Teaching about the Holocaust in religious education
This section offers guidance for teaching about the Holocaust in Religious Education (RE). This guidance has been produced in recognition of two of the findings from research conducted by the Holocaust Education Development Programme (HEDP).
Firstly, the research found that RE teachers make a significant contribution to teaching about the Holocaust; of the total respondents, 25% of teachers were delivering Holocaust Education in RE.
Secondly, the research found that very few teachers have received formal training in this area. What is presented below is not offered as a substitute for formal training, rather it is a set of key considerations that RE colleagues in schools are advised to take into account.
Know what your colleagues are doing
Teaching about the Holocaust is compulsory in the History curriculum, so your students are highly likely to be receiving some Holocaust Education here. They may also learn about the Holocaust in other subjects, such as Citizenship and English. By talking to your colleagues and finding out how learning about the Holocaust features in their subject areas, you can plan for your students to receive a coherent (rather than a confused or repetitive) Holocaust Education.
Know what you are teaching about
Ensure that you and your colleagues from other subject areas are working with a carefully considered and informed definition of the Holocaust. There is a general agreement among academic historians that the Holocaust is defined along the following lines:
Under the cover of the Second World War, for the sake of their "new order," the Nazis [and their collaborators] sought to destroy all the Jews of Europe. For the first time in history, industrial methods were used for the mass extermination of a whole people. Six million (Jews) were murdered, including 1,500,000 children. This event is called the Holocaust.
The Nazis (and their collaborators) enslaved and murdered millions of others as well. Gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, trade unionists, political opponents, prisoners of conscience, homosexuals, and others were killed in vast numbers. (Imperial War Museum, London, UK)
This definition is not an assertion that the other groups targeted by the Nazis should be sidelined. Rather it is an affirmation of the fact that the different groups were targeted with different ideological motives, and in different ways. Recognition of these differences offers us and our students a more detailed understanding of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. It should be noted that Holocaust Education is not limited to the events of the Holocaust but extends to other groups targeted by the Nazis. Holocaust Education may also extend to education about other genocides, though care should be taken to avoid superficial comparisons between these events (International Task Force (ITF), 2004).
Know why you are teaching about the Holocaust
Reflect carefully upon your aims for teaching about the Holocaust. Ideally, they should be both distinct from and complementary to aims in other subject areas. Possible aims for learning about the Holocaust within RE include enabling students to:
- reflect upon the theological and philosophical issues and questions raised by the events of the Holocaust
- understand the diversity of Jewish life and culture in Europe before the Holocaust
- understand the Christian history of antisemitism and its complex relationship to the Holocaust
- understand the roles played by both religious individuals and the churches, during the Holocaust
- explore the complex issues of morality that the Holocaust raises
- understand the impact of the Holocaust upon Jewish-Christian dialogue
Take care not to perpetuate common misunderstandings
Holocaust Education is often included within a scheme of learning on Judaism; this positioning can lead to the perpetuation of common misunderstandings of both Judaism and the Holocaust. In terms of the former, students could develop an understanding of Judaism in which the Holocaust is the defining feature. In terms of the latter, students could be left with the impression that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was religious as opposed to racial (Short, 2001).
By providing students with an opportunity to develop a wider knowledge and understanding of Judaism in advance of learning about the Holocaust, you can avoid presenting this event as the sole defining feature of the Jewish people (Short, 2001). A wider knowledge and understanding should include an understanding of the diverse nature of Jewish identity. You could consider delivering an initial scheme of learning on Judaism that excludes the Holocaust, and having a separate scheme of learning later on that focuses specifically on the Holocaust.
Use resources appropriately
In deciding what images to use and how to use them care should be taken; many of the images and film footage available was generated by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. It is possible that in using these we are in danger of perpetuating Nazi images of dehumanised victims.
There is a wealth of alternative resources available, such as images of Jewish life before the Holocaust, survivor testimonies, letters, artwork and diaries. Such resources can offer students a better understanding of the experiences of Jewish and other victims’ lives before, during and after the Holocaust. Furthermore, they are likely to be far more effective than dehumanised victim images in two ways. Firstly, they can contribute to the countering of any stereotypical or antisemitic views that students bring to the classroom. Secondly, students are likely to take the persecution of identifiable individuals more seriously than, for example, shocking images of anonymous piles of bodies.
The decision to use Nazi-generated images should be taken only after careful consideration of both what has been discussed above and the emotional impact that this may have on students in our care. There should be clear learning aims that do not include an attempt to shock students into taking the Holocaust seriously. An example of an appropriate aim is to encourage students to consider sources of evidence. If the decision to include Nazi-generated images is made, these should constitute only a minority of the materials used.
Acknowledge the complex nature of the Holocaust
Finally, it is important to be aware that Holocaust Education can produce more questions than answers. We should neither pretend that there are simple answers nor tell students what moral lessons they should take from studying the Holocaust. Rather we should provide students with the opportunity to reflect upon, and derive meanings from, the challenging philosophical, moral and human issues that the Holocaust raises. We should also be honest with students about the complexity of the Holocaust and about the fact that they are likely to find it emotionally and intellectually difficult to comprehend.
To find out about free Continuing Professional Development, for those teaching about the Holocaust in maintained secondary schools in England, go to www.hedp.org.uk.
References and suggestions for further reading
- HEDP (2009) Teaching about the Holocaust in English secondary schools: an empirical study of national trends, perspectives and practice, [On-line]. Available at: www.hedp.org.uk.
- ITF (2004) Handbook for teachers: guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust, [On-line]. Available at: london.iwm.org.uk/upload/pdf/Holocaust_Ex_TeachHbook.pdf.
- Short, G. (2001) ‘Confronting the Holocaust in Religious Education’, Journal of Beliefs and Values 22, (1), 41-54.