Freddy Naftel at his Holocaust presentation at Casterton School in Cumbria last February
Why teach about the Holocaust? What is its relevance in today's society? What can young people hope to learn from studying this topic? Isn't it too sensitive a subject to be covered in schools? What do I gain/achieve from teaching the subject?
I considered all of the above questions before taking upon myself the difficult task of educating young people on the topic.
I had previously given assemblies in two FE colleges to mark National Holocaust Day (27 January) and following the unprecedented response from staff and students, decided to make it my mission to give presentations and workshops to schools and colleges nationwide.
It goes without saying that the Holocaust is a very emotive subject for anyone to teach and understand, especially if one has a family history connected with this event, one of the most devastating and heinous crimes in 20th century history.
As I am Jewish and have family members who both survived and perished in the concentration camps, it is a kind of spiritual duty. The fact that I have also been the victim of prejudice and persecution while a student at school and during my professional career as a teacher, made it imperative that I approach the subject from a very personal point of view, to draw the students in and to make them realise that racism (and anti-Semitism in particular) is all too prevalent in contemporary society.
The Holocaust shows how obsession and hatred, based on age-old principles of myth and stereotype, can lead to extremes and to prove just what true evil is. Youngsters need to appreciate the lengths people will go to when power is all-encompassing and reason flies out of the window.
I have two separate ways of teaching the subject to students in Years 7 and 8 and to older students. While it is absolutely necessary to reveal the truth about what happened, I tend to avoid the more graphic descriptions and photographs when working with younger students. I usually start with the final scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the book and film of which is often studied in Years 7 to 9 and thus provides an excellent introduction to the topic. From here, I discuss how the victims ended up in the camps and what it would feel like to be a Jew (and especially a German Jew) in 1930s Germany.
For Year 9 and upwards, I show the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto scene from Schindler's List and accompany this extract with a comprehension worksheet, which asks students to describe exactly what is happening and how they feel while watching this. What is the overall impression and message the film conveys?
What is of the utmost importance to me, however, is the personal story connected with the subject. I talk about my own family and how my mother and grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany in 1934 and how my great-grandmother survived the camps but would never talk about her experiences. I show family photos and particularly a picture of my great-aunt and uncle, who perished in Auschwitz, an event which affected my grandmother for the rest of her life.
We discuss the crisis of faith that followed the terrible events of the Holocaust. Could one still believe in God or did many people lose their faith completely?
Finally, has the Holocaust taught us anything and have lessons been learnt? In which case, why have acts of genocide been happening since this time and are continuing today in countries such as Egypt and Syria?
I also allow time for questions at the end of my presentations and usually prompt students by answering some questions myself. Hopefully, this will fuel further discussion in subsequent lessons.
Freddy Naftel is a Holocaust enrichment teacher, working in many schools and colleges up and down the country