How to mark Holocaust Memorial Day justly and sensitively

Our work to teach the Holocaust shows we can do justice to this dark chapter of history while being sensitive to students’ emotional needs, writes Ranvir Lally

Our work to teach the Holocaust shows we can do justice to this dark chapter of history while being sensitive to students’ emotional needs, writes Ranvir Lally

23 Jan 2023, 5:00

As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, you may be thinking about how to convey this difficult topic to your students. As teachers, it can be challenging to bring meaning to the unimaginable statistic of six million deaths and avoid dehumanising the lives that make up this figure. Equally, we must be sensitive to students’ emotional needs as we do justice to this dark chapter in history.

In 2018 CORE Education Trust launched Echo Eternal, an award-winning Holocaust education programme that partners schools with survivors of the Holocaust. Survivors share their personal testimonies to engage the students, who then devise creative responses, ‘echoes’, that pay tribute to these lived experiences and teach young people to learn from history’s mistakes.

Part of the ongoing work of that programme is professional development. We want every one of our teachers to feel confident about marking this important day and talking to students about its implications. To that end, we recently organised a CPD event with one of our creative partners. Here are some our key take-aways from that training:

Use a clear and consistent definition

The Holocaust should not be open to interpretation, and using ambiguous language can inadvertently perpetuate myths. Terminology such as ‘final solution’ perpetuates the persecutors’ language. Other words like ‘camps’ can be ambiguous, because there were death camps, labour camps, transit camps. Be precise and encourage your students to do the same.

Make it real

It is hard to get your head around the statistic of six million deaths, but this is at the heart of properly understanding the Holocaust. Try to find counterpoints that will help make the number more tangible for your students. For example, we tell ours that it is about six times the population of our home city of Birmingham. Or that if every person who died in the Holocaust had an hour to tell their story, it would take over 684 years to hear everyone speak.

It’s not fair

The injustice of the Holocaust can be hard to convey. Highly Sprung Performance, who ran our CPD event, started out by inviting us to understand that there may be times within the session when fairness was challenged.

To provoke feelings of undue discrimination, they used a simple game. We split into two arbitrarily selected groups. The first had the objective of getting from one side of the room to the other. The second, to create obstacles in their way. The varying responses were interesting to witness. Some ‘crossers’ wanted clear rules, and became frustrated or defeated. Others tried to give bribes, which some of the ‘blockers’ actually accepted! Though light-hearted, the exercise was a good way to bring us closer to understanding how the power dynamics of the time may have been experienced.

Connect to the individuals

It is important to see the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust as individuals – mothers, sons, friends – to bring a greater connection with their experiences. We do this in Echo Eternal by studying survivor testimony. We explore their personal accounts and encourage students to identify and capture through physical image-making the key words that resonate with them.

We also benefit from the input of professional artists who help our students translate the words into a creative response, including live performance, art and film. Through this, students find new empathy for the survivors whose experiences they are embodying. While you may not have this resource in your school, producing a creative response alone will have real impact.

Make the most of resources

From guidelines to lesson plans and primary resources, we make the most of the wealth of materials available to us. There are many resources available online, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

In my experience, teaching the Holocaust has been poignant, emotional and life-affirming. It’s an honour to come to know the testimonies of the survivors, and humbling to witness our students’ responses and their growing appreciation of the key values of tolerance, dignity, courage and respect.

This Holocaust memorial day, there’s every reason for your school to experience that too.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *