HOW TO TEACH THE HOLOCAUST
While the Holocaust can be a rewarding subject for students to study, it can also be challenging to both teach and learn about. To ensure students can safely engage with lessons about the Holocaust, it is essential to approach the subject with sensitivity and meaning. Below are recommendations from international experts on practices useful in teaching the Holocaust effectively.
1. Define the Holocaust
In order to effectively teach about the Holocaust, it is important to be able to define it. Students need a clear foundation provided by a definition before they explore the history and legacy of the Holocaust. This includes identifying who was involved, as well as the geographical context and a timeline. Make sure they can answer, at a basic level, “what was the Holocaust?”
See the VHEC’s definition of the Holocaust here.
2. Be precise and intentional in your use of language
Making conscious choices about the language we use is essential to avoiding the perpetuation of stereotypes, generalizations and over-simplification. Thinking carefully about the language we use is also pivotal in helping build a safe space for students.
It’s important to discuss that some of the terms that students will come across in Holocaust studies are outdated. For example, the term “gypsy,” used by the Nazis, should be replaced by Sinti and Roma people.
3. Contextualize the history broadly
The Holocaust took place across Europe between 1938 and 1945. This means that it is a part of a global history and was carried out differently country to country. This also means that the ways in which the Holocaust is remembered today may vary from country to country.
Encourage your students to take a historical perspective, recognize cause and consequence, and establish historical significance by considering the different geographical and temporal experiences of the Holocaust.
Additionally, contextualizing the Holocaust highlights that it was not inevitable. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups and nations made decisions to act or not to act. It’s important to focus on these decisions to help learners think critically on the subject as well as on human nature.
4. Relate history to the present
History matters because it helps us to understand why our society is the way it is, and present-day issues. We learn from past genocides how to pay attention to the warning signs leading up to atrocities. This can be done by recognizing patterns within human behaviour, understanding the processes that lead to genocide, and learning about the consequences of action and/or inaction.
5. Avoid comparing the pain of any one group with that of another
It’s important to highlight different policies carried out by the Nazis towards various groups of people, and likewise, natural to look at similarities across genocides. When looking at events through a comparative lens, students need to understand the historical context and uniqueness of these different experiences. Additionally, these distinctions should not be presented as a basis for comparison of the level of suffering between different groups. What can be compared, however, are the intentions and means of genocide, and the historical context of genocide.
6. Use a learner-centred approach and foster a positive learning environment
The Holocaust is a sensitive and heavy subject matter. Students should be encouraged to ask questions, share thoughts, opinions and concerns, and be given the opportunity to reflect. A positive and trusting learning environment is key to setting them up for success.
7. Avoid simple answers to complex questions
The Holocaust raises difficult questions about human behaviour and the context behind individual decision-making. Try not to oversimplify. Encourage students to think about the many factors and events that led to the Holocaust.
Prompt them to consider how “ordinary” people (fathers, mothers, etc.) could commit such acts? Make sure to avoid reinforcing stereotypes that suggest that all rescuers were heroic; that all bystanders were apathetic; and all perpetrators were evil. Most importantly: ensure that students understand “victims” were not all powerless, but rather responding to difficult and stressful situations in different ways, informed by age, background and context.
8. Try to balance the perspectives that inform your study of the Holocaust
Primary and secondary sources are important for understanding the Holocaust. A primary source may be survivor testimony, artefacts, photographs, videos or documents. Stories told by survivors and objects preserved by them contribute to humanizing history. The use of primary sources can also help students analyze source material critically. Since most Holocaust documentation comes from the perpetrators, teach students how and why sources were created. Have them consider whether the source can be trusted.
To learn more about Holocaust education best practices, the VHEC recommends the following resources:
Guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust (USHMM)
Recommendations for teaching and learning about the Holocaust (IHRA)
Eleven Tips for Teaching the Holocaust to Middle and High School Students (MHM)