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Romanian pupils attend a ceremony commemorating the Romanian Day of Holocaust in Bucharest
Romanian pupils attend a ceremony commemorating the Romanian Day of Holocaust in Bucharest   -   Copyright  AFP/DANIEL MIHAILESCU

Holocaust Remembrance Day: how are Europe's children taught about the Holocaust?

As Europe and the wider world marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Euronews asks: are we in danger of forgetting?

One in 20 Europeans has never heard of the Holocaust. This is according to a 2018 survey conducted on behalf of CNN in which more than 7,000 people from the UK, Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Sweden were interviewed. A third of respondents said they knew “little or nothing” about the Holocaust.

In a poll released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany this week, a quarter of millennials in France said they had not heard of it.

The results of the same survey conducted in Austria found that 56 per cent of people surveyed did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

In a poll conducted by the same organisation in the United States in 2018, two-thirds of millennials could not say what Auschwitz was.

What does each state choose to teach its children about the Holocaust?

One group of people trying to ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten is Europe’s history teachers.

In most European countries, teaching of the Holocaust is mandated by the national curriculum. One exception is Scotland, which has a separate education system from the rest of the UK. In contrast with England and Wales, Holocaust education in Scotland is not compulsory, although there have been calls from the country’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, for this to change. As is the case in other countries in which it is not mandated, however, this does not mean that it isn’t taught.

Gemma Lindsay teaches in a private secondary school in Glasgow, where pupils are first introduced to the Holocaust in their second year of senior school, at the age of 12. She says this is the case in most schools, both state and fee-paying, for a specific reason.

“It is the last topic pupils study before they choose their subjects [to carry on studying to national examination level] and so for many pupils the last history topic they will ever study. This way we catch all of them. Plus pupils are old enough to grasp the issues and, hopefully, emotionally mature enough to deal with some of the more horrifying aspects,” she said.

In England and Wales, Holocaust education is compulsory and students will learn about it in both history and religious education lessons between the ages of 12 and 16.

However, Zac Burt, who teaches history in England, says there is a lot of scope within the curriculum for teachers when it comes to tackling the subject.

“In history we have been teaching it chronologically, beginning with pre-war Jewish life in Europe, moving the narrative on by exploring the persecution of European Jews, the ghettos, then the Final Solution and ending by looking at liberation and remembrance of the Holocaust.

“In religious education, the lens through which the Holocaust is taught is exploration of Jewish faith prior to, during and after the Holocaust, looking at how it inevitably changed as a result of it.”

Lindsay echoes the importance of teaching the Holocaust within this wider context of the Jewish experience, saying: “It's important that the pupils don't think that the story of the Jews begins and ends with the Holocaust. European Jewish life was rich and vibrant before the war and continues to be so. They were, and are, not just victims.”

AFP/JANEK SKARZYNSKI
A French student looks at portraits of Auschwitz prisoners on an educational visit to the campAFP/JANEK SKARZYNSKI

Narratives and perspectives: the UK and US as 'bystanders'?

In terms of context, for Burt the issue of the UK’s role is one often raised by his pupils. “The question does come from students about the role of Britain in preventing the genocide that was being carried out from around 1942, and we have adapted our lessons about responsibility for the Holocaust by including the role of Britain and America as bystanders.”

Jennifer Ciardelli is project co-chair for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA’s) Holocaust education recommendations. She says the role and perspective of individual countries is a vital element of teaching the subject.

“It is critical to recognise that different countries across the world have their own specific histories and legitimate narratives, as a result of how the events of the Holocaust inform how each country understands its place in world history today, and of the complicated responses different [groups] within each country expressed at the time.

“Teachers must be aware of these complex and sensitive issues at play, to tailor the curriculum to speak to these regional differences. This is critically important to safeguarding the record and the truth of the Holocaust for our shared history. Given these regional differences, we must emphasise that there is no single 'correct' way of teaching about the Holocaust.”

Austria as victim and perpetrator

Austria’s complex relationship with its role in the Holocaust is borne out by the 68 per cent of Austrians surveyed who said that their country was both a victim and a perpetrator of it. Until relatively recently, teaching of the Holocaust in schools was based on the premise that Austria had been “the first victim” of Nazism, and did not acknowledge that the majority of Austrians had welcomed and collaborated with the Nazis after the Anschluss.

While 51 per cent of Austrian respondents were aware of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution”, only 14 per cent knew that he was Austrian. And when asked to name concentration camps, 42 per cent were not aware of Mauthausen – a death camp located 100 miles from Vienna.

Seventy-six per cent, however, said that learning about the Holocaust in school should be compulsory. And it is. Austrian pupils study the Nazi era at two junctures in their education, in lower and upper secondary school, covering topics including the Holocaust and Jewish life before and after it.

In 2000, the Ministry for Education launched a National Socialism and Holocaust education programme named Erinnern (“recall”), collating teaching resources online as well as giving training to Austrian teachers, organising a yearly conference on education methods and developing materials and reviewing textbooks.

France: elements of collaboration

There are challenges too in French classrooms when it comes to confronting the country’s actions during the Nazi regime. While 58 per cent of French respondents to the recent survey believe that France was both a victim and a perpetrator of the Holocaust, 45 per cent of millennials were unaware of the French government’s collaboration with the regime. And a mere 2 per cent of all respondents were aware of the Drancy internment camp just outside Paris, from which 67,400 Jews were deported to concentration and extermination camps, and which was operated by French police until 1943.

Holocaust education is compulsory in France under the national curriculum, with textbooks and teaching materials on the subject produced by the Ministry of Education. Pupils learn about it at least three times during the course of their schooling – in their last year of primary school at the age of 11, in their last year of middle school when they are around 15, and in their second last year of senior school, at around 17.

AFP/JOE KLAMAR
Students tour the disinfection/washing room during a visit to former Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen in AustriaAFP/JOE KLAMAR

As in many European countries, Anne Frank’s diary is the first lesson in the Holocaust for many French children. Sixty-four per cent of respondents to the recent survey cited it as their first point of learning about the subject. Although 20 per cent of those polled also said that they were not aware the Holocaust had taken place in the Netherlands.

History teacher Raphaël Spina remembers studying the book in his last year of primary school at the end of the 1980s, saying: “It was the first time that I heard talk of the death camps and the fate of the Jews. It is still engraved upon my memory.”

He says that the French as a nation tend to be very Franco-centric and to prioritise what happened during the War in their own country. Although this does provide an opportunity to focus on France’s active role during its own occupation, both as accessories to the Holocaust and in resistance to it.

He said: “[Teachers] must [tell] pupils that, without wanting to kill the Jews, the Vichy regime in occupied France chose to persecute them on its own initiative and to collaborate on arrests and deportations, without which the Germans would have had little means by which to carry out their plans – even if the regime of Pétain and Laval did not know exactly what fate awaited the deportees. And that French police alone carried out the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of July 16, 1942, the biggest of the Occupation.”

He says the balance here when teaching is a delicate one. “Sometimes the risk is to insist on Vichy France's responsibility to the point of forgetting that the genocide was, first of all, a German initiative. [Teachers] must also [demonstrate] that if three-quarters of the Jews of France survived, a comparatively high percentage, it is because the majority of the population was not anti-Semitic, and that the French among the Righteous of the Nations saved many Jews.”

Bad behaviour on school trips: a psychological explanation

Spina says that he has never had any issues in the classroom teaching the Holocaust, and that the Second World War is one of the subjects about which pupils are most enthusiastic. However, he has on occasion seen bad behaviour on school trips to concentration camps – “playing close to the gas chambers… taking selfies while laughing… walking on the rail tracks… kissing”.

However, he adds: “Of course [this is] the unconsciousness of [youth]. And undoubtedly, let's be fair, the need to let off steam because a place as [challenging as this] generates a certain nervous tension, which is calmed by laughter and disrespect.”

This is a stance backed up by Council of Europe guidelines for teachers taking students to visit Auschwitz, written in conjunction with the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. They state: “To protect themselves against extreme feelings, students may behave in ways that are commonly offensive – passing rude remarks, being noisy, laughing or fidgeting. [These are] devices for breaking the bubble of silence and ‘coming back to life’. Or they may use affectionate body language (holding hands, hugging, comforting or massaging one another) to reassure themselves of their own humanity and enable them to recover their mental and emotional balance.”

Spina cites cases of French teachers hearing anti-Semitic remarks and attitudes of Holocaust denial in schools with large numbers of Muslim pupils, who will often raise the plight of Palestinian people during lessons on the Holocaust, in what he calls “victim competition”.

Andreas Holtberget of the European Association of History Educators, established at the behest of the European Council in 1992, says that in such cases, teachers should underline that the classroom does not have to be “value-free”.

“Freedom of speech is not an unconditional right; learners cannot offend or intimidate other learners’ or expound racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, homophobic, or sexist ideas. It is of difficult to know with certainty at which scale Holocaust denying is happening in school settings, but when it does it is likely to lead to a very difficult situation for the teacher. While we generally advocate for openness to diverging views and a multi-perspective approach to history teaching, it is clear that the case of Holocaust denial might in fact point to one of the limitations of this approach,” he says.

Greek Jews?

In Greece, from where 55,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, history teacher Vyron Ntegkas says that the issue he most often comes up against is ignorance that is simply due to age.

“The Holocaust seems to [our students] like ‘ancient history’ and they sometimes have difficulty realising that its victims could still be alive and still feeling its consequences. In the history books there are accounts [from] Greek Jews. Students are sometimes surprised to realise that there were Greek Jews.”

Holocaust education is mandatory in Greek secondary schools, under the national curriculum, and students learn about it at the age of 13, when they study Anne Frank’s Diary in a literature lesson, and at 14, when they learn about the Holocaust in history classes. As of this academic year, history is no longer compulsory after the age of 16, although those who opt to study it further will be taught the Holocaust again at the age of 17.

Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, has been established in the country as Memory Day of Greek Victims and Heroes of the Holocaust, and in recent years the Ministry of Education has encouraged schools to dedicate two hours of the school day to Holocaust discussion for all pupils.

AFP/SAKIS MITROLIDIS
Children lay roses at the Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki, GreeceAFP/SAKIS MITROLIDIS

Sweden: Who were the White Buses?

In Sweden, where Holocaust education is also part of the curriculum, the country’s positive actions during the Holocaust despite its technically neutral stance, are taught. Pupils aged between 13 and 15 learn about both World Wars and their causes and consequences, linking one to the other. Once students reach upper secondary school, age 16 to 19, the Holocaust is no longer specifically mentioned on the curriculum, but teacher Tobias Lundqvist says that since they are required to cover the topics “dictatorship and genocide”, its inclusion is "a given".

He gives lessons on the “White Buses”, in which the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government rescued more than 15,000 prisoners from concentration camps in the spring of 1945, negotiating with the Third Reich for their release and then driving them from Germany to Sweden through Denmark.

For Lundqvist, such lessons are more pertinent than ever. “I feel that Sweden's education on the Holocaust is on point, but with alt-right parties gaining more and more power in Sweden, and Europe, I think it needs to be guarded and kept alive.”

The rise to power of right-wing parties has had a more direct effect on history teaching in other European countries.

Hungary: are the government setting a narrative?

Hungarian history teacher András Poros says: “The Hungarian government is trying to present [the history of the Holocaust] in a particular way, to reduce the Hungarian participation and responsibility.”

He says that thankfully the national curriculum has not been altered to reflect this, “yet”.

Of the 1.1 million Jews deported to Auschwitz, more came from Hungary than any other country – a total of 430,000. Today, teaching of the Holocaust is mandatory, as is the observance by schools of National Holocaust Memorial Day on 16 April, the anniversary of the establishment of the first ghettos in the country. Besides learning about the subject in history classes, it is likely in most schools to also feature on literature courses, in which Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész, a camp survivor, and poet Miklós Radnóti, who was conscripted to a forced labour battalion and shot dead on a forced march, are taught.

Italy: political wrangling affects educational bursary

In Italy, school trips to Auschwitz have become a subject of political division. In Civita Castellana, a town north of Rome, the local council, led by the right-wing Lega party, last month decided to cut funding for such trips. Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party and the region's governor, tweeted that the region would be willing to pay for these trips, if the municipality does not change its mind.

In November, the town of Predappio, birth and burial place of Mussolini, denied a grant of €370 to a student who wanted to visit Auschwitz as part of a school project entitled “A train of memory”. Local mayor Roberto Canali justified this by saying: “We are not against the Train of Memory, but these trains only go to one place and we don’t intend to collaborate with those who forget all the rest.”

The Holocaust is taught in depth as part of contemporary history in Italian schools, during students’ last year of high school, when they are 18 years old, although a simplified version is taught briefly earlier, at both primary and secondary level.

Poland: a matter of national consciousness

Auschwitz-Birkenau’s geographical location in occupied Poland has had a profound impact on the country’s national consciousness – 300,000 Polish Jews were sent to Auschwitz, as well as 150,000 non-Jewish Poles.

The country’s controversial “memory law” – introduced in 2018 and making it illegal to implicate the Polish nation or its people in any aspect of the Holocaust – is having an impact on those who teach the subject. The same year, the Ministry of National Education announced the creation of a new advisory board on Holocaust education, which is compulsory at all three levels of education (primary, junior high and upper secondary).

Examples of core attainment levels given on the ministry’s website include an elementary pupil being able to: characterise German policy in occupied countries, describe the destruction of Jews and Roma, and give examples of Polish acts of heroism in saving Jews. While secondary school pupils should be able to present Nazi ideology in greater detail and “describe the attitudes of the Jewish population towards the Holocaust, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [and] characterise the attitudes of Polish society… towards the Holocaust, including the Righteous’.”

READ MORE: Poland rejects Russian WW2 narrative

In other European countries, the teaching requirement is notably less. In Spain, which, under Franco, went from neutral to a stance of “non-belligerence” during the War, Holocaust education was not added to the national curriculum until 2006. Teachers say the subject is still covered very superficially – perhaps “half a lesson” and in some textbooks, over as little as two pages.

Similarly, Russia did not introduce the term “Holocaust” as an educational standard of which knowledge must be displayed until 2016, and although the subject is mandated by law, only six hours of teaching high school pupils the Second World War as a whole is required.

Also in 2016, the Russian Ministry of Culture inaugurated 27 January as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, and announced that discussion of the Holocaust in schools on that date would be mandatory. In addition, there is a national essay competition supported by the ministry.

Ukraine: an educational afterthought?

Holocaust education has also undergone recent developments in Ukraine. Dr Igor Shchupak of the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies, who works with the Ministry of Education on the subject, said it has come to the fore in the last five years, and that the idea that the history of the Holocaust is part of the history of Ukraine is gradually spreading.

Topics covered in the curriculum include the occupation of Ukraine by the German army, collaborationism, self-government under German occupation and the Holocaust. Ukrainian students also learn about Olena Viter, the first Ukrainian to be declared “Righteous among the nations”.

However, history teacher Olha Limonova says of the new programme: “Students now study the Second World War at the end of the 10th grade (age 16), in May. It’s a period of various religious and public holidays and often a lot of students are absent, and teachers are trying to teach the maximum of mandatory information within a limited time, and the topic of the Holocaust is sometimes only taught if there is time left.”

She adds: “However, there are many teachers that are very enthusiastic about this topic. They find possibilities to talk with the students about it, usually during extracurricular activities. The learning of the Holocaust in Ukraine to a great extent is based on the enthusiasm of teachers and students.”

AFP/PABLO GONZALEZ
An aerial picture taken in December 2019 shows a view of the railway entrance to former Nazi death camp Auschwitz II - BirkenauAFP/PABLO GONZALEZ

How social media plays its part

In terms of other recent developments, one alternative method of education has come to the fore: social media. And one source has recently achieved particular prominence: the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account, which tweets biographies of those who died in, and survived, the camp.

Pawel Sawicki runs the Memorial’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, the former opened in 2012 and the latter in 2009. He was inspired to start them by what he observed in his own use of social media.

“I noticed that people search for information about Auschwitz and the Holocaust on social media, and that they can… find Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, people who distort the facts. [So] we decided that maybe we should be there. That was the initial thought, that we should be there to allow people to find us, to ask us questions, to reach the source of information,” he explains.

Sawicki interacts with followers, often addressing factual inaccuracies. “For us it is a tool of commemoration and a tool of education. Especially on Twitter because it’s all very public."

“From a practical point of view, 2.3 million people visited the Auschwitz site last year and we guided 1.8 million of them, but when you think about these numbers, it means that there are billions of people who didn’t come last year and who will never come. And so should we say they are not important to us? We don’t want to teach them? No, we want to, and 30 years ago we had very little possibility to do this,” he says.

“Then the internet started and we could put things on a website, like online lessons. But social media is pushing this even further. When I checked the statistics on our Twitter, the impressions of our tweets in the last 28 days were 200 million. From an educational point of view, this is the goal.”

Germany knows the magnitude of its responsibility for the worst crimes in European history

In Germany, the teaching of the Holocaust is the one educational matter on which each of the 16 federal states, which set their own curricula, collaborate. It is mandatory in history and civics classes, and will most likely also be covered in literature and religion lessons, and possibly in biology, art and music. Most schoolchildren will at some point visit a concentration camp – although this is not compulsory, except in Bavaria.

On the subject of Holocaust education in Germany, the IHRA says: “Germany knows the magnitude of its responsibility for the worst crimes in European history and strives to come to grips with this legacy. If there is anything Germany can share from its own experience, it is this: facing up to the grim truth of what took place is the only path to reconciliation. A past that is not examined fully and honestly will remain a burden for the future.”

Dr Jan Schulte is an associate professor at the University of Bochum, teaching modern history, specifically the history of Nazi crimes. He is also the director of the Hadamar Memorial Museum, which commemorates the victims of the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre – a psychiatric hospital used as one of six centres by the Nazi regime for its euthanasia programme, under which an estimated 200,000 people with physical and mental disabilities were killed in Germany and Austria.

Schulte is responsible for the educational programme at the museum, which is visited by around 15,000 school pupils annually.

He says: “The German perspective is always included. In school it is discussed how the Nazi dictatorship could happen and how it was part of German history, that is how did the Nazi movement evolve after the First World War, what was the role of the Weimar Republic and its many challenges, including a Conservative civil service and widespread anti-Semitism. It is discussed who the German perpetrators were and how German society as a whole reacted towards the Holocaust. And, of course, the long history of German Jews in Germany is discussed as a part of German history.

“Part of teaching the Holocaust is also a discussion of what the German population did know about the perpetration and extermination of Jews, it is taught that [they] did know quite well about the Holocaust.”

He continues: “At least from my experience, pupils are very willing and eager to discuss both the Nazi past and what might be the consequences for our present. At Hadamar Memorial Museum we experience that pupils make connections between the experiences of segregation of Jews during Nazi times and the marginalisation of present day groups, like refugees.

“Teaching about the Holocaust is paramount for reflecting present events. If the rising anti-Semitism, racist rhetoric and tendency to marginalise those who are seen as ‘different’ are set against our knowledge of the past, especially the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust, we will see what can happen. Neo-Nazi and racist rhetoric has consequences. We have seen this in the past and, while on a different scale, we see it in the present.”

This is an assertion shared by the teachers around Europe.

History and prejudice

Valerie O’Shea teaches history in Ireland, where the study of the Second World War is compulsory in the first three years of secondary education, but the Holocaust forms only a small part of the curriculum.

She says: “Personally, I try to bring this era alive for as many students as possible with guest speakers from, for example, the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland. We also discuss the importance of the Holocaust in Irish history pre and post-World War Two, in terms of neutrality and bias towards Germany.

“All staff and students think that the subject is as relevant and important as ever, with Holocaust denial, fake news and far right parties on the rise in Europe, [along with] intolerance towards immigrants and refugees.”

Greek teacher Vyron Ntegkas says: “It is crucial that the teaching of the Holocaust works as an opportunity to raise questions about discrimination and racism in general, during a period where in Greece nationalist ideas and practices have been increased.”

On teaching in England, Zac Burt says: “We appear to be living in what feels like an increasingly divisive society, what with Brexit and other world affairs at present that influence our students’ opinions of their fellow man. My colleagues and I feel that Holocaust education is integral in our school to counter issues of racism, prejudice and division in society.”

Jennifer Ciardelli of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has a message that will encourage teachers everywhere.

“Given the global rise in anti-Semitism is occurring when the last of the survivor generation is passing away, it is now more important than ever… that the truth of history is safeguarded. Education is the crucial foundation upon which this work sits.”

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