isolation and loss, how did the the survivors struggle on? How did their faith challenge or sustain them? Post-Auschwitz, communal and spiritual life was initiated once more: what did it look like? Do our students know how the Jewish story continues?

    Our time at Yad Vashem made it abundantly clear that education about the Holocaust is naturally interdisciplinary and unavoidably limited and complex. But that does not mean that it is impossible to do well. Age appropriate resources and the building of empathy mean that we can explore the Holocaust with integrity and sensitivity. We can, and will, honour the victims by telling their individual stories, by giving them a voice, a place and a name. By looking at their resilience during a time of horror we can encourage our students to examine their own values, faith, resilience and humanity.

    If you are not sure how to teach your Holocaust unit, or would like to review the one that you have, ask yourself: when you have taught what you intend to teach what picture will your students have of the Jewish people, of their faith, of the Holocaust ? If it is one that leaves victims depersonalised, dehumanised, that focuses on the perpetrators or which traumatises our students please think again. Speaking personally I am convinced by Shulamit’s pedagogy: we were subjected to it over our 10 days and whilst it was challenging we came out with greater empathy and a commitment to take our learning further.  The Jewish people were plunged into a world of chaos, a world where most would perish but the Nazi plan ultimately failed.  We need to face the horror but not remain within it. We need to take our students into the Holocaust but not to leave them there: we have a responsibility to get them “safely in and safely out” and walk with the Jewish people into their future.

    This article was published in REtoday, Summer 2014 Vol 31 No. 3, http://www.retoday.org.uk/

    Karenza Passmore is Director of the Religious Resources Centre. www.resourcescentreonline.co.uk

    As the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning for future generations.
    http://www.yadvashem.org

    For more information on the Council of Christians and Jews visit: http://www.ccj.org.uk

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