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Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27th, 2017

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  It is still difficult to comprehend how a supposedly civilised Europe unleashed a deliberate, organised and exhaustive war on a group of people whom it chose to define through the misguided notion of race.

How, then, do we teach this crime and this tragedy to school children?  It is not easy.  Most schools, including OSH, will attempt to discuss the Holocaust in Year 9, when there is a degree of maturity and perhaps a wider or growing understanding of the world.

Jewish writers refer to the Holocaust as the Shoah, which means ‘catastrophe’.  This can be an appropriate point at which to start.  Children can understand in principle that everything can go horribly wrong and that our lives can, tragically, become corrupted.  They can understand that the Ten Commandments can be turned upside down.   Children can understand that the systematic murder of the European Jews marked the total failure of morality, decency and humanity.

Strong emotions are evoked, but even then teachers will be careful to avoid selecting particular aspects of the genocide as the true horrors of Auschwitz or Treblinka, for example, require far greater emotional maturity and sensitivity before they can ever be imagined.

Children can understand the chronology of the Holocaust, especially if they invert it.  The mass murders were well underway by 1942 but this was not policy in 1940 or before.  Some kind of quantum leap in the thinking of the Nazi hierarchy occurred in 1941 and almost certainly coincided with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of that year.  Historians debate this endlessly.

What is very clear to school children, however, is that persecuting the Jews was a consistent feature of Nazi policy from the very beginning.  Discrimination was followed by marginalisation; deportation was accompanied by dehumanisation.

Historians will argue that the road to Auschwitz was a twisted one, but the consistency the children will sense is not to do with policy intention but rather moral evil, and here History falls short.

Children may discuss in their lessons the place for moral evil.  The perpetrators knew that what they were doing was wrong.  Heinrich Himmler in a speech to SS recruits in 1943 exclaimed that this ‘was a page of glory in our history which must not and will not be written.’  Robert Harris’s novel ‘Fatherland’ imagines how a victorious Germany after 1945 might have covered up evidence of the crime and re-written the past.  Some people today choose to deny it, and this only adds greater urgency to the act of teaching about it.

More senior students may elect to explore notions of German exceptionalism, where a particular legal system and deference for the state became corrupted by extremists, and contrast this with broader and embedded European anti-semitism which took a sinister turn when it fused with eugenics and social Darwinism before the First World War.

Our senior students will represent OSH at Auschwitz later this year when they will join a visit organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.  They will be able to return and share what they have learned during their time in Poland.

For me, it is always the words of a Holocaust survivor I met as a young teacher which I try to leave with school children.  His name was Jacob.  Having lost his family as a child he escaped the persecution in Czechoslovakia and ended up in the ghetto in Warsaw.  He survived Auschwitz.

His enduring message?

‘Teach the children we are all the same.’