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What are students ‘remembering’ on Holocaust Memorial Day?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 January 2014

Paul Salmons
In classrooms, assemblies and public events across the country today young people have been gathering at events to commemorate the Holocaust. Candles are being lit, poems read, pledges made.
For many, particularly those privileged to hear from Holocaust survivors or, increasingly, survivors of other genocides, it will be an intensely moving experience. But what are students remembering, exactly? What do they know and understand about the Holocaust, and what meanings do they make?
Despite years of educational work in teaching and learning about the Holocaust, the intensive activity of many specialist institutions and the dedication of thousands of teachers, the simple (but somewhat troubling) answer is that we don’t really know what young people think about this complex and emotive subject.
Of course, we have the essays, artwork, musical and theatrical performances that many school students produce for these occasions. The messages inscribed into memorial books. The comments made to teachers, guest speakers and the organisers of these events. All of this certainly tells us something. But we also know that young people learn very early on how to “get by” in school: the importance of saying what your teacher wants to hear, what kinds of comments and behaviour gain praise and which are out of bounds, and what will gain acceptance among your peers. Different settings can produce different kinds of responses; different ideas may be expressed in the classroom to a teacher, at a podium to an audience, in the playground to friends, or at home to family members.
And a wide range of sources inform and shape the views and attitudes of our students. There is no reason to assume that the voice of the teacher or the narrative of a textbook holds sway over the opinions of friends and family, or the popular representations of the past encountered in film and television, museums and novels.
So what do our young people know about why and how the Holocaust happened? What does this mean to them – what is the relevance and meaning for their lives, and are there common misconceptions or areas of confusion?
This picture is about to become a lot clearer.
A new research project launched by the IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education will explore the knowledge, attitudes and understanding of up to 10,000 secondary school pupils from across England. Unprecedented in scope and scale, this ground breaking study will provide the fullest picture yet of what the Holocaust actually means to young people by listening to students themselves, through large-scale and in-depth research into their thinking.
The findings of the research, funded by the Department for Education together with the Pears Foundation, will be of importance both in the UK and internationally. It will reveal patterns in students’ knowledge, as well as common preconceptions, myths, or areas of confusion and inaccuracy. It will help identify issues and challenges that need to be tackled in the classroom. And it will clarify the meaning and significance attached to the Holocaust by the next generation.
The research into students’ understandings is part of our commitment to working with teachers to transform teaching and learning about the Holocaust. It follows our 2009 national research into teachers’ attitudes to teaching about the Holocaust, the foundation of all our current work, and the basis of a research-informed approach that makes our programmes uniquely responsive to classroom needs.
The student research will allow the IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education to further improve its CPD programmes (already offered free of charge to teachers across the country), and to develop even more effective resources and approaches to teaching about the Holocaust.
As a result, it is to be hoped that in future years, as students across the country again mark our national Holocaust Memorial Day, they will do so with ever more sophisticated and nuanced understandings and that the meanings they form as they join in collective acts of memory will be even deeper, more personal and more profound.

Remembering without knowing? The challenge of Holocaust Memorial Day for schools

Blog Editor, IOE Digital24 January 2013

Paul Salmons
In a media-driven world where hardly a day goes by without some reference to Hitler, Auschwitz or the Nazis it may seem perverse to worry about how secure is the memory of the Holocaust. But as schools across the country mark Holocaust Memorial Day (officially January 27) what is at stake is not whether we choose to remember but what form that memory takes and how far we are prepared to confront this traumatic past and seek to understand it.
The very fact of a national Holocaust Memorial Day is itself remarkable: mass murder has been present throughout the long history of humanity but rarely has such atrocity become part of the stories we tell about ourselves. Rather, the story of genocide has been a history of forgetting. For centuries communities have written out of the record their acts of mass murder. And today, even as we commemorate the Holocaust, it may be that we avoid its most difficult and challenging questions.
The Holocaust is in danger of being distilled into a moral fable for our times: a story of evil, racist killers, a few heroic rescuers, and a mass of apathetic, morally weak bystanders. It is a very serviceable past with a simple lesson – “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”. But the past is only so serviceable when it is simplified to the point of distortion, and we do young people a disservice to present it as such.
The IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education supports teachers across the country, through professional development programmes and practical classroom materials, as they move beyond easy moral lessons and help their pupils to explore the Holocaust in far more depth. Closer examination of the historical record allows more nuanced understandings of people’s behaviour, motivation and intent; the picture of the past then revealed is far more complex, far more unsettling and far more meaningful than anticipated.
Pupils discover there is no record of anyone being killed or sent to a concentration camp for refusing to murder Jews, while there are records of people refusing the order to murder who were simply given other duties. So how do we explain the thousands of so-called “ordinary people”  who murdered? While extreme antisemitic ideology can explain some of the killers, others participated in mass shootings because of peer pressure, ambition, or a warped sense of ‘duty’.
And the killers were not limited to fanatical young men in SS uniforms. In a picturesque Austrian town, local women, elderly men and teenage boys joined in the hunt for escaped Soviet prisoners of war and murdered them. In a village in Burgenland, local people deported the family of their Roma (Gypsy) blacksmith but kept the blacksmith himself rather than losing his skills. What can we say about whole communities becoming part of persecution and mass murder?
When pupils do research into those who saved Jews, they find no template for the type of person who became a rescuer – no common denominator of age, gender, religious belief, nationality, social class, or political outlook. Indeed, there were even antisemites who risked their lives to save Jews, while others with more enlightened, liberal and tolerant views did nothing to help. The only thing many rescuers tend to share appears to be a certain unorthodoxy and non-conformity. So what model do the rescuers give us, exactly, and what are the implications for our education system, presently so focused on examinations and in socialising young people to take their place in the corporate world?
And who can truly said to be a “bystander” when everywhere ordinary people enriched themselves at public auctions, buying the possessions of their deported neighbours? Where then is the line between collaborator and bystander? Greed and self-interest are also a part of this story, and when examined the past reveals a shocking truth: you do not need to hate anyone to become complicit in genocide.
Essentially the moral lessons that the Holocaust is so often used to teach reflect much the same values taught in schools before the Second World War. And yet – in themselves – these values were evidently insufficient to prevent the genocide. Notions of tolerance and of human rights have been advocated since the Enlightenment; belief in the intrinsic value of human life; the “golden rule” of treating others as you would have them treat you; ideas of kindness, courage, charity and goodwill to those in need are all part of the ethical and moral teaching that have underpinned the values of Western society for centuries. And yet it was from that same society that the Holocaust sprang. What are the deeper flaws in our so-called ‘civilisation’ that allowed Europe to descend so completely into genocide, and what are we doing today to examine them?
The IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education supports teachers across the country in trying to meet this challenge, in helping young people to reflect on why and how – not long ago and not far from where they live – everywhere across Europe people became complicit in the murder of their Jewish neighbours. The questions are challenging, unsettling and disorienting, but they are also vital. Because the danger is that unless commemoration is accompanied by detailed study and depth of understanding then the old myths and misconceptions will continue, and the memory of the Holocaust will remain shallow and insecure.
To learn more about the work of the IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education visit www.ioe.ac.uk/holocaust
A version of this article originally appeared in the Huffington Post
To watch a UNESCO film interview with Paul Salmons visit http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/