Teaching the Holocaust

It is Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th January and every year my department run a three week unit on the Holocaust with our year nine pupils.

Recently, two of our top year 11 boys invited Dr. Martin Stern to our school to meet with staff and students in a number of forums to discuss the holocaust and his own personal experiences.

What struck me the most was the discussion he had with myself, and other members of staff in the humanities departments. I asked the question “Given that we may have a limited timeframe for teaching about the Holocaust, what do you think might be the most important things we should include”?

Dr. Stern’s response was very clear- he thinks it is important to learn about the facts of history, but also about what we should do with those facts. Essentially, pupils should be given a chance to engage with them on a level which leaves them with more questions, a genuine interest and the desire to learn more.

By ‘learning more’, I don’t think Dr. Stern meant ‘learning more’ about the horrors which occurred. I think there might be a bit of a trend in RE to show pictures of piles of shoes or wedding rings of the dead and, although there can be some academic and sentimental reasons to expose our children to the horrors of the genocide which occurred at this time, I think it may be more important to consider the questions which children often have when considering such horror.

  • “How can Jewish people still believe in God when this happened to their families?”

  • “Is it okay to do something if you were ‘following orders’?”

  • “Why do some people do such horrible things?”

These deeper philosophical, ethical, religious, socio-political and psychological questions are very worthwhile.

Certainly, from our conversations with Dr. Stern, the importance of studying why belief in God can be maintained in light of suffering; the actions of human beings when in positions of authority or under commands; and why it is that some human beings perform horrendous acts of cruelty, are all important areas of enquiry.

One lesson which I teach in my department, is about the Nuremburg Laws. From 1933 to 1941 more than 2,000 anti-Jewish laws were passed and brutally enforced in Nazi Germany. During the lesson, pupils complete a timeline of a selection of some of these laws and they notice how subtly they start to build up. All this sounds a bit ‘fact-heavy’, but the main crux of the lesson centres upon the nature of laws.

Key to all of this is an activity whereby new rules are enforced during the lesson. At the beginning of the lesson, pupils enter the room knowing that:

  1. Pupils shorter that 5’3” cannot speak (Shorties- Shut up!)
  2. Pupils with blonde hair should sit on the floor (Blondes- Know your place!)

What follows is a discussion of the following three questions:

  1. What is the point or purpose of laws?
  2. Are laws a ‘good’ thing?
  3. Should we respect the law?

During the discussions, the teacher takes time to enforce the laws and even chastise pupils. For example, one of my blonde-haired pupils was late to the lesson, with a totally legitimate excuse. However, I make an example to him, stating: “You see class, how blondes are utterly irresponsible pupils and not worthy of an education! Blondes should know their place!”

This ‘play-acting’ has been met with some fascinating responses over the years. One year, the majority of my class rallied behind their repressed peers, deciding that they would join them on the floor or join them in silence, taking a stand against inequality. In other years, the class erupted into spontaneous applause when I demanded a boy sit on the floor with the blondes as punishment for his answer to question 2 which suggested that maybe laws are not such a good thing when they repress freedoms or remove equality.

Of course, this immersive activity, and the part played by the teacher in implementing new laws, is rooted in the famous episode of the US series Frontline  ‘A Class Divided’ . Aired in 1985, the episode profiles the Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliot and her class of third graders, who took part in a class exercise about discrimination and prejudice in 1970 and reunited in the present day to recall the experience.

What is particularly important, and where the learning really happens, is when I ask my pupils to restore the old rules, banish inequality and to reflect. Think carefully, I say, about the way in which the class behaved; about the way you felt; about how quickly and easily we accepted and followed these rules and even enjoyed them. Think carefully about how dreadful the reality of this might be: if this really did happen, as it did during Nazi Germany.


I think that such activities can enable pupils to truly understand

  1. What it might have been like to live at the time of the holocaust
  2.  The importance of critical reflection and engagement with politics
  3. Introspection and an understanding of how easy it might be to fall into supporting inequality or injustice through inaction.


This is only one way that pupils could engage with the Holocaust. How are you teaching your pupils about it and how do you mark the 27th January in your school?




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