Teaching the Holocaust

Source: Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“The story of the Holocaust is first and foremost a human story. Any discussion of its victims, its perpetrators or those who stood by and watched must attempt to understand the human being involved. The encounter between students and the “simple” people who were present in the events of the Holocaust – their daily lives and reality – must serve as the foundation for meaningful educational work.” Yad Vashem

The following information has been adapted from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. NOTE: The references throughout to students should be broadened to include students of all ages.

“The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral issues. A structured inquiry into this history yields critical lessons for an investigation into human behaviour. It also addresses one of the central mandates of education, which is to examine what it means to be a responsible citizen.

By studying these topics, students come to realize that:Democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained, but need to be appreciated, nurtured, and protected. Silence and indifference to the suffering of others, or to the infringement of civil rights in any society, can—however unintentionally—perpetuate these problems. The Holocaust was not an accident in history; it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately mass murder to occur.

The Holocaust was a watershed event, not only in the 20th century but also in the entire course of human history.

Studying the Holocaust also helps students to:

  • Understand the roots and ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping in any society.
  • Develop an awareness of the value of pluralism and an acceptance of diversity.
  • Explore the dangers of remaining silent, apathetic, and indifferent to the oppression of others.
  • Think about the use and abuse of power as well as the roles and responsibilities of individuals, organizations, and nations when confronted with civil rights violations and/or policies of genocide.
  • Understand how a modern nation can utilize its technological expertise and bureaucratic infrastructure to implement destructive policies ranging from social engineering to genocide.

As students gain insight into the many historical, social, religious, political, and economic factors that cumulatively resulted in the Holocaust, they gain awareness of the complexity of the subject and a perspective on how a convergence of factors can contribute to the disintegration of democratic values. Students come to understand that it is the responsibility of citizens in any society to learn to identify danger signals and to know when to react.
Most students demonstrate a high level of interest in studying this history precisely because the subject raises questions of fairness, justice, individual identity, peer pressure, conformity, indifference, and obedience—issues that adolescents confront in their daily lives. Students are also affected by and challenged to comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust; they are often particularly struck by the fact that so many people allowed this genocide to occur by failing either to resist or to protest.”