(What is the place of Holocaust Education in Primary R.E.?)

Susan Collin


The Holocaust was a devastating period in human history, which saw the systematic murder of six million Jews, including over one million children, by the Nazi regime. Millions of other innocent people were also subjected to slave labour, persecuted and murdered, including gypsies, physically and mentally disabled people, homosexuals, communists, socialists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All were victims of genocide as Europe faced the tyranny of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

The events of the Holocaust have been extensively documented and people more suitably placed to do so than I have recounted the experiences of victims and survivors. Therefore, this report does not aim to attempt to address these areas. It does however aim; first, to examine the way the Jewish faith tried to answer some of the questions that the Holocaust raised. The personal suffering and loss experienced by individuals led to many asking questions about God and what may be said about God in the face of these events.

Two thirds of the Jewish population had been killed during the Holocaust. Entire communities were wiped out. Houses of study and legendary synagogues were destroyed.

How could the Jewish faith respond to this catastrophe?

The second strand to the report will look at why and how we CAN and SHOULD teach about the Holocaust in Primary schools. I will examine appropriate materials and explore ways in which they can be used to enable children to learn ABOUT and FROM the experiences of the Holocaust.

Theological Responses to the Holocaust

What place does this type of study have in a report aimed at examining the ways in which we can teach about the Holocaust to children? The Holocaust is a historical event. Secondary pupils study it as part of many history lessons. It clearly raises many crucial moral and social issues, which can be explored in P.S.M.E. Lessons. But what about its place within R.E.?

To help to answer this question, I want to explore the religion which was directly and crucially affected by the horrors of the Holocaust, and to examine some of the theological responses developed by Jewish thinkers. These responses and the religious journey along the path of questions and reflections would place the teaching about the Holocaust firmly within the realms of Religious Education.

Many of the questions children ask when faced with some of the issues are the same questions many survivors of the Holocaust asked about God and their faith.

By exploring some of these responses, my teaching to children will present a view of the events, which encompasses a Jewish perspective and not simply one of my own.

Jewish Faith after the Holocaust

"Never shall I forget that first night,

the first night in camp

Which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I

am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."

Elie Wiesel "Night" (1)

Throughout the long history of the Jewish people there have been persecutions and suffering inflicted upon their communities. However, the scale of devastation and suffering brought about by the events of the Holocaust have led many Jewish people to attempt tackling the theological questions raised. Also, the Holocaust represented not just one other persecution, but the possibility of the end of the Jewish faith.

Sacks, 1995, claims;

" The Covenant, the one Jewish certainty, was within sight of being broken. Not only the present and the future, but the Jewish past too, would have died."(2).

The Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people bring into question the whole basis of the Jewish faith- one rooted in the belief in an all-powerful, all-seeing, merciful and compassionate father who loves His children. How could such a God allow such horrors to befall his chosen people? What possible purpose could a tragedy such as the Holocaust have within ‘God’s plan’?

For some, the Holocaust required a total rethink of Jewish theology. However, for some years after the atrocities of the Holocaust, there remained a silence on the part of Jewish thinkers. The events were still too painful and horrific in magnitude to attempt to understand and find meaning within:

"Jewish existence, not explanation was the pre-requisite obligation." Katz (3). For many, the focus at the time was the needs of the survivors and the future of the Jewish faith. Steven T. Katz (4) also adds the question, "Who could speak with authority on Auschwitz?" He argued that of the few who survived the camps, many may simply not know what to say, and the people who were not there could not understand fully the experience.

Yet, the sheer devastating scale of the inhumanities and the apparent "silence" of God eventually led many writers to put forward responses or to provide attempts at explanations. There are too many to explore and analyse properly within the scope of this project, I will examine four of the major "arguments" or "explanations" put forward.

Theory of Punishment

The first theological response is a very traditional one, namely, the explanation that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sins of the people. Ignaz Maybaum, in his work "The Face of God after Auschwitz", argues that Jews died for the sins of mankind. echoing the theme of the "suffering servant". Although this reasoning had been used in other periods of Jewish history, many Jewish people did not accept it.

Rabbi Dr. Julian Jacobs, (5) argued that this answer cannot be applied to the Holocaust as victims included "sinless" infants and children, and men and women of "scrupulous piety and moral stature". Many others also maintain that the punishment is disproportionate, i.e. that no sins could possibly justify such retribution, and that as an "explanation" it can be seen as unjustly impugning the character of those who died.

This argument also has led to two opposing schools of thought around the same theme. Jonathan Sacks in "Faith in the Future ", 1995, (6), explored these two opposing views. One school of thought is that the Holocaust was a punishment for the secular Zionist movement of the time. Whereas others claimed that European Jews had become too "settled" in Europe and no longer yearned for a return to Israel, and the Holocaust was a punishment for these Anti-Zionist attitudes.

This argument that the Holocaust was a punishment for whatever reason, is one that can not provide a satisfactory response for many people, to the religious questions raised.

Elie Wiesel

The second response I would like to explore is that put forward by Elie Wiesel in his many literary works including both his fiction and essays. Wiesel was a survivor of the Birkeneau camp and his works often examine the religious questions raised by the Holocaust. Although his works do not always present answers, they are very valuable documents as a source of testimony and remembrance. This process of telling the world about the Holocaust and presenting the questions of the survivors, is itself a valuable one. Wiesel viewed the whole process of remembering the Holocaust as vital – to honour those who perished and to ensure such events never take place again.

Through his works Wiesel explores the dilemmas and

presents arguments both for and against the existence of God.

The Holocaust brings into question for Wiesel the "goodness" of God, but as Dan Cohn-Sherbok states,"it cannot be understood without Him"(7).

Sherbok argues that the dilemma facing Wiesel is that "the only way he can be for God after Auschwitz is by being against Him – to embrace God without protest would be to vindicate Him and legitimize evil."(8).

Although Wiesel’s position is not often made clear, his works do show the kind of questions that survivors ask about God and their struggle to answer them. Jonathan Sacks, echoes this confusion:

"But where too was God? That He was present seemed a blasphemy; that He was absent, even more so. How could He have been there, punishing the righteous and the children for sins, their own or someone else’s? But how could He not have been there, when, from the valley of the shadow of death, they called out to Him?"(9).

This encompasses the enormity of the questions people such as Wiesel were asking about their faith. It was not just a matter of abandoning faith.

In "Night" Wiesel tells about the hanging of a young boy and again presents the questions he struggled with:

"For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face…Behind me I heard the same man asking:

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is He? Here He is _ He is hanging here on this gallows…""(10).

Richard Rubinstein

The third argument is a very radical one put forward by an American theologian, Richard Rubenstein. His book "After Auschwitz" in 1966 was seen by many as controversial.

Rubenstein rejects the traditional Jewish belief in an all-good God, a God of history and with it the meaning of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel. The Holocaust led Rubenstein to hold a "Death of God "theology. For him, the God of the Jewish tradition could not possibly let the Holocaust happen. The fact that the Holocaust did happen leads Rubenstein to argue that God does not exist.

"How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God's punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will.

…To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes."(11).

In spite of this very radical view, Rubenstein maintains that a Jewish way of life can still take place without the belief in God. The traditions and rituals can still be an important part of life.

"I do not believe that a theistic God is necessary for Jewish religious life…I have suggested that Judaism is the way in which we share the decisive times and crises of life through the traditions of our inherited community. The need for that sharing is not diminished in the time of the death of God."(12).

Emil Fackenheim

Finally, a major contribution to post-Holocaust theology was made by Emil Fackenheim. His writings represent to many a kind of middle ground between the works of Wiesel and Rubenstein. Fackenheim cannot accept that the Holocaust was a punishment for sins, neither does he attempt to present an explanation for it. Although for Jews it may be difficult to understand where God was during the Holocaust, and for many He seemed to be absent, Fackenheim argues that Jews must insist He was there. In the words of Steven Katz:

"The Jew cannot, dare not, must not, reject God. Auschwitz is revelation! In the gas chambers and crematoriums, we must, we do, experience God!"(13)

Whilst many others were led by the experiences of the Holocaust and the crisis of faith which followed, to abandon God and their faith, Fackenheim sees in the Holocaust, not only the presence of God, but also the view that something very positive will come from it.

He claimed that the resistance seen in the camps by many Jews in their determination to survive, in their continuation to pray when forbidden to do so, and in the pregnant mothers who would not abort their babies, was a sign that the Jewish faith could survive the Holocaust, more importantly he saw it as a command to survive.

He believes that a 614th Commandment came from the Holocaust, in addition to the traditional 613, namely one that commands Jews to survive!

"Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they co-operate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish."(14).

These form just a sample of the numerous reactions that were put forward in response to the Holocaust. Many thinkers tried to offer explanations, but others maintained that as humans we cannot attempt to understand the Holocaust. One such writer, Eliezor Berkovits in "Faith after the Holocaust", saw the Holocaust as part of God’s plan, but one that we are unable to understand . We should follow the example of Job and believe in God just as Job believed. Berkovits maintained that God was present at Auschwitz, He was merely hidden.

Although some may argue that one act of innocent suffering is as difficult to explain in the face of a belief in a just and good God, as the Holocaust. The sheer enormity of the Holocaust does present questions that cannot be answered by traditional ideas.

As we have seen, the range of explanations is various. Some of these, e.g. the traditional Rabbinical and mystical ideas, which unfortunately can not be covered within the scope of this study, are genuinely fascinating.

The theories range from "God is dead" ideas through to seeing the Holocaust as some form of revelation – commanding the Jews to survive. Some claim that the Holocaust was purely a banal act of human cruelty, an abuse of the freedom bestowed upon man by God, and as such cannot reflect upon the nature of God. By exploring these ideas briefly, I hoped to place the Holocaust in the perspective of what it can mean to be Jewish during and after the Holocaust.

For many, though, the meaning behind the Holocaust is, and will remain, a mystery. For those who maintain their faith, it is beyond human understanding. God’s name was still being proclaimed in the camps and the Jewish faith has survived and triumphed even though questions remain unanswered. Jonathan Sacks relays a conversation between a writer and a rabbi who survived the camps:

""How," he asked him, "could you see what you saw and still have faith? Did you have no questions?" The rabbi replied, "Of course I had questions. But I said to myself, if you ever ask those questions, they are such good questions that God will send you a personal invitation to heaven to give you the answers. And I preferred to be here on earth with the questions than up in heaven with the answers."(15).

Why should we teach about the Holocaust?

"We must never forget what the result of intolerance and racial bigotry can be. The persecution of the Jewish community and other minorities by the fascist regime in Germany has scarred our century."

Tony Blair (1).

When I embarked upon this study, I had very clear ideas of what I wanted to achieve. I began to read in earnest, vast amounts about the Holocaust, survivor testimonies, theological "explanations" and histories.

This led me to view this as something much more than just an academic study. I was reading about peoples’ lives and families, their religious beliefs and faiths, their suffering, before, during and after the Holocaust. It really strengthened my conviction that Holocaust education should play a part in the education of primary age children although at times I have encountered arguments against this view, and a lot of "concerned" faces when I have explained my study.

I would like to present some of the reasons why I maintain that there is a place in the primary curriculum for education about the Holocaust, as I feel it is important for any teacher who is about to embark upon presenting information to children to have an understanding of why we are doing it.

Also, I think it is important to generate discussion amongst the teaching profession about this issue: from discussion come ideas and change.

We must not forget…

The sheer enormity of the Holocaust and its place within the history of mankind is a reason to teach about it. It must never be forgotten, and teachers have a duty to educate children to become adults of the future, and ensure it never happens again.

The Holocaust is a fact of history. It was the culmination of a series of events. It was not an accident and as such, there is still the potential for similar events to occur. For this reason it must not be omitted from education, and the issues it raises must be approached with children of all ages.

Providing a balanced and appropriate view

The issues of injustice, racism, prejudice and the abuse of power are universal and have relevance for all ages. Some of the children we teach may have already encountered these issues in their daily lives.

Within the media we are constantly seeing images of fascism and genocide. Children are able to access these images and it is important that we can present accurate information to them to enable them to understand the complex issues. Children are also able to gain some knowledge of the Holocaust from T.V. and films. Often this is not supported by opportunities to reflect upon and discuss what they have seen; hence distorted and confused ideas are created. Many pupils will, by the age of 10 or 11, have acquired some knowledge about the events. This is particularly the case for pupils from a Jewish background, who may already have an awareness of the Holocaust within Jewish history. Schools must play a part in ensuring children receive a balanced and appropriate education.

" In today’s world, children at an early age develop an awareness of the Holocaust…On the basis of our experience, we feel that in order to prevent children from being overwhelmed by information that is beyond their emotional and scholastic level, they need to learn about the Shoah in stages from a young age in an age-appropriate manner."

Extract from "Outline of Our Educational Philosophy" Yad Vashem, (2).


Currently, teaching about the Holocaust mainly occurs within Secondary schools, forming part of the history curriculum. It also appears in R.E. syllabuses at Key Stage 3 and 4. Many educators are unsure about the suitability of the subject for younger children. As adults find it difficult to comprehend, it is a subject many shy away from.

As Barsheva Dagan states:

"The subject of the Holocaust is very problematic since it is inextricably linked with sustained aggression, the like of which has never been seen in the annals of human history."(3). However, as Dagan goes on to argue:

"Topics such as death, sex and God are no less complicated and yet we undertake to teach them. Children’s questions about any of those subjects require answers in spite of the difficulties and particularly about the Holocaust because we are dealing with extreme evil inflicted by man upon man."(4).

Some writers, such as Lionel Kochan, (5) have reservations about the whole area of Holocaust education. There are fears that it may enhance stereotypical views of Jewish people, ignore more positive aspects of Jewish history and may even lead to a repeat of the horrors. However as Geoffrey Short argues,

"Whilst schools that are planning to teach the Holocaust would do well to heed Kochan’s strictures, the dichotomy he implies is surely false. We are not logically precluded from teaching about Jewish cultural achievements as a result of electing also to teach the less savoury aspects of recent Jewish history."(6).

The whole image that the Holocaust conjures up in adults’ minds makes them very anxious about tackling the issues with young children. In her work with Secondary pupils on the Holocaust, Dr. Deirdre Burke presents some of the views put forward by secondary age pupils on the suitability of the subject for younger children. Many of the pupils raised concerns about the nature of the subject content being too horrific or difficult to understand for younger pupils. They expressed concern that younger children may be frightened by the subject. These comments were put forward by pupils when asked what they had told younger brothers and sisters about the Holocaust.

"Didn’t tell younger brothers and sisters as they were too young and would not understand.

I think the events we were talking about were too horrific to tell them."(7).

As I shall demonstrate later in the study, the materials presented to pupils need to be appropriate to their age and maturity level and hence they will not be the same materials and information that older pupils may be given. Dr. Deirdre Burke also points out:

"Many pupils felt that they were able to handle the learning because they had wider experience of life and were able to face up to the realities of life."(8).

Within the study there were also pupils who felt that the Holocaust could be taught to pupils at upper primary level.

"I think younger than 10 because some parents impose their views on their children and if they were taught in school about what happened it might change their views instead of just listening to what their parents say."

"I think they should be taught the basic parts when they are younger but then go into more detail when they are older and can understand it better."

"Should be younger so they should stop anything happening – I don’t understand and it doesn’t get any easier as you get older."(9).

These views from Secondary pupils present some very interesting ideas. Dr Burke goes on to highlight the view here of the pupils that younger pupils can learn a lot "from" the Holocaust.

"A number of interesting strands permeate this account, which relate to the teaching "about" the Holocaust. Firstly, in terms of the horrific nature of the subject matter and its impact on emotionally and intellectually immature pupils. This recognition of the tremendous potential impact of the encounter is balanced against what pupils can learn "from" the Holocaust. This second strand seems to be the main motivator; there is so much that can be learned

"from" the Holocaust that this overrides concerns about the emotional and intellectual impact on young children."(10).

The experiences of the children

We must remember that children can draw on moral lessons from an early age. Children see and experience examples of injustice all the time. Often they experience directly racism and prejudice. Schools must take a role in facing these issues with the children.

"Educators who underestimate children’s abilities may provide a "baby-safe" curriculum which stresses positive behaviours and feelings in an "all’s right with the world" ethos. This may ignore negative and often damaging experiences such as family breakdown, death, bullying, racism and child abuse. Lack of maturity should not be equated with the inability to feel such grievances deeply. A baby-safe curriculum patronises children by denying the impact of such experiences and their ability to deal with them." (11).

Relevance for today

The rise in right wing political activity across Europe at the moment and the reception facing many asylum seekers to this country brings many of these issues to a head. Without detracting from the enormity and "unique" nature of the Holocaust, educating pupils about it can also draw their attention to events happening today. Can they see any similarities? Are there any lessons to be learned from the Holocaust? Issues, which may seem too sensitive to approach alone, can be incorporated in this wider sense.

The place of Holocaust Education within the curriculum

The new Curriculum 2000 puts a lot of emphasis on P.S.H.E. and Citizenship. The study of the Holocaust can be a valuable way of exploring the issues of rights and responsibilities. It is important for young people to see how people were stripped of their rights as a citizen and the implications of this. The teaching of the Holocaust is multi –disciplinary. It can be presented within history, literacy and PSE lessons. The issues it raises are fundamental to primary education. If we are to develop children spiritually as well as academically these issues, however difficult, have to be explored. This leads on to the question of the place of Holocaust education within R.E.

Is it R.E.?

By placing these issues within the realm of Religious Education, we are not only dealing with issues of citizenship, but also enabling pupils to tackle some of the complex questions that face us daily.

"Good religious education engages learners in a process whereby they pursue their personal search for meaning in the context of questions raised by the shared experiences of the human race and the insights offered by major world faiths."(12).

Unfortunately, the teaching of the Holocaust in many schools takes place predominately within history lessons. Whilst the historical and political aspects of the subject need to be explored, as Day and Burton highlight, "it would be perverse not to explore its theological and religious dimensions"(13).

Day and Burton present in their paper, "Teaching about the Holocaust: RE appeals for help from theology", a strong argument for focussing closely on the religious and theological themes that the Holocaust presents. The themes of suffering, nature of God and that of evil which are central to the study of religions.

They also point out the fact that the "persecution of the Jews struck at the heart of the religion as well as the race or the culture…the religious voice, the religious question, the religious response and the religious problem should not be silenced."(14).

As previously mentioned RE should provide opportunities to ask and explore questions about the human condition and nature of God. The Holocaust itself poses these questions for us all. The theological implications of the Holocaust are widespread and as such the teacher needs to ensure that it does not just become a subject of names, dates and events. It can and must be part of RE lessons as well as history or PSE, to ensure the questions that children may raise can be heard.

Restoring the Memory

Unfortunately, we are so accustomed to hearing the figure "six million Jews", that it can begin to lose it’s impact. The Holocaust saw the murder of six million individual Jewish people, each with their own family history and identity. Simon Weisenthal recounts that Adolf Eichmann was asked to explain the killing of six million Jews.

"He answered, "One hundred is a catastrophe – a million dead are a statistic." The Murder of six million Jews must never be reduced to a statistic."(15).

Teaching about the Holocaust can help prevent the idea of statistics and numbers so vast that people do not attempt to understand them. The Educational Philosophy of Yad Vashem adds to this view:

"One of the most important paths to approaching and understanding of the Holocaust is to reclaim the identity of individuals – to restore their memory as human beings and not as dead bodies in a gas chamber."(16).

Crucial issues

Teaching young children about the Holocaust in a sensitive way does provide such opportunities. By carefully choosing resources and approaches (which we shall explore later in the study), the teacher can enable pupils to begin to explore issues that are crucial to their education for life.

"I think that Holocaust education is crucial, not only in that its history proves the low levels to which civilisation can stoop and which should be prevented at all costs in the future, but this grotesque atrocity against mankind is reflected in any current act of racism, religious persecution or cruelty to others, for which children are also often, sadly to blame."(17).

It is at the heart of our thinking that the atrocities of the Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again. It was not an accident that it happened. To ensure it does not happen again we MUST educate our children. They must be given appropriate ways of facing up to issues they may encounter in the media or playground.

A major theme we can draw from the Holocaust is the problem of remaining silent, so eloquently presented by Martin Niemoller, a German anti-Nazi Lutheran Pastor who spoke out against Hitler.

"In Germany the Nazis came for the

Communists, and I didn’t speak up

because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,

And I didn’t speak up

because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

And I didn’t speak up

Because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics

And I didn’t speak up

Because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me

And by that time

There was no one left to speak up for me.

Martin Niemoller (18).

If we are aiming to have a society of tolerant human beings then we must teach tolerance. We must not shy away from sensitive and "difficult" issues like the Holocaust. We can not remain silent. We as educators have a duty to begin the task of educating the citizens of the future, before they adopt attitudes from other sources. We are attempting to promote the "spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of the pupils", and Holocaust Education has an important part to play in this.

I have tried to present arguments to show the need for Holocaust education generally and more specifically within the primary school. Some still may not see it as appropriate for children today as it may be seen as "something that happened long ago, to the Jews and others". I hope I have shown this not to be the case. The Holocaust is part of the history of us all as humans. We must ensure that all children are given the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust and to learn from it.

This letter from a head teacher in the USA sums this up perfectly:

"Dear teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw

what no man should witness:

gas chambers built by learned engineers

children poisoned by educated physicians

infants killed by trained nurses

women and babies shot and burned by high school and

college graduates

so, I am suspicious of education.

My request is: help your students become human.

Your efforts must never produce learned monsters,

Skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if

They serve to make our children more human." (19).

Fifty Years Later: Reflections on Teaching the Holocaust To Young People

By Judy (Weissenberg) Cohen

I stand in front of you

And see your innocent stares,

Looking at me, anticipating a personal account of my

pains and nightmares.

How do I begin?

How can I make you understand and feel

The deep scars that I carry

fragile and still easy to bleed?

How do I tell you about human created hunger

Hopeless, no-end-in-sight,

When, perhaps, you just had a good meal

And feel full and warm inside?

How do I tell you about the Constant fear

In the pit of the stomach, the nauseating kind

When, hopefully, you experienced only goodwill and peace in your short life?

How do I tell you about losing family and friends

in a matter of minutes

by moving thumbs in white gloves,

belong to a Nazi

a so-called human being?

How do I tell you about the odor of burning flesh,

tortures and killings of innocent people

that were planned cold bloodedly, years before!

Drinking and singing around the table?

How do I tell you about Auschwitz-Birkenau

the efficient killing machine

where mothers, babies, children and the old

marched to the "showers" and out as smoke?

How do I tell you about being torn from

all my loved ones in my teens

when you only know and should know

the warm embrace of family and peers?

How do I tell you about

the genocide of six million and more

during which my family lost eighty one,

when you can look at yours and declare

missing: NONE.

I do however, know to praise

those wonderful few, defiant and brave,

at great risk to themselves,

reached out and helped many lives to save.

I stand in front of you

and see your innocent stares

but having heard it all

your gaze is no longer there!

You have lowered your eyes

so sorry! I saddened you,

having heard a witness

now, you become a witness too.

To inform and teach my story is told.

I urge you to be fair minded and bold.

For it is up to you, THE YOUNG

how the future will unfold.

Let us create a society

free from hatred and hunger

where respect for each other

glows like a beautiful ember.



How should we teach about the Holocaust?

There is no doubt that teaching about the Holocaust needs to have a unique approach. The very nature of the subject matter and the emotional response that it evokes, means that the teacher must ensure that activities and methods are carefully chosen. We do not want to deliberately shock, nor present images that in their horrific nature may lead to distress. We must not trivialise the Holocaust by producing meaningless worksheets and activities. Anne Frank’s diary is used very successfully in literacy and history lessons, but the activities there do not meet the objectives of Holocaust education. The teacher must have clear objectives when using such material.

Difficult concepts

There is no disputing that the subject matter contains very difficult concepts for adults, let alone children to grasp. This need not present difficulties for the teacher, however. Throughout the primary curriculum, we are required to teach very difficult concepts and the associated language. This is particularly evident in science, maths and RE lessons. Teachers are very skilled at presenting difficult concepts in a manner appropriate to the children’s level of understanding and in a way that the children can ‘add to’ or develop at a later stage. This is the case with teaching about the Holocaust. The political and historical details will be explored in greater depth when the children reach secondary school. This will develop their understanding further. At primary level other aspects can be explored.

In his book "concept Cracking: Exploring Christian Beliefs in School", Trevor Cooling presents a methodology for teaching Christian concepts in school. Although the focus of the book is Christian concepts and beliefs, the methods and arguments he presents I feel can also in some instances be applied to this area. For example, he points out;

"There is an increasing agreement that children cope with quite difficult ideas as long as they are presented in a way that makes sense in their world of experience. The problem comes when abstract ideas are dumped on children in a manner that takes adult frameworks of thought for granted. What is needed is a teaching methodology which takes account of the way children learn."(1).

If the teacher uses effective learning strategies children will be able to cope with difficult issues and concepts. Trevor Cooling advocates an ‘active learning’ approach. (2). For this he maintains that children must engage with the subject matter.

"This means that the student is in some way required to reprocess, or interact with, the information rather than simply regurgitate it in a different form."(3).

He goes on to clarify this process by saying;

"The key characteristic of reprocessing is that there is intellectual, emotional and imaginative activity, that our being is engaged with the subject matter. Hearing a story told well, engaging in a conversation or listening to a well-structured explanation can be a very powerful active learning experience."(4).

The importance of questions

When presenting the subject matter the teacher must be prepared to use a variety of approaches. Good questioning skills need to be applied so that children are given opportunities to reflect upon any issues that arise. This is particularly the case with the theological implications of the Holocaust. Children may raise questions as to why God allowed such a dreadful thing to happen and the teacher has to allow time for reflection and responses for these important questions.

There is a very important role for ‘talk’ within this topic. Children must discuss and share ideas. Teachers must engage in discussions with individuals and groups. Questions must be raised.

Where do we start?

It is very important when beginning the topic to find out what the children already know. This in itself can be very enlightening, particularly if we enquire where that knowledge came from. It is important to make sure, where possible, that the children do not possess any misconceptions about the subject. Their knowledge and understanding of the Jewish faith is also an important factor to consider. This has implications for the teaching of RE within the school, as the pupils need to have a least a basic understanding of some of the main beliefs and practices of Judaism.

The use of story

A very useful and enjoyable tool to use with children is that of story. There are many stories suitable, either to take extracts from or to read as a whole to the class or group. Stories can raise questions, promote discussion and be a stimulus for many other responses.

Teachers can carefully select extracts from more ‘difficult’ texts to explore certain issues. Difficult and complex issues can be introduced gently through story.

"The concepts underlying the Holocaust are complex, yet appear everywhere. Through story we can at least help children be aware of the dangers – as they begin to make decisions and cope with external pressures."(5).

Focus upon individuals

It is important to make the lives of individual people the focus, and not statistics and dates. The lives of people before the Holocaust need to be explored to give the children a complete picture. Children can also identify with the people. It is also important to balance the picture by sharing examples of people who stood up to the Nazis and help save lives. The careful use of survivor testimonies, by the teacher, is powerful tool. There are accounts available suitable for children.

Teaching about the Holocaust should be planned extensively so that it forms a distinct part of the curriculum. It can be enhanced by developing it through recognition of days such as Anne Frank Day and The National Holocaust Memorial Day as well as exploring Jewish festivals. Many schools already incorporate it into RE topics such as ‘Barriers and Bridges."


Although the subject matter is very difficult and complex, there are many ways it can be presented with primary children. Teachers must be aware of the emotional maturity of their classes and choose appropriate times to approach the subjects. It is a difficult and challenging subject but it is essential.

Finally, it is important to, as Gaby Glassman points out, "always end on a hopeful note."(6). Much can be learned from the Holocaust, and much has survived and flourished, including the Jewish faith. We must ensure that we present this to the children too.

Holocaust Memorial Day

After much consultation, it was recently announced that there would be a national Holocaust Memorial Day, the first one being held on January 27th 2001. This is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Other countries already hold Holocaust Memorial days, with varying degrees of religious observance.

This announcement has tremendous implications and opportunities for schools. As it will be a national day, it is hoped that schools, including primary, can use the day as a focus for their Holocaust education. It could be a starting point for the subject, or a way to place the classroom activities and lessons into national and international perspective. It will serve to highlight the importance and relevance of the lessons for the children, and enable them to feel some common identity with schools and children nationally.

There is a real danger, however, that the day may be marked only by an assembly, or a mention in an assembly. The opportunities to explore the subject will be missed. Schools need to find ways to incorporate the day into the whole programme of RE.

Already, some schools recognise Anne Frank Day, and excellent materials produced by the Anne Frank Educational Trust, enable primary and secondary teachers to explore the subject in assemblies and also in a series of classroom activities. The Holocaust Memorial Day could and should be developed in the same way.

This day will serve as an opportunity to remember and educate. It can provide a stimulus to learn about and from the Holocaust, as well as remembrance for those who perished during the Holocaust. It is vital, therefore, that it forms part of the planned curriculum in our schools.

School – based Work

A report on the lessons and outcomes from activities undertaken in school.


Setting the Scene:

The classes I used to cover this work with were two mixed age classes from years 5 and 6. The school is set within a large housing estate consisting of many high rise flats (although these are slowly being demolished). The range of academic ability of the children is vast, and quite a few display some challenging behaviour!

Within the scope of RE, much work has been done in school to raise the status of the subject and to find ways to involve the children more actively in the subject. There is still though an element of an anti-religion attitude amongst the children. Few belong to a faith and many display openly hostile views to religions other than Christianity. The concept of belonging to a faith and how important that is, is one many children find difficult to understand. As we shall see many still hold very unusual views and ideas about religious beliefs and practices, and as a school we are aware of the need to present a more positive view and also avoid further confusion.

I knew that embarking on this work with these classes could be very interesting! Many of the issues I hoped could be tackled were often raised in school.

However, I wanted to ensure that the children had a good basic understanding of Judaism to enable them to really understand the work. Ideally this would have been covered gradually before this work started, but this was not possible. The classes had done some work previously so I used that as a starting point.

The work about the Holocaust, I feel, would also be better planned within a years work so that the teacher can build upon it gradually and approach it when it fits more appropriately into the curriculum. Festivals, Holocaust Memorial Day and Anne Frank day could be then built in to the work. For that reason the work undertaken for this research was a little artificial as it was covered within a couple of weeks, with classes I didn’t really know. There was also no real opportunity to follow up issues and ideas outside the allocated lesson times -–when some of the best discussions often arise! Children were given the opportunity to note down questions that occurred to them, but this wasn’t really enough.

I carried out work with two classes and tried to make the focus slightly different for each one. The first class focussed more on the life stories of people from the Holocaust, including Anne Frank. For this I used much of the material published by the Anne Frank Educational Trust.

The second focus was the place of Judaism within the Holocaust and trying to show how the Holocaust can be taught within RE without detracting from the importance of both areas.

The lessons do not form a step by step lesson pack, and need to be taught when appropriate to the teacher’s own class, based upon their level of understanding, maturity and knowledge. I have included at the end of this section, examples of sheets used as well as ideas about the work I feel is needed to explore Judaism before embarking upon this topic. I have also included a list of resources for children and teachers, some of which I have used during this work.

I would now like to share some of the outcomes of the lessons. I intend to follow each group through the series of activities.

What do we know?

Objective: The children will share what they already know about the Holocaust and compile a list of questions about the Holocaust focussing on what they would like to find out next.

I began the work by trying to find out what they already knew about the Holocaust and where they had obtained that information. I thought it unlikely that many of the class would understand the term "Holocaust", so I used a topic I knew they had encountered previously- World War 2.

In groups, the children wrote down anything at all they could remember about the topic. I prompted where needed. Gradually children began to pick out names such as Hitler and Anne Frank. One group wrote:

"Adolph Hitler hated Jews." This gave me the lead to move on further. In discussion, it became clear that the class did have some knowledge about the Holocaust, albeit patchy and confused in places. One boy had heard the term ‘holocaust’ before and was able to explain it to the class.

In pairs the children then noted down what they already knew about the Holocaust and how they found out about it. At this point I did not correct any misunderstandings, as I felt it was important to find out what the children thought had happened. Here are some of the responses:

When asked how they had found out about the Holocaust, the replies included:


This final part of the lesson was very successful. The children were asked to think about what they would like to find out next. They were asked to think of it in terms of questions that were in their minds. I must admit, I did expect the questions to focus upon specific details about the camps or Anne Franks life. This was not the case, as I will show with some of the questions the children had raised:

These are just some of the responses, but I left the class feeling really justified in my conviction that we SHOULD be approaching this subject with primary children. These children did already have a lot of information, some of it mistaken, and lots of questions. They immediately focussed on some of the issues that adults do and raised some very interesting points.

Rights and Freedom

Objective: To show the implications of losing one’s rights and to give the children the opportunity to appreciate the concept of "freedom".

In this lesson I wanted the children to understand the implications of losing one’s rights and freedom. I used some activities suggested in "Primary RE in Practice…is it fair", CEM, (1) to explore this issue. Also, I adapted some ideas from a teaching pack about Anne Frank, from America, by Teresa Mornetta. (2)

Firstly, the children were asked to write down all the things they need to live. These lists included basic items such as food, clothing, shelter and warmth.

They were then asked to consider what they would need to live happily. The responses increased greatly!

There was a lot of discussion about these things. I used the idea of freedom to develop the lesson. We discussed what freedom is and what it means to us. This was quite difficult at first as some children associated the loss of freedom with being ‘locked up’, and not all the other aspects of freedom of choice and movement. To develop this the children were given a list of ‘rights’ to discuss and rank in order. They had to imagine life without these rights and rank them in order of which ones would affect their lives the most.

(Appendix 1).

The discussion that this generated was very heated. One group mentioned apartheid and another offered the example of Martin Luther King. To create more of an ‘atmosphere’, we set the scene by imagining that I, a cruel leader, had just imposed restrictions upon this group, and these particular rights had been taken from them. Many responses ensued:

The children were very motivated by this activity. There was a great deal of debate about which restriction would affect them the most, and how unfair such restrictions would be. One or two children wanted to explore the consequences of breaking these restrictions, and vividly described what punishments they thought might ensue!

I then shared with them this extract from "The Diary of Anne Frank", (3). It outlines the anti-Jewish decrees passed at the time. (Appendix 2)


There were audible gasps as I read through the list with them. The noisy, chatty classroom of a few minutes ago was now a place of near silence. The silence was broken only by gasps of disbelief. The children seemed to be able to relate to the list. We finished the lesson with the children highlighting examples that really had an impact on them. We had to abandon this as the children found that nearly all of them had that effect. A discussion followed about why people allowed these things to happen, and the role of some people who helped the Jews, stayed silent or actively collaborated with the Nazis. The issue of ‘turning a blind eye’ was raised and discussed. (I went on to plan a lesson around this issue.)

The lesson was a success. The idea of taking away a person’s rights was a very powerful one. The sharing of experiences of Jewish people at that and at the same time trying to relate it to the children’s own lives, helped the children understand more and relate more to the events, without using shocking or horrific details.


Objective: The children will explore some of the restrictions faced by Anne Frank’s family and begin to show an understanding of her life and feelings at that time.

For this lesson I used some of the activities in the Anne Frank Primary teachers’ pack. (4) The theme of the lesson was ‘restrictions upon freedom’. I wanted the pupils to begin to relate to the life of Anne Frank and the conditions in which she had to live. I wanted to explore, not only the physical restrictions, but also the feelings of isolation and fear that she must have felt.

I began by showing some pictures of Anne Frank before the war. I asked questions such as:

We discussed in detail the pictures, trying to create a feeling of what life was like for a typical young girl at the time. We talked about our typical days, of events and activities we take for granted.

I then asked the pupils to imagine that they have only thirty minutes in which to pack a bag to flee into hiding. They do not know how long they will need to be in hiding or what the conditions will be like. They can not attract attention by carrying large bags or suitcases, so they have to put everything they need or want into a standard size schoolbag. I did the task myself – and I found it immensely difficult to choose items and leave some behind! The responses were very varied. Many children chose items, which would alleviate boredom, such as games, books, Gameboys and mini-TVs! Others chose items for personal hygiene, such as toiletries, spare clothes and hairbrushes. One group filled their bags with chocolate bars and flasks of tea!

There followed a lot of discussion about the usefulness of the chosen items and the reasons for choosing them.

Using an extract from her diary, we then looked at the reasons Anne had chosen the items she had. This led on to looking in more detail at what the problems might have been for people living in such conditions. The children were very good at highlighting potential difficulties:

We finished by reading together more extracts to get a fuller picture. We shall supplement this by watching some extracts of "Dear Kitty" video, which give more details about the conditions Anne lived in.

This work was intended to give the pupils a more rounded view of the lives of individuals affected by the Holocaust. I felt it important that the learn about the people and not just the events. This lesson was just one from the pack which is particularly useful if the teacher wishes to look in depth just at the life of Anne Frank. I wanted now to move on from Anne Frank with this group and explore the lives if others affected by the Holocaust.


Objective: The children will be able to show an understanding of the implications of the anti – Jewish decrees enforced and write a protest against them, highlighting the issue of injustice.

In this lesson I wanted to see if the children had understood some of the issues surrounding the anti-Jewish decrees we had previously explored.

I asked them to write a letter of protest against the decrees, giving their reasons why they thought they were unfair. We needed some discussion on appropriate language to use, and ways in which to set out the argument. (Obvious links here to literacy work!)

I was pleasantly surprised by some of the arguments presented. They had grasped the concepts of discrimination and prejudice and some were even making reference to other examples in history and today. I must stress that the quality of the written work was not my main focus, but evidence that the children had understood the issues we had been discussing. Some of the responses showed that this was the case:

" I am writing to protest about the laws you have put on the Jews. I think it is particularly cruel to take one group and discriminate against them. Think how you would feel if we took you and your people and discriminated against them. You would say its prejudice. You have taken one group’s rights away from them because they believe in a religion different to yours. You don’t just hate them, you make other people hate. Hitler needs to be stopped. Please help the Jews."

"I think this is cruel and wrong. All Jews want to do is live normally but instead they live in fear."

" I am writing to complain about the laws for Jews. I am not a Jew myself but I can understand what they feel like under those laws. Turn in their bicycles! Dreadful, absolutely dreadful! It’s awful."

" I am writing to strongly protest against these discriminating anti-Jewish laws.

It’s cruel. You are taking away the most important thing people have – their rights. Their rights to do what they want, when they want or visit who they like or shop when they like."

These are just some of the responses. Not all the children had grasped the ideas, and there was still some confusion evident. This reinforces my belief that this work needs to be ongoing in the classroom, so that the teacher has time to work with groups of children and see where confusions are. I was unable to spend any extra time with the class whilst doing this research.

One aspect that did come out of the discussion was that children who had experienced racism in some form became very open and willing to share their opinions and ideas. It gave them an opportunity to talk about issues that have affected their lives, but without actually discussing themselves. It acted as a kind of distancing device, and brought out into the open issues often difficult to face directly within a classroom situation.

"Paul’s Journey"

Objective: The children will share in the story of Paul’s journey, respond to it and ask questions they would ask the author.

This is the title of a wonderful children’s book by Paul Oppenheimer (5). It is the account of his life before and during the Holocaust. Ideally, I would use this book over a period of time, allowing more time to focus upon the events in his lifetime. The title and nature of the book, makes it an ideal feature in any topic on life stories or journeys.

In the short time available, I was only really able to read and discuss the story with the class. I did, however, ask questions as we read the book, to allow the children to respond to certain episodes in Paul’s life. This included questions such as:

"How do you think Paul felt being the only Jewish boy in his class?"

"Paul and Rudi had some very happy times, what were they?"

"What was the worry that was always in his mind?"

"How would you feel moving from country to country?"

"Why do you think Paul’s mother brought her children from England to Holland?"

"Why couldn’t Paul understand why Hitler hated the Jews?"

"How do you think Paul must have been feeling now?"

"What do you think kept Paul going during his time in the camps?"

"Describe how you think he felt meeting Eve again"

"Why do you think he called this a journey?"

"What were the high and really low points of this journey?"

"What did he mean at the end when he said, ’this time I had really beaten Hitler’?"

The story could have been explored in greater depth if used as a main focus over a period of weeks. Each episode in Paul’s journey could then be examined more fully to really do justice to this wonderful book.

However, even in the short time available, the book had a profound effect on the children. The fact that it was a true story, and that the author is still alive had a real impact on the children. One child wanted to go and begin writing his own ‘life journey’!

At the end of the book, I asked the children to think of questions that they would like to ask the author if they had the opportunity.

"How did it feel like at the end of the war?"

"What were the conditions like in the camp?"

"How did you feel when you found your sister?"

"How did you feel knowing you had survived and so many had died?"

"What were the rules in the camp?"

"What was it like to have typhus?"

"How did you feel losing some of your family?"

The type of question varies greatly, but the entire group had questions that they wanted to ask.

Although the work covered by this group was not explicitly RE, many skills we aim to develop within RE were used. This is particularly the case with some of the questions the children were beginning to raise. Some children were asking questions that many adults still ask about the Holocaust and theologians still ponder upon.


Objective: To show the importance of rules in the lives of people, and explore the importance of the laws within Judaism.

With this group I decided to follow a different path. I knew that they had previously covered an RE topic entitled ‘Rules’ and I wanted to explore some aspects of Judaism linked to this, then develop it further by showing some of the elements of faith that remained so important for some Jewish people during the Holocaust. Ideally, both groups would have covered all of the work, but this was not possible in the time available.

I began by finding out what the children knew about Judaism. Their knowledge was very patchy, then one or two mentioned Hanukkah.

We began by looking back at work they had covered about the Ten Commandments. We discussed the meaning of them, the need for rules for guidance and their relevance in today’s society. (The class had previously written modern day versions of the Commandments, expressing the issues they felt were important.)

Using extracts from CEM, "RE in Practice… is it fair?" (6), we began to explore the laws of the Jewish faith and their importance for that faith.

I needed to talk about the Torah, what it was and what it meant. Unfortunately, the children had little previous knowledge, other than the Ten Commandments, so this was not ideal. I was conscious of the fact that the children did not have a lot of knowledge of the Jewish faith, and I did not want to leave them with an image of Judaism as just a list of rules and restrictions. We discussed why the rules are so important, and what they say about the relationship with God.

To develop this we looked at some of the rules from an extract of the Holiness Code, (7) and discussed the fairness of these rules. Did the children see them as sensible? Were they fair? Could the children give examples of rules that were not fair? (Appendix 3)

This led to lots of comments about occasions where the children felt they had been treated unfairly, or others had been allowed to do things they hadn’t.

I asked the children to pick out one particular Commandment or rule that they wished to discuss. We had very interesting responses:

"Do not murder – is not needed now because people just kill each other anyway!"

"Respect your mother and father is very important."

The children then were asked to take a Commandment, such as "Do not steal", and create a short role -play around this. The idea was that the children focussed on the consequences of actions such as stealing and saw the need for such a law. I asked the children to avoid Commandments that dealt with murder or adultery, as I knew that this could lead to very lively role-play, with the potential of class disruption. The class teacher agreed to let the children plan and work on these over a period of a couple of weeks, and we would video and evaluate them at the end of the series of lessons. The children were very excited about this and went away with many ideas to work on.

The Torah

Objective: To explore the special nature of the Torah and its importance within Judaism.

After evaluating the first lesson, I realised that our scheme of work for RE in school needed to be updated. The children’s knowledge of Judaism was very limited, and the discussion that began lesson two highlighted also some alarming issues.

I asked the children again, what they knew about Judaism. The responses included:

Then one child said, "Jews don’t eat snowflakes!" I thought I had misheard, or that he had misheard something from the previous lesson about rules, so I asked him to clarify this. He said that he’d seen it on the TV programme ‘South Park’. Apparently one of the characters in this adult cartoon is Jewish, but I had never seen the programme so could not verify what the child said he had seen. Other children in the group were quick to highlight how silly the statement was, but the child concerned had really accepted it. I talked with him about the programme, and asked if he thought it was true. He maintained that as real actors were used for the voices, then what they were saying could be true. Although this was just one statement, it really alarmed me. The view that the children had about Jewish people was both confusing and totally inaccurate. I knew that this was a real concern when we started to talk about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, in the time I had with this group I could only do a little to affect this image, but it highlighted a major factor in teaching about the Holocaust. The children MUST have been given accurate and sufficient information about the Jewish faith before this work is undertaken.

(See Appendix 4)

I decided to try to explore a little more of the importance of the Torah for Jewish people. We used artefacts and photos to look at Torah scrolls and how they are used. Then I shared with them the story, "The Little Torah", (8), which tells how some Torah Scrolls were treated during the Holocaust and how they were restored afterwards. Although, really written for younger children, the story was a useful way of exploring the treatment of the Jewish religion during the Holocaust, showing how items of immense importance were desecrated. The children had previously in RE topics explored the topic "Special Things" highlighting objects that are particularly important to people. They were able, therefore, to relate this to the story of the Torah scrolls, and how important it was to restore them.


Objective: To explore the idea that celebrations are an important part of faith and still played an important part in the lives of many people during the Holocaust.

Celebrations in the camps were the focus of the rest of the work. We discussed why some Jews still tried to celebrate major festivals whilst living in horrendous conditions. The children used their knowledge of Hanukkah and Passover to focus the discussion on. Again this knowledge was rather patchy in places, and highlighted the need for more work to be covered in this area. However, the children responded well to the discussion.

In response to the question, why do you think some Jews still celebrated these festivals in the camps? many thoughtful answers were given, including;

"The Jews still celebrated their festivals because they were special to them. Hanukkah and Passover were special because the celebrations remember the miracles that happened in the past of Jewish religion."

"Some Jews still celebrated their religion so that they could stand up to the Nazis and let them know that they would not give up their religion."

"Because they did not want to forget the happy times."

"They wanted to keep their religion alive and never let the Nazis take it away."

These responses were a real indicator that many of the children had seen the importance of faith for many people, and they were beginning to develop their understanding of how important faith can be for people.

We supplemented this with a book called, "Let the Celebrations Begin"(9), which tells a story of some women in a concentration camp, making toys for the children for when the war ends. They use all available resources to do so.

The story and illustrations raised many questions for the children:

Why did the women spend so much time making toys for the children?

Why did they not try to get food instead?

There followed lots of discussion around these questions. Many interesting responses were given;

"They made the toys to make the children happy."
"To help them remember their homes."

"To keep the children happy and occupied and to help them forget the danger they were in."

One comment made emphasised the importance of providing the children with accurate information about Judaism.

"They have no hair because they are Jewish."

I needed then to explain the reason why the women had very short hair, in case the child thought that this was a feature of being Jewish.

The children did begin to develop a more accurate image of Judaism, and this needs to be continued. Their responses to the stories used were very sensitive and interesting.

Hope and Belief

Objectives: To explore the importance of faith, belief and hope in the lives of people.

To reflect upon what we have learned about the Holocaust and to share our hopes for the future.

The children were asked what they had learned about the Holocaust and what we could learn from it.

(Appendix 5).

Many had learned a lot about the Holocaust, though there were still one or two misconceptions. There were also some super responses to what we can learn from the Holocaust:

"The Holocaust was an awful time. The Nazis treated the Jews different to everybody else. The Holocaust was a scary and confusing time. Anne Frank wasn’t the only one to go into hiding."

The Nazis hated the Jews. It wasn’t just Jews who were killed, but Hitler really hated them.

We can learn:

"Not to single people out because they’re different."

"How wrong it is to be prejudice and discriminate against people different from us."

"It was very wrong."

We then read an extract from Anne’s diary, (10), which talked about her hopes for the future and also her feelings about human nature. (Appendix 6). This led to a super discussion about what kept people going during the Holocaust. What helped them through?

"They believed God would see them through."

"If you think good will happen it will."

"The suffering will soon be over."

"They would have hopes and dreams for the future, when the war is over."

"Plans for the future – to meet your family."

"Their religion might help them through the Holocaust. In the camps when they were beaten, or suffering, they might think that God’s with them and we’ll get out safely."

"Religion might make them feel better."
"If God’s there, he will make them safe."

"Most of them died doing what was right. They kept up their religion, they thought that was the right thing to do."

"Even though bad stuff happened, many kept their religion."

"Some might have wanted to be a hero to others."

"They kept their religion as a way of standing up to the Nazis."

Throughout the work I was concerned that the children would be left with a view that all Germans hate Jews, so I always made sure I emphasised the term ‘Nazis’. Also, when talking about the experiences of people in the camps, I would say, for example, ‘some Jews still celebrated in the camps.’ This was to avoid dangerous generalisations.

I wanted to conclude the work on a hopeful note. We discussed the activities we had covered, and the experiences of some of the people, and how some like Anne Frank could still remain hopeful for the future. We reminded ourselves that there were examples of people who helped others during the Holocaust and many people did survive to tell their story. It is important for us then also to be hopeful for the future.

The children were then asked to use what they had learned about and from the Holocaust to help them put forward their hopes and dreams for the future of us all. There were some very moving responses:

The work had a profound effect upon the children and myself. I was amazed by some of their responses and in particular some of the questions they raised. Some of the theological questions grappled with by adult minds after the Holocaust were beginning to develop in the minds of these children.

There was no need to use shock tactics; the children found aspects such as losing one’s rights as shocking enough. They related to experiences of individuals in stories and were beginning to apply some of the issues to present day events.

The topic of the Holocaust inevitably raises issues of prejudice and racism. These are unfortunately features of life which have impinged directly upon the lives of many of the children – yet as the focus of the topic was not upon them and their situations it seemed to create a safe distance from which they could view their experiences. The children spoke freely and expressed concerns of their own, and related their experiences to others in the group.

The children also developed their skills of questioning and the teacher the skill of allowing this to happen. It was important to open up the discussion and let the children express views, however difficult the answers may be. As we have seen, some of the questions raised by the children have great religious implications, and show a growing understanding of the importance of faith for many and questions that often people who have faith have to face.


When I embarked upon this study, I had to face many questions about the suitability of this topic for primary aged children, and also it’s place within primary RE. It has become clear to me, through reading and the classroom based work that not only is this work appropriate, it is vital. We are in the process of educating children for life. We have a duty to prepare them for life in the adult world. As teachers we are able to tackle issues in a sensitive way, and give children time to respond and reflect. By leaving the process of Holocaust education out of the primary curriculum, we are denying the children the opportunity to do this.

Is it RE? The simple answer is yes!

There are obvious links to other curriculum areas, but as I have shown the process of enabling the children to question human experiences and begin to ask theological questions, firmly places this within RE.

With the announcement of the National Holocaust Memorial Day, I hope that Holocaust education becomes a firm part of our curriculum. We owe it to the children in our schools. We owe it to the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Appendix 1

The right to own or use a telephone.

The rights to visit whom you choose.

The right to own a radio or television.

The right to own a computer.

The right to own a pet.

The right to leave the house when you choose.

The rights to choose whom you socialise with.

The right to use public facilities, such as shops and leisure facilities.

Appendix 2

"After May 1940 the good times were few and far between; first there was the war, then the capitulation and the arrival of the Germans, which is when the trouble started for the Jews. Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees:

Jews were required to wear a yellow star.

Jews were required to turn in their bicycles.

Jews were forbidden to use trams.

Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own.

Jews were required to do their shopping between 3.00 and 5.00pm.

Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty salons.

Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8.00pm and 6.00am.

Jews were forbidden to go to theatres, cinemas or any other forms of entertainment.

Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields.

Jews were forbidden to go rowing.

Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public.

Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8.00pm.

Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes.

Jews were required to attend Jewish schools, etc.

You couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that’ but life went on. Jacque always said to me, ‘ I don’t dare do anything more, ‘cause I’m afraid it’s not allowed."

Appendix 3

In the holiness code in Leviticus 19, Jews are commanded:

(Appendix 4): Judaism

Here is a brief outline of the key features of Judaism, which should be explored with primary children before teaching about the Holocaust to enable the pupils to approach the subject with an understanding of Judaism.

Some of these areas can be revisited when discussing the Holocaust to help the children understand the effect of the Holocaust upon the Jewish faith as well as the lives of individuals.




Stories and Poems

Life Stories



Appendix 5

What have you learned about the Holocaust?

What can we learn from the Holocaust?


Appendix 6

Saturday, 15 July 1944

"It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life upon a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I will be able to realise them."



  1. CEM,"RE in Practice… Is it fair?",1999, p5, 20, 21
  2. Teresa Morretta, "Teaching the Holocaust: Grades 4 – 12 " www.remember.org/educate/morretta
  3. Quoted in CEM op. cit p5
  4. "Anne Frank Day Primary Pack," (available from The Anne Frank Educational Trust.)
  5. "Paul’s Journey" Paul Oppenheimer, as told to Anne Moore, edc, Walsall. (Available from AFET).
  6. CEM, op cit, p20
  7. In CEM ibid. p.20
  8. "The Tattooed Torah", retold by June Jones, RE Today, Summer 1992.p.
  9. "Let the Celebrations Begin", Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas, Bodley Head, 1991
  10. Anne Frank, quoted in "Anne Frank Day Primary Teachers Pack", Anne Frank Educational Trust



One of the first tasks I undertook was to send a leaflet to various Primary schools addressed to the R.E. co-ordinators.

This briefly outlined what I was doing and asked for any teachers, who taught about the Holocaust within their schools, to contact me.

I was very realistic about the prospect of receiving many replies. Even teachers, who do teach about the Holocaust and may have been quite enthusiastic about the research, often do not have the time to commit themselves to any other tasks. I understood this fully. I’d been in the same position myself on numerous occasions.

Therefore, I was delighted when two teachers contacted me and were prepared to talk about how they approached the topic in school.

One teacher described how the Holocaust is taught to pupils of Year 5 within the topic entitled, "Barriers and Bridges". Extracts from "The Diary of Anne Frank" were used to explore issues such as prejudice and racism.

A primary school teacher, who made a point of saying she was not a R.E. Co-ordinator, also contacted me. She is Jewish and teaches about the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective and from very personal experiences. Her parents were Holocaust survivors. She felt very strongly that we have to learn from history, and that prejudice is built up within children from lack of knowledge. If we need any justification for teaching about the Holocaust to young children, then this was part of it.

In her teaching she presents facts about the Holocaust and provides the children with a picture of what actually happened. Before she begins, she tells children who may find the pictures and facts upsetting that they may leave the lesson.

She also retells stories of her mother’s life as a young girl in occupied Poland and will openly answer questions that the children might raise.

The teacher concerned also provides a very rich education about Judaism to the children, providing them with more knowledge about the beliefs and practices of the faith. We chatted for a long time as she prepared food for the Sabbath meal the next day. She shared with me reactions to the Holocaust that are held by survivors she knows.

It was a very enjoyable and interesting meeting. It made me even more convinced of the need for education about the Holocaust, as this is about real lives, real people and their experiences. There is a danger in making the subject too academic. It was a period in history, but its effects still live on in the lives of people today.

During my research I was very fortunate to meet many other people who share this interest in the education about the Holocaust. Dr. Deirdre Burke at Wolverhampton University shared with me some of the research she had carried out within secondary schools. It was very heartening to see the work being carried out. Each new person I contacted pointed me in the direction of someone else. If only I’d had the time to pursue all the contacts.


I thought it was also important to have an insight into how the Holocaust is taught within Secondary Schools. During my research I have discovered lots of resources, videos and books aimed at Secondary aged pupils and I wanted to see how the topic was approached.

Within Secondary schools it is taught within the scope of history and R.E.. The first teacher I met was a Secondary history teacher, who was particularly interested in teaching about the Holocaust. He had produced papers himself and was keen to point out that he was keenly interested in the plight of groups other than the Jews, in the Holocaust, and tried to present this to the students. The teacher concerned, stated that his lessons on this topic were "more talk than work", as he felt it very important that the students had time to really grasp the issues and understand the importance of studying this. The work also built up a picture of what led up to the Holocaust, so that the students were not left with the impression that this was just an isolated incident in history.

Students were then led through the experiences of families, sharing extracts from survivors’ testimonies and using archive material. The teacher made the point that some of the more graphic materials, such as photographs of bodies and the camps, were not shown until the students had a fuller understanding of the events.

Generally, the teacher felt that he received a very good response from the students to the topic. They seem to grasp the relevance for today and are able to understand some of the issues that it raises.

I also visited a local Jewish primary school to find out how the Holocaust is taught from a Jewish perspective. The rabbi who was responsible for this teaching explained how most of the children has some prior knowledge of the Holocaust before approaching the subject in school. It is often discussed at major festival times and not just as a topic on its own. The Holocaust is taught within the realms of Jewish history which some of the children have some prior knowledge of.

I was very moved by my visit to Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre, in Newark. The exhibition there, which focussed on the lives of individuals and communities in the Holocaust, was excellent. The peaceful gardens and wonderful library enabled me to think a great deal about the study. Whilst there I was privileged to be able to listen to Rudi Oppenheimer, a survivor of the Holocaust, speak to a group of Secondary pupils. It was incredibly moving, not only to hear him speak, but also to listen to the questions from the young people in the audience. I left Beth Shalom with a renewed conviction that there was a real place for teaching about the Holocaust within primary schools.

I now had to put this into action. I prepared a series of lessons, and worked with children from Years 5 and 6 in my school. The outcome of the work was very rewarding and the children seemed to gain a tremendous amount from the experiences.


References 1


  1. Elie Wiesel, "Night" Fontana 1972,p.45
  2. Jonathan Sacks, "Faith in the Future", Darton, Longman and Toda,1995, p238
  3. Steven T. Katz, "Post – Holocaust Dialogues; Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought", New York University Press, p143
  4. Ibid., p143
  5. Rabbi Dr. Julian Jacobs, "The Ship has a Captain; Judaism, Faith and Reason", Aviva Press, 1987, p69
  6. Jonathan Sacks, op.cit., p.239
  7. Dan Cohn-Sherbok, "Issues in Contemporary Judaism", Macmillan,1991, p1
  8. Jonathan Sacks, op. Cit., p238
  9. Ibid., p2
  10. Elie Wiesel, op. Cit., p77
  11. Richard Rubenstein, "After Auschwitz" 1996, p153,as quoted by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, op.cit., p4
  12. Richard Rubenstein "Approaches to Auschwitz", 1987, quoted by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, op. cit.,p5
  13. Steven T. Katz, op. cit., p154
  14. Emil L. Fackenheim, "God’s Presence in History" ,Harper and Row,1970, p84
  15. Jonathan Sacks, op. cit., p242


References 2

(1) BLAIR, TONY, quoted in "Anne Frank Educational Trust UK: Anne Frank: A History for Today", www.afet.org/uk/exhibition, 13.1.2000.

(2) YAD VASHEM "Outline of Our Educational Philosophy", www.yadvashem.org, 13.1.2000.

(3) BATSHEVA DAGAN, "Helping Children to learn about the Holocaust: A Psycho – Educational Approach, Why, What, How and When", from The Second International Conference, Yad Vashem,

October 11th 1999, www.yadvashem.org.il/conference, 13.1.2000.

(4) Ibid. p2

(5) LIONEL KOCHAN, quoted in," Teaching the Holocaust: Some Reflections on a Problematic Area." GEOFFREY SHORT, in BJRE, Vol. 14 no 1 1991, p28.

(6) GEOFFREY SHORT, ibid, p33.

(7) DEIRDRE M. BURKE, "The Holocaust in Education: an exploration of Teacher and Learner Perspectives", 1998, p155.

(8) Ibid. p159.

(9) Ibid. p159.

(10) Ibid. p159 –160.

(11) LIZ WOOD, "Participation and Learning in Early Childhood", in CATHIE HOLDEN and NICK CLOUGH, "Children as Citizens. Education for Participation," Kingsley, 1998, p33.

(12) CEM, "Primary RE in Practice … is it Fair?" CEM 1999, p.2

(13) DAVID DAY and LINDA BURTON," Teaching about the Holocaust: RE appeals for help from Theology" in JEFF ASTLEY and LESLIE J. FRANCIS, "Christian Theology and Religious Education", SPCK, 1996,P.198

(14) Ibid. p198-199

(15) SIMON WIESENTHAL, quoted on the cover of the video, "The Yellow Star. The Persecution of the Jews in Europe 1933-45", Chronos UK, 1994

(16) Yad Vashem, op.cit.

(17) DEBBIE LEWIS, in CEM, "Primary RE in Practice…is it Fair?" op.cit. p10

(18) Quoted in CEM, Ibid. p11

(19) Quoted in, BRENDA WATSON "The Effective Teaching of Religious Education", Longman, 1993,p177

(20) JUDY (WEISSENBERG) COHEN, www.remember.org/educare/judypoem, 20 – 1 2000.


  1. Trevor Cooling, "Concept Cracking: Exploring Christian Beliefs in School", Stapleford Project, 1994, p.5
  2. Ibid. p19
  3. Ibid. p19
  4. Ibid.p20
  5. Vida Barnett, "I’ll Tell You a Story; The Importance of Story in History", in RE TODAY, CEM Summer 1992, p27
  6. Gaby Glassman in "Anne Frank In The World Exhibition, Teachers’ Pack", Kent County Council and Anne Frank Educational Trust, 1995, p.26


Part 1

BRAYBOOKE, Marcus, "How to Understand Judaism", SCM Press Ltd., 1995

BAUER, Yehuda, "The Holocaust in Historical Perspective." Sheldon Press, 1978.

COHN –SHERBOK, Dan, "The Jewish Faith", SPCK, 1993

COHN-SHERBOK, Dan, "Issues in Contemporary Judaism", Macmillan, 1991

COHN-SHERBOK, Lavinia and Dan,"A Short History of Judaism." One World, 1994.

ELLIS, Marc H., "Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation", Orbis, 1987

FACKENHEIM, Emil L.," God’s Presence in History", Harper and Row, 1970.

FLEISCHNER, Eva, "Auschwitz: Beginning of a new Era? Reflections on the Holocaust",

GILBERT, Martin, "The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy", Fontana, 1987.

HERTZBERG, Arthur, ed. "Judaism – the Key Spiritual Writings of the Jewish Tradition", Simon and Shuster, 1991

JACOBS, RABBI DR. Julian G., 1987,"The Ship has a Captain, Judaism, Faith and Reason. "Aviva Press.

KATZ, Steven T., "Post-Holocaust Dialogues; Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought." New York University Press, 1985.

MONTAGU, Sarah, 1990 Judaism "The Westhill Project R.E.

5-16, Teachers Manual," Stanley Thornes.

SACKS, Jonathan, "Faith in the Future", Darton, Longman and Toda, 1995

SOLOMON, Norman, "Judaism – A Very Short Introduction", OUP, 1996

SOLOMON, Norman, "Judaism and World Religions." Macmillan, 1991

WIESEL, Elie," Night", Fontana, 1972


Part 2


Astley, Jeff and Francis, Leslie J., "Christian Theology and Religious Education." SPCK, 1996

AUSTERBERRY, Maureen, "Jews 1 and 2, The Westhill Project RE

5-16", Stanley Thornes, 1990.

BLAYLOCK, Lat and Johnson Colin, "A Teacher’s Handbook of Religious Education" CEM, 1997.

BURKE, Deirdre M." The Holocaust in Education: an exploration of teacher and Learner Perspectives."1998.

CEM, "Primary RE in Practice …is it fair?" CEM 1999.

COOLING, Trevor, "Concept Cracking: Exploring Christian Beliefs in School." Stapleford Project, 1994.

HARRIS, Maureen, "Living Religions – Judaism", Nelson, 1996.

HOLDEN, Cathie and CLOUGH, Nick, "Children as Citizens, Education for Participation." Jessica Kingsley, 1998.

KENT COUNTY COUNCIL AND ANNE FRANK EDUCATIONAL TRUST,"Anne Frank in the World Exhibition, Teacher’s Pack", 1995

LANGTREE, Graham, "Are You Ready? Developing Quality Religious Education in Primary Schools." RMEP, 1997

MONTAGU, Sarah, 1990 Judaism "The Westhill Project R.E.

5-16, Teachers Manual," Stanley Thornes.

MONTAGU, Sarah and BREINER, Margaret, "Jews 4, The Westhill Project RE 5-16, " Stanley Thornes 1990.

READ, Garth, RUDGE John, TEECE Geoff and HOWARTH Roger B.,"How Do I Teach RE?", Stanley Thornes, 1992.

SUPPLE, Carrie, "From Prejudice to Genocide – Learning about the Holocaust", Trentham, 1993.

QCA, "Model Syllabuses for Religious Education:

Model 1 Living Faiths Today

Model 2 Questions and Teachings", SCAA 1994

THATCHER, Adrian, ed., "Spirituality and the Curriculum", Cassell, 1999.

WATSON, Brenda "The Effective Teaching of Religious Education", Longman, 1993.


ANNE FRANK EDUCATIONAL TRUST, "Exhibition. Anne Frank: A History for Today" www.afet.org/uk/exhibition, 11.2.00

BARNETT, Vida, "I’ll Tell you a Story; The Importance of Story in History." in RE Today, CEM Summer 1992.

COOMBES, Alan," Young Citizens", 9-10-98, www.tes.co.uk/


COWAN, Paula, "Tell the Children" 12-11-99, www.tes.co.uk/


DAGAN, Batsheva, "Helping Children to Learn about the Holocaust: A Psycho-Educational Approach, Why, What, How and When."11-10-99, www.yadvashem.org.il/conference, 13-1-00.

DEVESON, Tom, "Why children should know the worst", T.E.S. 24-9-99.

HARRIS, Maria, "Teaching the Null Curriculum – The Holocaust" in The British Journal of Religious Education, Voll11, No 3, 1989.

KLEIN, Reva, "Key Players in a haunting tragedy", T.E.S.,


KLEIN, Reva, "An Inspiration for our times",T.E.S., 31-5-96.

NEWHAM, David, "Please Sir what does genocide mean?"

4-6-99, www.tes.org.uk/ 13-1-00.

SHORT, Geoffrey," Teaching the Holocaust: Some Reflections on a problematic Area." In B.J.R.E., Vol .14, no .1, 1998.

SHORT, Geoffrey and CARRINGTON, Bruce, "Learning about Judaism; a contribution to the debate on multi-faith Religious Education." B.J.R.E., Vol.17, No.3, 1995.

UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM, "Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust", www.ushmm.org. 6-1-00

YAD VASHEM, "Outline of our Educational Philosophy", www.yadvashem.org.il/ 13-1-00


"The Yellow Star" Chronos UK, 1994.

Teacher/pupil Resources

"Anne Frank In the World " Exhibition Teacher’s Pack, Kent County Council and AFET, 1995

"Anne Frank Day", Primary Pack, (available from The Anne Frank Educational Trust.)

" The Diary of a Young Girl", Anne Frank, Pan Books, London.

"Primary RE in Practice…. Is it Fair?", CEM, 1999

"The Holocaust – a History of Courage and Resistance", Bea Stadtler, Behrman House, 1974

"Anne Frank", Vanorah Leigh, Wayland. 1985

"The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm",

David A. Adler, VAHC Press, New York, 1987.

"Our Lonely Journey", Stephen D. Smith, Paintbrush Publications, 1999

"Rose Blanche", Roberto Innocenti, Jonathan Cape, 1985.

"Let the Celebrations Begin", Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas, Bodley Head, 1991

"They Never Played Soldiers", Regina Franks , as told to Miles Tandy, and "Paul’s Journey" Paul Oppenheimer, as told to Anne Moore, edc, Walsall. (Available from AFET).

"The Tattooed Torah", retold by June Jones, RE Today, Summer 1992, p29.


"The Westhill Project R.E. 5-16 Judaism" Stanley Thornes, 1990

Teacher’s Manual – Sarah Montagu

Pupil’s books 1 and 2, - Maureen Austerberry

Photopack 1995

"That’s Not Fair", Barry Miller and Trish Miller, RMEP,1990

"Teaching RE, Judaism 5 –11", ed. By Pamela M. Wilkinson, CEM, 1996.


For Teacher’s background reading:

"…I never saw another butterfly…", Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942 –1944, ed. By Hana Volovkova, Schocken Books, 1993.

"The Holocaust – a guide for teachers and Students", Holocaust Educational Trust, 1995.

"New Perspectives: The Holocaust", R.G. Grant, Wayland, 1997.

"A History of the Holocaust –Another Time, Another Place", Stephen D. Smith, Beth Shalom Ltd., 1996

"Britain and the Holocaust", Dr. David Cesarini, Holocaust Educational Trust, 1998.

Useful Web sites and addresses

www.ushmm.org ( United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – guidelines for teaching.)

www.yadvashem.org.il (Yad Vashem Israel)

www.afet.org.uk (Anne Frank Educational Trust)


www.bethshalom.com (Holocaust Memorial Centre, Newark, Nottingham)



General RE sites





Useful addresses:

Anne Frank Educational Trust, P.O. Box 11880, London, N6 4LN, Tel: 020 8340 9077

Beth Shalom, Laxton, Newark, Notts, NG22 OPA

Tel: 01623 836627

The Holocaust Educational Trust, BCM Box 7892, London WC1N 3XX Tel: 0171 222 6822


This study was made possible by the award from the Farmington Institute for which I am extremely grateful.

Many thanks to Jill Maybury, my tutor at Westhill, for all her enthusiasm and support.

Thanks also to everyone at Westhill for assisting with my study.


I would also like to express my gratitude to the many individuals and organisations that expressed interest in my study and assisted me, especially Dr. Deirdre Burke, Stephen Smith MBE (Beth Shalom), Ruth Jacobs (Israel Information Centre, Birmingham) and the many teachers and headteachers from Birmingham schools who gave up their time to talk to me.


Finally, this study would not have been possible without the support and contributions of the staff and pupils at Pegasus School.