Yad Vashem leads British teachers in Holocaust course

By Jessica Elgot, February 16, 2012
The teachers at Yad Vashem

The teachers at Yad Vashem

The Holocaust is embedded in the national curriculum, and a core part of education at Jewish schools. But how much do teachers really know, and how do you teach a six-year-old, or even a 16-year-old, about gas chambers?

Israel's Holocaust memorial centre, Yad Vashem, last week flew in 20 British teachers for an intensive week-long course on how to teach the Holocaust to Jewish children.

"Most people think they know the Holocaust because they've visited a museum and heard a survivor speak, or watched a film," said Yad Vashem's pedagogical director, Shulamit Imber. "I believe there is a lot of ignorance. It's a part of popular culture so everyone thinks they know all about it. And they know it can be used as a powerful example – but bullying in the playground is not the Holocaust."

Linda Paterson, chief executive of Yad Vashem UK Foundation, which brought the teachers to Israel, said: "There are many schemes for non-Jews, but we really wanted to focus on Jewish schools. That's why we wanted to bring them here in Jerusalem - this is the specifically Jewish memorial to the Holocaust."

The group, comprising teachers from strictly Orthodox schools to JCoSS and Akiva, heard speakers including historian Professor Yehuda Bauer, one of the world's leading experts on the Holocaust.

Professor Bauer said: "We must remember every human being has a Hitler or an Eichmann in him. We are capable of what they did. Himmler was a chicken farmer, Eichmann sold refrigerators."

He added: "The Holocaust was unprecedented, but it was not unique. If it was unique, we could forget about it, because there would be no chance it would happen again."

Yad Vashem's Shani Lourie said: "Our goal should be, how can we make our students better people? How can we show them the light in the darkness? That involves teaching what the darkness was. We have to show positive Jewish identity in the Holocaust, not let the Nazis define what that was."

Lectures included the place of the Holocaust in Israeli society, Polish Jews before the war, life in the ghettos, the Jewish uprisings and how to use music, poetry, literature and art to teach the Holocaust.

Techniques can differ greatly. "Never role-play the Holocaust, never ask what you would do," advised Ms Lourie.

But Esther Cohen, head of Jewish studies at King David Primary in Birmingham, said she believed role play was sometimes helpful in teaching very young children. "I try to show them, through a child's eyes, what it feels like to be excluded, very gently. We write letters to children who are in hiding from the Nazis, and what they write is extremely touching. They really feel for them. But how do you explain a gas chamber? It is almost impossible."

Mrs Cohen's school, despite being Orthodox Jewish, has mainly Muslim pupils. "They are more informed than the average child about Jewish issues. But it affects them a lot. One was upset afterwards because she remembered how her family had been victimised in Pakistan."

Some of the non-Jewish teachers said they had been keen to learn how to tackle the subject from a Jewish perspective. "I'm a historian, so I do deal in facts," said Hasmonean's Laura Waugh. "This has put everything in context."

Last updated: 1:36pm, February 16 2012