Students and teachers: lights in the darkness – by Dr Rebecca Hale

This year, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is Be the light in the darkness. The theme beseeches us to:

  • recognise the darkness of genocide and the abhorrent processes that engender it including discrimination, dehumanisation and persecution;
  • identify the light during this darkness, such as the actions of rescuers and acts of resistance;
  • expose the darkness today, including genocide denial and identity-based prejudice and hostility;
  • and galvanise us to become the light that challenges injustice, confronts hate and prejudice, and shows compassion and respect towards others.

Be the light in the darkness highlights the critical role of genocide education and prevention to bear witness to the experience of genocide survivors, and challenge distortions and denial of the truth about genocide and genocidal regimes.

Credit: Olivia Hemingway

Findings from research conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education resonate with issues presented in this year’s HMD theme. This includes feedback collected in focus groups and surveys with students to find out about their experiences of learning about the Holocaust. For many of the participating students, it was the first time they had learned about the Holocaust and confronting such darkness elicited responses of disbelief that such a thing could happen and that humans were capable of committing such atrocities. Students struggled to grasp the scale of the Holocaust; in particular, the number of people who were murdered. They also recognised the long-term impact of this devastating event on the survivors.

“I found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to do such a thing to other human beings.” 
Survey response, year 8 student, Lancashire.

“I didn’t like the fact that so many innocent people died and the effects it had on the survivors.”
Survey response, year 8 student, Essex.

“It is hard to see that, that many families were destroyed or broken. It is also difficult to know that, that many people were killed during the Holocaust.”
Survey response, year 9 student, Warwickshire.

 “I found it difficult that even after the end of the Holocaust, the Jews were still targeted and we looked at a real letter having been sent to Leon Greenman, a survivor, and it was very disrespectful and rude towards him which was difficult to learn about.”
Survey response, year 9 student, Wiltshire.

However, discussions also tapped into the theme of light during the darkness. Despite recognising how challenging and unsettling learning about the Holocaust was, students described the importance of studying this history. They were inspired and struck by the bravery of survivors who recounted what happened to them and their families during the Holocaust. The students valued learning about the experiences of individuals, better enabling them to grasp the scale of the Holocaust and what was lost. They demonstrated how their knowledge and understanding about this history had developed and this supported them to challenge misinformation about the Holocaust. They also reflected on what learning about the Holocaust meant to them, and how they should respond to injustice they encounter in the present day.

“I found that listening to Zigi Shipper- a survivor of the Holocaust, most amazing thing to hear. It really deepened my understanding and knowledge and it seemed so much more real for me. He was so genuine and I developed a massive amount of empathy after hearing him”
Survey response, year 9 student, South Yorkshire.

 “I believe that the story of Leon was very interesting because he was such a hero, and to hear everything he has been through, is just astonishing.”
Survey response, year 9 student, Warwickshire.

“I valued the fact that we looked at specific people’s stories and experiences so as not to generalise people’s experiences of the Holocaust and realise that they were actually real people and not just a number added to a statistic.”
Survey response, year 9 student, Wiltshire.

“Learning about the Holocaust affects you personally, like my morals have changed I think. When you learn about the stories it affects you personally that I would never want to be that prejudiced against anyone in our community.”
Focus group response, year 9 student, South Yorkshire.

Undoubtedly, the way that Holocaust education is delivered plays a critical role in how students come to understand this history. As demonstrated in the Centre’s 2016 research with students, it is essential that students acquire substantive historical knowledge about the Holocaust (e.g.  the roles of different agents and agencies in the perpetration of genocide and the long history of antisemitism). Additionally, students need informed conceptual understanding (e.g. specific substantive concepts like ‘Nazis’, power and politics; ‘second-order concepts’ such as causation; and other important organising concepts like ‘perpetrators’, ‘victims’ and ‘bystanders’). Equipped with this knowledge and understanding, students are better able to recognise and challenge erroneous narratives of the Holocaust. Subsumed in this, educators should develop students’ metacognitive skills – enabling them to understand how they ‘know’ what they know, as well as supporting them to interpret and scrutinise multiple forms of representation and sources of information. Never, has such an endeavour been so paramount given the proliferation of fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories widely circulated on social media today.

Be the light in the darkness is a powerful theme which forces us to confront the dark reality that genocide continues to happen.  Genocide is built upon processes that have not been consigned to the history books, but are very much in the present, worryingly gaining traction in the current climate of fake news. As the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust highlight: As the world deals with the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, dangerous myths and hate-filled conspiracy theories are blaming and demonising people because of their identity. Spreading quickly on social media, it is crucial that we work together and speak out with the truth whenever we encounter lies and fake news.

We need to equip young people with the knowledge, proficiency and confidence to be the light in the darkness. Fortunately, we have incredible teachers who are committed to delivering high quality Holocaust education. In the Centre’s recent national survey with teachers:

  • 97% of teachers agreed ‘it will always be important to teach about the Holocaust because it has universal significance’
  • Almost 98% said that ‘every child must learn about the events of the Holocaust’
  • Three quarters of those who had taught about the Holocaust in the last three years believed other genocides deserved dedicated curriculum time.

Findings from the Centre’s recent national study with teachers will be published later in 2021. But as a Centre that has had the privilege of working with thousands of teachers for over a decade, we know that they are committed to supporting their students to  grapple with the complexities, challenges and nuance that are inherent in any study of the Holocaust and other genocides. Thus, teachers not only empower their students to be the light in the darkness, they too are lights in the darkness.

For further information about the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s free teacher CPD programme, please visit: https://www.holocausteducation.org.uk/courses-events/

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Credit: Olivia Hemingway