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Holocaust Memorial Day: what should we think about when teaching difficult histories?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 January 2022

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Tom Haward, Becky Hale and Mary Richardson

“I have always felt that it’s not appropriate to assess Holocaust work as we do other topics,”

…said a history teacher who participated in the recent national study conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education(CHE) in England. This comment reflects a persistent concern about teaching “difficult history” in schools and, as we observe Holocaust Memorial Day today, underlines the value of keeping such content visible in our curriculum. Assessment of challenging content has been a quandary for educators for decades and we wonder whether this view of assessment is specific to teaching about the Holocaust, or perhaps it is something experienced when teaching other ‘difficult’ content, for example the transatlantic slave trade, or the value of citizenship education?

But what do we mean when we describe something as a ‘difficult history’ and how do we explain it? What is difficult about it? Are we talking about the nature of the content, or the educational challenges associated with teaching this material to young people? And how do we distinguish ‘difficult history’ from an array of terms such as emotive history, challenging content, violent pasts, difficult knowledge and controversial content?  In exploring such questions, we are examining how teaching about the Holocaust has been described in the past because reports such as the Historical Association’s 2007 TEACH Report suggest that (more…)

Most UK adults don’t know key details of the Holocaust – how it has been taught in schools may explain why

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 November 2021

Students visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Shanae Ennis-Melhado/Shutterstock

Rebecca Hale

A survey exploring knowledge of the Holocaust has exposed limited awareness in the UK of some of the most fundamental aspects of this history. Conducted by the Claims Conference, a non-profit organisation which secures compensation for Holocaust survivors, the survey was based on interviews with 2,000 randomly selected adults. Less than half of the respondents knew that six million Jewish people were killed and only one-quarter were aware of the meaning of “Kindertransport”, the rescue of children from Nazi territories.

I am a researcher at the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education and was a member of the taskforce for the Claims Conference United Kingdom Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study. My research explores teaching and learning about the Holocaust in English secondary schools.

Absence from schools

The lack of knowledge revealed by the survey is partly due to patchy school teaching of the Holocaust. Before the 1990s, Holocaust teaching and learning in the UK was neither widespread nor popular. Generations of (more…)

‘What put the goodness into your heart?’ the testimony of Bergen-Belsen survivors and how acts of compassion inspire us to face modern adversity

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 April 2020

Ruth-Anne Lenga

We find ourselves in extraordinarily troubling times. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all of us.

Perhaps, now more than ever, it is important to remember defining moments of our collective history, in the hope we might be inspired by the actions of individuals who risked their lives to save others and take heart from the courage and strength of those who faced horrific challenges and survived in spite of extreme hardships.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the British army on April 15 1945 which freed the 50,000 innocent men women and children – mainly Jews – incarcerated there. UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education today publishes a series of blogposts by Jonathan Dimbleby – whose father Richard Dimbleby was with the troops as a war correspondent, Lord Pickles and our own Arthur Chapman to mark this anniversary.

Nothing prepared the war-hardened British soldiers from the 11th Armoured (more…)

Holocaust Memorial Day: the kindertransport reminds us that we need more compassion for refugees today

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 January 2020

Lord Alf Dubs wrote this piece for UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education.

Until I left Prague for the UK on the kindertransport in June 1939, I lived in Prague with my parents.

The Germans occupied Prague in March 1939. My father, who was Jewish, left immediately for the UK. In June, my mother, having been refused permission to leave, put me on a kindertransport train with a knapsack of food for the journey – which I forgot to open. I can still clearly see my mother in my mind standing on the platform waving me off, surrounded by German soldiers in uniforms and swastikas. Of course for many of the parents waving their children off that day, it was the last time they ever saw them.

We travelled in carriages of 6-8. We had hard wooden seats to sit and sleep on. It was no great hardship for us – we were children and didn’t mind sleeping on the benches. Children fleeing war today face much greater hardship than we did back in 1939.

(more…)

70 years on from the UN Convention on genocide, we must continue to learn the lessons of the past

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 December 2018

Yesterday, Sunday 9 December 2018, marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (writes Nicola Wetherall). As we formally recognise this important milestone, the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education believes it provides an appropriate moment to consider the legacy of the Convention and its forefather, Raphael Lemkin, as well as the challenges and opportunities it presents us with in the present day in terms of prevention and education.

Professor Stuart Foster, the Centre’s Executive Director, commented: 

“Genocides occur because perpetrators place no value on the rights and humanity of ‘others’. So, it is imperative that we educate for a world in which understanding overcomes ignorance and empathy prevails over brutality.”

Teaching and learning about genocide – be it the Holocaust, or those that came before or after it – is not an easy endeavour. The Centre work’s on daily basis with teachers, helping to support those who wish to develop their practice and make their students’ encounters with the Holocaust and the phenomena of genocide as meaningful and productive and possible. 

(more…)

Sir Ben Helfgott: survivor, educator, advocate and knight. A personal reflection

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 June 2018

Ruth-Anne Lenga
The UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education’s good friend and advocate Ben Helfgott has been given a Knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
We are, of course, delighted. Ben has influenced our work considerably. When we established the Centre 10 years ago he was always on the end of the phone advising us, helping us, pummelling us with questions that would help us shape our vision and rationale.
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At least twice a year I find an excuse to escort him into schools, helping to contextualise (more…)

‘What does it mean to teach, to learn, to remember the Holocaust?’

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 June 2018

Andy Pearce
This year, on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the New York Times poignantly announced the ‘Holocaust is Fading From Memory’. Referring to a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the newspaper reported a raft of findings pointing to ‘critical gaps both in awareness of basic facts as well as detailed knowledge of the Holocaust’ amongst a significant proportion of adults in the United States. Particular issues emerged amongst ‘Millennials’, prompting alarm that ‘today’s generation lacks some basic knowledge about these atrocities’ and fear this will worsen as the survivor generation continues to pass away. For its sponsors, the survey highlighted the importance of Holocaust education.
The themes of teaching, learning, and remembering the Holocaust overarching the Claims Conference survey are ones which an international group of experts and myself have explored in my latest book, Remembering the Holocaust in Educational Settings. They are also issues that colleagues and I at the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education shed light on through landmark research in 2009 and 2016.
The latter of these projects saw us publish a study into students’ knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, drawing on data from (more…)

Remembering Belsen – do we know what we are forgetting?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital18 April 2016

Andy Pearce. 
On 15 April 1946, nearly three-quarters of the 9,000 Holocaust survivors housed in the Displaced Persons camp at Bergen-Hohne made the short journey to the former site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The occasion was the first anniversary of Liberation Day – the moment twelve months earlier when British forces entered the camp and uncovered all manner of horrors and shocked many the world over. Like all commemorative events it was a highly politicised affair. As a stone memorial to Jews who had died in Belsen was unveiled, Norbert Wollheim – the Deputy Chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone – took the opportunity to publicly criticise the British for their continued recalcitrance towards Jewish immigration into Palestine, and not doing enough to prevent the destruction of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust.
In the seventy years since, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen has held a position of pre-eminence in British collective memory of the Holocaust. As the work of Tony Kushner has shown, since 1945 Belsen has had a “particular resonance and centrality in the British imagination” – acting as a cultural reference and point of access for British approaches to the Holocaust. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the site last year, together with the intense media coverage given to the monarch’s meeting of survivors and former liberators, only further reinforced this symbolic power. Meanwhile, the government’s decision to fund a digital scanning project of Bergen-Belsen – part of an on-going (more…)

‘I’ve always not been racist’: where next for Holocaust education?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 December 2015

Sylwia Holmes. 
‘I didn’t stop being racist because of (learning about) Holocaust […] I’ve always not been racist.’ (Ella, Year 12 student, Peterborough).
In popular, political and even educational discourse, it has become a commonplace to assert that it is crucially important for young people to learn about the Holocaust as an intervention against racism and prejudice in the present day. But in a focus group interview exploring secondary school students’ attitudes towards encountering this history, Year 12 student Ella begins to turn that proposition on its head.
Ella was one of more than 9,500 students consulted by UCL researchers as part of a three-year national study investigating ‘What students know and understand about the Holocaust’. Drawing primarily on survey responses (more…)

When the national curriculum is not compulsory we need to keep presenting the case for Holocaust education

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 July 2014

Andy Pearce
As First World War centenary commemorations become entangled with 70th anniversaries of the Second, it is worth reflecting on the words of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti: “Forgetfulness is full of memory”. And the idea that the converse may be true has a particular salience given current trends in contemporary Britain.
We know how the ‘present pasts’ we surround ourselves with are expressions of our politics and preoccupations, and that education systems act as essential conduits in the formation of our collective memory. This is not news to most, and if one needed any reminding, the second round of the ‘battle for the big prize’ which broke out over the recently revised National Curriculum for History was instructive. It was out of the wrangling of 1989-1991 that the Holocaust became a mandatory requirement in England and Wales.
This was a major landmark in the history of our national Holocaust consciousness, laying a foundation for the institutionalisation of cultural memory of the genocide of European Jewry. Since then, the Holocaust has been one of the only constants in the history curriculum and this has undoubtedly been one of the reasons behind its pervasive presence in early 21st Century British culture.
But this development has not followed a progressive, upward trajectory. The incorporation of the Holocaust into the History curriculum has long been undermined by a lack of clarity of purpose and rationale – by both policymakers and teachers. This shortcoming has left teaching and learning open to politicisation and susceptible to cultural fads. In some ways this has tracked what has happened in society more widely, where since the turn of the millennium the Holocaust has been increasingly abstracted and decontextualized: a talisman to which all manner of meanings are affixed by all and sundry.
Fourteen years have passed since the process of institutionalising Holocaust memory was completed by the opening of the Imperial War Museum’s permanent exhibition and the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet the shapes and hues of our Holocaust consciousness remain contradictory and paradoxical. The incoming Programme of Study for Key Stage 3 History provides an excellent example of this. After an initial framing of the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil’ was rightly dropped, the genocide is now the only compulsory event named under the rubric of “challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. Incredibly, given the suffusion of our culture by war commemoration, the First and Second World Wars appear simply as non-statutory content.
However welcome the retention of the Holocaust in the curriculum may be, its positioning raises the real prospect of perpetuating its cultural abstraction. Context, as any historian and history teacher knows, is key and the potential for the Holocaust to be taught without it carries severe implications. It is even more pernicious that because the National Curriculum is not compulsory for academies and free schools, there is no guarantee that students will even encounter the Holocaust within formal education.
Classrooms are not the only places where knowledge and understanding of the past are formulated, of course. But schools are settings where misconceptions can be corrected and inquisitive and critical mind-sets nurtured. Bearing in mind how diffuse the Holocaust is in our society, and the proclivity towards its misrepresentation, it would seem imperative that it feature in all school curricula.
To say that the Holocaust should be taught is not enough: there still needs to be clarity of aim and sound pedagogical purpose. Over the past 20 years an orthodoxy has emerged, with the presumption that education will give students ‘the facts’ to combat Holocaust denial and develop a life-long commitment to ‘never forget’.
These are laudable and worthy intentions, but they are not without complications. As Paulo Friere observed, the constructed nature of knowledge presses against the idea that knowledge is an inert entity that is simply transmitted from teacher to student. In the case of history, substantive knowledge requires conceptual, disciplinary frameworks. Remembering – that is, remembrance tuned in the key of memorialisation – is not something which sits easily with the nature of historical enquiry and independent thinking. Nor, returning to Benedetti, does it prevent forgetting.
Despite the terms of the new National Curriculum and the creation of a Holocaust Commission charged with ‘keeping the memory alive’, the academisation of our education system has created a marketplace where a sophisticated and informed case for teaching and learning about the Holocaust must be made. The Holocaust should be a fixture in our students’ education for a host of reasons, not least because of its capacity to open up those most perennial of questions: just what is education, and what do we want education to do?
Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain by Andy Pearce has just been published by Routledge. All are welcome to attend the book launch today (July 3) at the IOE.