Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day and across the country various events were held to commemorate and pay respects. Traditionally my college has held events and have invited in guest speakers which have always had a great positive impact, however, this year I seemed to be so wrapped up in other things that the day itself seemed to sneak up on me without warning.
Last night I opened my email inbox to find a message from an A-level student (Martina, an Italian who is studying at the college for one year). She expressed her surprise that not more was done regarding Holocaust Memorial Day and that the people that she spoke to seemed unaware of the day and its significance. She also noted that remembrance was even more important during a time of increasing racism, xenophobia, and general hatred, and that if the A-level department were unwilling to do anything then she would.
I read the email and found myself agreeing with all of the points completely and utterly. And so, I considered how to approach this event. If I’m honest, it is a consideration that has troubled me over the past decade as I am still unsure how best to cover in the space of a 30 minute session. The different approaches so far have included:
- Shock value: the use of atrocity images (of corpses) to stir emotion
- Highlighting the victims: the sad tales of those imprisoned, beaten, and murdered
- Repeating of mantras: “never again” is the much uttered phrase.
But each of these approaches are, in my view, troubled and each fails to really get to the heart of the matter. The showing of atrocity images was something that I turned away from after spending the week listening to seminars/lectures prepared by the Holocaust Education Trust. What was the point in attempting “shock value” in an age where students can see everything and anything via the internet. Furthermore, as with the highlighting of victims, such approach regulated people to victim status, thereby disconnecting them from the wider Holocaust. A big – and welcome – theme of recent years has been the re-humanising of people that were subjected to Nazi brutality.
The final point relates to the quote: “Never again”. But how hollow are these words when after year after year hatred continues and crimes are committed against humans. Yes, we are to learn from the mistakes of the past, but yet genocide has continued in the 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, up to and including the atrocities in Darfur. Does this repeated phrase actually work in terms of finding a connection with students?
All of these question marks seemed to have dulled my enthusiasm, however, Martina’s email definitely put the wind in sails. As a History teacher and someone who covers the Holocaust regularly in class it was definitely a responsibility for me to step up and help raise awareness. Each new year group is a refreshed opportunity to stress the importance of this day and to attempt to cover something of importance, no matter how small.
So, today we highlighted Holocaust Memorial Day to the first year A-level tutorial groups. Rather than attempt to cover everything, I confessed that we could only scratch the surface (which is very true, considering that my earlier class that day with the adult Access group spent 90 minutes basically attempting to define what the Holocaust actually was!). A straight-forward approach was undertaken:
- We outlined what Holocaust Memorial Day actually was.
- I showed and discussed a pre-WW2 map that attempted to explain context and show to students that the Holocaust did not simply mean Auschwitz. The Holocaust can be evidenced across the continent, from Russia in the east right across to the Channel Islands.
- We attempted to impress on the students that all of this was made possible by the actions of thousands and thousands across dozens of countries: acceptance and agreement made the Holocaust possible.
- A quote from Primo Levi was shown highlighting the actions of people:
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
It is an area of debate that I’m really interested in: why did people follow orders and comply? Hopefully I will post on the blog in more detail in the near future regarding some of the lines of debate, including some psychological theories about obedience / disobedience. But the central line is this: we need to question more often and not simply accept what is being told to us. We need to challenge hatred and division whenever it is presented to us.
This is even more important when we consider the rise of “false news” and “alternative facts” in recent years. This, along with the ability to connect via the internet, has led to a rise in holocaust denial. Such trends are worrying, especially when we considering that “living memory” will end at some point in the near future when the last survivor of the Holocaust dies.
The sessions were concluded with Martina reading aloud one of Primo Levi’s poems:
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
I was incredibly impressed by Martina’s confidence and engagement, and I really have her to thank for allowing me to see a different approach with this event. In terms of its impact on A-level students? This is very debatable. It may be that nobody paid attention, however, as Martina’s email and enthusiasm show: this doesn’t mean that teachers should stop trying.
Hopefully the message that “it is all right to question” came across. We need more of this generation to question and to prod, to not simply accept and agree. Perhaps then there is a stronger chance in racism and bigotry being exposed and challenged, and hopefully at some point in the future, completely eradicated.