Teaching secondary school learners about the horrors of the Holocaust or Sho'ah is as important as it is emotionally complex.
Trying to convey the horrors of the destruction of human life without rational justification is difficult. Even conveying the sheer scale of the death toll is challenging. A human being can process the deaths of a small number of people, but 6 million is almost unimaginable, and yet the teacher needs to try to paint a picture to aid as close to empathetic understanding as possible.
The first point of reference when teaching the Holocaust or Sho'ah is the Holocaust Education Trust.
Exploring the Holocaust is he Trust's flagship resource which offers a free, comprehensive and flexible cross-curricular scheme of work for the teaching of the Holocaust at Key Stage 3 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and at S2 in Scotland. It contains 15 downloadable lesson plans with accompanying resources for use in History, Religious Education or Philosophy, and Citizenship or PSHE, together with guidance documents for English, Drama and Art.
The Trust offers the following guiding principles for those teaching this issue:
Study of the Holocaust presents unique challenges and opportunities for both teachers and
students. The Holocaust has immense historical significance and considerable contemporary relevance, but it is not an easy subject to teach about: teaching methods that are used for other topics may not be suitable or wholly effective for such a complex and sensitive event.
For teaching of the Holocaust to be purposeful, it must be grounded in secure historical
knowledge and understanding. Not only is this proper practice for the study of any historical
event; it is essential to avoid perpetuating common stereotypes and prevent misunderstanding of some of the most challenging issues raised by the Holocaust. Any approach which assumes that there are neatly-packaged “lessons” of the Holocaust which
students can simply absorb runs the risk of decontextualising history and misunderstanding
the complexities of learning. The Holocaust raises crucial and timeless questions which
resist simple answers, but this characteristic of complicating our thinking makes it
The following general principles are intended to help educators in their teaching: detailed
commentary on them can be found on the website of the International Holocaust
Remembrance Alliance, which represents key Holocaust education practitioners from across the world. Teachers may find that similar educational principles are transferable to other histories that focus on sensitive and emotive topics:
- Create a positive, student-centred, cross-curricular approach informed by dialogue with
colleagues and supported by collaboration between departments.
- Consider the intended learning outcomes and contemporary significance, whilst avoiding
- Avoid simple, reductive answers to complex questions and issues. Adopt an approach
which is rooted in the historical events of the Holocaust.
- Contextualise this history – just because it happened does not mean it was inevitable. Historical contextualisation is imperative if the event is not to be removed from its historical foundations and become a free-floating universal symbol of whatever people want it to be.
- Encourage students to consider, and assess the validity of, differing interpretations of the
- Do not romanticise history. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust should not be
redemptive but challenging.
- Be precise with language. Define the term Holocaust, being specific and avoiding an all-encompassing definition. Avoid stereotypical descriptions, such as seeing all Germans
- Statistics are impersonal and difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. Focus on individual
experiences to make understanding the enormity of the experience more personal.
- Avoid defining Jewish people solely by the Holocaust – teach about Jewish life in Europe
before the war. It is these ways of life that were lost. Equally, teaching Judaism does not
automatically mean that the Holocaust should be taught: Judaism is not, and should not
be, defined by the Holocaust.
- It is important to see Jews (and others) not just as victims but also people who were also
involved in resistance and rescue activities.
- Ensure students are aware of the variety of cultural and religious communities across
- Don’t forget non-Jewish victims, but do not include them in a catch-all definition of the
Holocaust as this obscures much about the different victim groups.
- Teach about perpetrators as well as victims. Ensure that students do not assume that
the Holocaust was merely conducted by Nazis; it was a continental event, which relied
on the cooperation, collaboration, and acquiescence of many for its enactment. Teach
about those nations and communities who collaborated in the events, and those who
simply had knowledge of them. However, avoid categorising contemporaries in simplistic
ways or judging their behaviour with the power of hindsight.
- Re-humanise all involved – the Nazis were human beings not monsters.
- Make use of possible primary source material wherever and whenever possible. Be
mindful however that much of this may have been created by the perpetrators. Teaching
in this manner can reveal the range and complexity of historical evidence to students.
Where possible, use eyewitness testimony.
- Choose resources carefully, with sensitivity to students, victims and survivors. This
means avoiding the use of horrific imagery which can upset and desensitise students,
dehumanise victims, and portray those who suffered in a light that would be recognisable
to the perpetrators.
- Make activities meaningful (no word searches or dot-to-dot games!). Be prepared to
intentionally complicate students’ thinking – there are few, if any, simple answers.
Similarly, avoid role-play/empathy activities – we cannot imagine or expect students to
imagine what it was like to be in the camps or on a transport.
- Be a reflexive and informed practitioner who avoids perpetuating myths and
misconceptions about the Holocaust, and continually updates their subject knowledge.
Glossaries, timelines and common myths and misconceptions are also offered by the HET here. Lesson plans and resources are of an outstanding quality and as such I would encourage use of the HET's fantastic research-informed educational resources.
I have also created some additional resources to try to bring together the prior knowledge of my learners. I have used Ben Walsh's GCSE Modern World History textbook - perhaps one of my most used resources over the years. For copyright reasons, I will only be able to share the page numbers from the third edition of this textbook: pages 296-297. On the day of publication of this blog, this edition is 84p!
The questions and tasks that I have created build up from basic recalled or comprehension based information to analysis and evaluation. You can download this resource below:
There are critical thinking tasks, empathetic understanding tasks, source analysis, a case study of Adolf Eichmann (I also used this BBC Teach video to add interest and make his trial and the testimonies of Holocaust survivors more vivid) and finally a discussion about Holocaust denial which could become a debate or piece of extended writing. I used a piece of piano music while the pupils were working either on their own or in pairs. The peaceful notes offered a direct contrast to the destruction that they were thinking about and this was not lost on them.