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The Failure of Holocaust Education in Britain

Misplaced historical values, survivors dying off, the Labour Party’s new rhetoric, and pressures on secondary curricula are all contributing to a generation of U.K. children with little or incorrect knowledge of the horrors of World War II

Rosie Whitehouse
October 16, 2018
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
This article is part of In the Shadow of the Shoah.
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Since he first spoke about his experiences in the 1990s, Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl has come across a lack of understanding with increasing frequency. Perl was 12 years old when he stepped out onto the ramp at Auschwitz. He has been active in promoting the memory of what happened to Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust across schools in the United Kingdom but now feels that there is no point in continuing to speak about his life.

Perl said the gulf of understanding between himself and the children he talks to is too wide for him to bridge. The pupils he encounters have such a poor understanding of what happened during World War II that his words fall on deaf ears. This is certainly not Perl’s fault. He is an engaging and thoughtful speaker.

Andy Pearce of University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education is not surprised Perl is disillusioned. His research team, in the world’s largest ever study of its kind, interviewed over 8,000 pupils aged 11-18 in England, where the Holocaust is the only compulsory subject in the national history curriculum. He was shocked to discover that “after 25-30 years Holocaust education is failing to make an impact.”

Perl complains that, although he was born in Hungary, schoolchildren always ask him if he hates Germans and never Hungarians. The UCL findings back up his experience. When students were asked who was responsible for the Holocaust, “Hitler dominated the answer,” Pearce said. “Incredibly when we asked them to tell us who the Nazis were, students responded by saying they were ‘Hitler’s minions’ and ‘Hitler’s paratroopers.’ There was no reference to the Nazi Party as a political movement.” Students also told the researchers that most Jews were killed in Germany. “There was no understanding of collaborating regimes and many believed that mass killing began in 1933.”

Nicola Wetherall teaches at Royal Wooton Bassett Academy in Wiltshire, which has a cross-curricular Holocaust and genocide program built into its curricula. In this, the school is an exception to other secondary education institutions. She said that teachers in other schools not only lack the training and support to deliver effective Holocaust education but simply do not have the time to do so. Although Holocaust education is compulsory in state schools at Key Stage 3 (KS3), a part of the curriculum taught to 11-13 year olds, not all state schools deliver. Timetable pressures mean that the KS3 program which should be delivered in a three-year course is increasingly taught over two years.

In order to fulfill the government guidelines schools often choose the quickest and cheapest option. Holocaust survivors give their time to speak to schoolchildren for free and are supported on those visits by professionals from charities like the Holocaust Education Trust. “It is almost lazy in the case of some schools to invite a survivor in and expect them to do the job for them,” Wetherall said. “It is not common practice to brief and debrief children before a meeting like this.”

Worse, the practice is alienating survivors. Jacob Fersztand, who arrived in Britain in 1945 and was cared for in the same hostel as fellow survivor Ivor Perl, has also decided that he will no longer speak in schools. Fersztand feels that “you can only make children learn what they want to learn,” but also said he feels frustrated that while he is the person who suffered, all the onus is now on him to explain to future generations what happened in the Holocaust.

Ellie Olmer, whose father-in-law is a Holocaust survivor, is an outreach teacher for the Holocaust Education Trust. She accompanies survivors, among them Ivor Perl, when they speak in schools. Olmer said she is positive about the impact that Perl and the others have, but added “the emotional toll on them is very hard.” Olmer found that schools tend to ask for survivors from Auschwitz or Treblinka, which is illustrative in itself as only 70 people survived the Treblinka camp. “They feel that they are not giving the full experience unless they smell the gas.” She said students tend to think that there is a happy-ever-after and have little conception of what it means to live having survived such a trauma. In Olmer’s experience “schools have a tendency to treat the survivors as a commodity and sometimes don’t even offer them something to eat or drink.” She is fearful for the future of Holocaust education. “I love what I do and hope to do it for many years but it all depends on what happens after we lose our survivors.”

In some rural parts of the United Kingdom, like Cornwall, there is, according to Wetherall, no Holocaust education being taught at all despite the fact that it is a legal requirement for schools to do so. “Survivors tend to live in urban areas,” she said, “and it is difficult to get them to speak in schools in remote parts of the country.” Because of this, Wetherall said, the money being spent on the new Holocaust memorial in Westminster should be invested in education programs across the country. Those programs should be delivered by professionals and be less reliant on the survivors.

The current debate over anti-Semitism in Britain’s opposition Labour Party and the views of its leader Jeremy Corbyn have also had a negative impact on Holocaust education in the classroom and made better teacher training even more imperative. Wetherall’s students now ask about Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. “Two to three years ago I would not have had pupils who would have heard the terms,” she said, adding that “the guidelines have not kept up with these changes, leaving teachers ill-equipped to deal with the issue.”

The UCL study, however, showed more serious problems with Holocaust education than an overreliance on survivors to deliver it. According to UCL’s Pearce, it is “not as simple as students knowing and not knowing. The pupils have significant gaps in their understanding and to fill those gaps they draw on myths in popular culture and this causes more harm than good.”

Pearce said that there is a fundamental problem in the British approach to the Holocaust. The focus wrongly gravitates to Britain’s role in the Allied forces, the liberation of the camps, and to the story of Kindertransport, in which 10,000 Jewish children were brought to the U.K. from the continent in the year before WWII broke out. For Pearce it is a positive and self-congratulatory approach that fails to address the story of the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans, and what the British government knew about the persecution of the Jews and failed to do about it. It is no surprise, he said, that his team found that 32 percent of students in secondary school believe that Britain declared war on Germany because of the Holocaust. In fact, Britain entered the war on Sept. 3, 1939, in response to the German invasion of Poland.

Pearce pointed out that teachers who have no support tend to use films and books, like John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as teaching aids. The Holocaust Education Trust advises against its use in the classroom because of its historical inaccuracy, yet the UCL team found that over 80 percent of those pupils interviewed who had read a book on the Holocaust had read that one. The main character in the novel is a 9-year-old boy whose father works as a commander of a concentration camp. He has no idea of the tragedy unfolding around him and innocently befriends a Jewish boy in striped pyjamas. Pearce said the narrative reinforces an inaccurate perception of German ignorance of the Holocaust.

The UCL team also examined what teachers hope to achieve by teaching the Holocaust. Pearce noted that educators have “a tendency to slip into rhetoric. There is a belief that if we study the Holocaust it will stop it happening again.” He added, “It is laudable but it reduces and simplifies history and is something that again comes from wider popular culture.” Indeed the recent decision to build a striking new national Holocaust memorial next to the Houses of Parliament in London was described by the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission as a “sacred duty” and announced by a government press release as a “permanent statement of our British values.”

In order to tackle these issues, Pearce said, we must totally rethink the way we teach children about the Holocaust. Mike Levy, a Holocaust educator based in Cambridge, sees the passing of the last Holocaust survivors as an opportunity to do this. He said that rethinking needs to start now, before Holocaust education simply stops when the last survivor dies.

Levy said that there is “an atmosphere of fatigue in the air when it comes to talking about the Holocaust and that students and teachers want to learn more about other genocides and contextualize the Holocaust.” Children need to be taught that there is not a competition about which genocide is worse. “The important thing educationally about the Holocaust is it teaches us a lot about the mechanisms because it is so well documented,” he said. “It is the mother of all genocides.”