Teaching the Holocaust

Released 29/08/2013

FREDDY NAFTEL, a teacher with a family history tragically tarnished by the Holocaust, discusses why it's important to keep educating the younger generation about the horrors that happened under Hitler

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


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  • Bill Younglove
  • 2013-09-03 17:58:26
  • While a number of Holocaust-study teachers and scholars might have concerns about the use of such a fictive work as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I certainly applaud Freddy Naftel for his willingness and wherewithall to share survivor experiences. There is simply no educational substitute for such firsthand testimony. The USHMM does provide an excellent set of guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust (www.ushmm.org).
  • Ann Marie Lauricella
  • 2013-09-04 21:16:01
  • In my courses I discuss using multiple perspectives as a way not only to "round-out" an historical narrative but to also show point-of-view of the author. In the case of the Holocaust, I wondered if you had any ideas about an alternate perspective. Obviously I am not talking about justification of the Holocaust but rather, ideas about texts written by German people--ordinary citizens. I just ran across a great book:The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt: War Through a Woman's Eyes, 1939-1940 by Rulka Langer. From the Amazon website: "Rare eyewitness account of early, chaotic days of WWII - Nazi invasion of Poland, Siege of Warsaw and first months of Occupation - written by a young working mother. Rulka Langer's eye for detail and lively storytelling bring to life, from her unique vantage point, the opening chapter of the struggle between good and evil which ultimately engulfed the entire globe." Do you know of any non-canonical text that describes life in Germany from an everyday citizens point of view? How do you present the fervor of the Nazi's? Or even before this, how do you examine the mentality of those who participated in the genocide. It is hard to imagine how people could participate in such evil--sometimes kids believe that "that was then and this is now" and the Holocaust was an anomaly we will never have to worry about again... We know genocide continues today and we also know that we cannot (or should not) follow immoral movements. Many people knew this in the 1930s as well so, how do you discuss what happened? Or, how could it have happened? Or, Could it happen again? I am wondering how to discuss beyond the horrors that kids distance themselves from because of the belief that evil was defeated so we are immune from it today. Perhaps a German account might offer insight by highlighting the opposition or the opposition to the opposition—as Nazi’s gained momentum what did the German people think? What might we offer as an example of dealing with hatred? Thoughts?

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