How to help students grasp the complexity of the Holocaust

holocaust concentration camp

Two years ago, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we released the disturbing results of the Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study in Canada. 

The study exposed critical gaps in Holocaust awareness and knowledge among Canadian adults. Among the findings we learned that 62 per cent of millennials did not know basic facts surrounding this historic event: that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Fewer than half of Canadians surveyed could identify Poland as a country in which the Holocaust occurred and almost one-third of those surveyed mistakenly believed that Canada had an open-border immigration policy during the war years. 

On a positive note, our survey showed that the more Canadians know about the Holocaust, the less likely they are to think that neo-Nazi beliefs and actions are acceptable. Canadians felt education was key to fighting discrimination, with 82 percent of Canadian adults believing all students should learn about the Holocaust in school.

There are many dedicated educators across the country who are taking on the enormous task of teaching today’s youth about the Holocaust. 

In a recent follow-up survey that we did with teachers across Canada, we learned that the primary learning objectives when teaching about the Holocaust are developing social and moral values and reinforcing principles of human rights and genocide prevention. 

Whether through time constraints, lack of knowledge or wanting to provide the information in a way that students can relate to, teachers are jumping to the lessons of the Holocaust before explaining what the Holocaust was. 

Key lessons we learn from the Holocaust are the importance of a proper democracy, how choices matter and not to be a bystander. Lessons about the Holocaust set the event firmly in its historical context and teach about the events that led to the Holocaust. 

The Holocaust must be understood and taught as an historical event – one with political, geographical and sociological contexts. When we only discuss the Holocaust through the lessons that it can teach us, we obscure the Holocaust as an event, turning it into a metaphor.

It is a mistake to draw lines from actions taken by rescuers in the past to choices students face in their own lives in 2021. The Holocaust was not an extreme form of bullying, it was a genocide, and likening it to bullying results in a trivialization of the Holocaust. Standing up to bullies is an important lesson for students, but it is not a lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust.

Encouraging students to reflect and create meaning on the lessons of the Holocaust is appropriate after a thorough study of the history and events surrounding the Holocaust. 

Students need the time and space to reflect on the history of the Holocaust in order to make it meaningful in their own lives. By mistakenly oversimplifying the past without any time for actual knowledge of the Holocaust, this event is stripped of its content and watered down to sound bites and “teachable moments”. Students are prevented from developing their own nuanced understanding of the topic. Instead of teaching moral lessons, students should be asked to think about how learning about this topic has affected their own understanding of the past and of human behaviour in times of crisis. 

In our recent survey, 63 per cent of teachers said they were not confident teaching the material. It is critical that teachers receive sufficient training, strategies and resources so that they have an appropriate comfort level and knowledge in teaching this sensitive material. 

By surveying teachers, we learned that often the first place teachers go to prepare to teach a lesson on the Holocaust is the Internet. There are phenomenal resources that exist online—not just the interactive space for learning survivor stories on RE:COLLECTION—but the basics of how and what to teach when starting this endeavour. 

Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Centre, Montreal Holocaust Museum and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre all have resources on how to begin this lesson of study. The IHRA education working group produced a document that has recommendations for teaching and learning about the Holocaust. These guidelines are the basis of a national panel we will be holding with our partners at the Neuberger and Facing History and Ourselves on Feb. 3.

There are best practices in Holocaust education, including the concept that “one-shot events” are much less effective than well-structured units of longer duration. Teachers are frequently under pressure to complete a textbook or cover a span of history in the course of the year. At the same time, effective Holocaust curricula allow teachers to integrate the ideas into their lesson plans throughout the year, rather than only touching on the topic briefly at the school year’s end, when the lessons concern the Second World War.

In presenting the Holocaust, teachers must attend to historical accuracy and complexity, and respect the historical figures under study – and make connections that personally reach students. 

The Holocaust cannot be understood as an isolated event, and must be presented within a larger, more complex, historical context. Students must appreciate what came before 1938 and was lost as well as subsequent events. This approach includes presenting a complex view of the perpetrators and their context as well.

Effective Holocaust education seeks to foster students’ empathy with those who experienced the events. Student face difficulties in fully appreciating the circumstances of the Holocaust and focusing on the experiences of individuals can be a powerful means to foster the empathy desired.

We must begin with the story of Jewish life before we can draw lessons from the death of the Jews. The victims of the Holocaust deserve respect and that is not possible when the image students have of the Jews of Europe is that of a downtrodden person being driven into a cattle car, rather than a culturally rich community that faced genocide. If we meet the Jews as victims, we are pushing the perpetrators’ narrative. 

To be effective, a professional development structure for teachers must emphasize content as well as pedagogy, build the ongoing relationship with teachers over an extended period, include opportunities for demonstrations, modeling and coaching, and base professional development efforts within schools to maximize impact over the long term and across classes.

Jody Spiegel is the director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program at the Azrieli Foundation and incoming chair of the Education Working Group to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and member of the IHRA Canadian delegation.

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