“It was clear to each and every one of us that the things we had seen needed to be told, and should not be forgotten”

Primo Levi, Auschwitz Survivor

 “Stories hung in the air about great-aunts and uncles who’d gone”

Michael Rosen, author, broadcaster

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place each year on 27th January. It is to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The specific date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

Why should we remember? Mark the day? Teach the Holocaust? Being clear about the ‘why’ and our intended outcomes helps us devise the best approaches and make sure we are equipped to answer questions honestly, sensitively and with age appropriate considerations. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum helpfully articulates some common rationale statements that help us with our reasoning:

  • To develop an understanding that the Holocaust was a watershed event not only in the twentieth century but in the entire history of humanity
  • To teach students why, how, what, when, and where the Holocaust took place, including the key historical trends/antecedents that led up to and culminated in the “final solution”
  • To reflect on the roles and responsibilities of individuals, groups, and nations when confronting the abuse of power, civil and human rights violations, and genocidal acts
  • To provide context for students to explore the fears, pressures, and motivations that influenced the decisions and behaviours of individuals during the Holocaust
  • To understand that the Holocaust was not an accident in history; it was not inevitable. It occurred because individuals, organisations, and governments made choices that not only legalised discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately mass murder to occur.
  • To understand that democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained, but need to be appreciated, nurtured, and protected.
  • To question the role of silence and indifference to the suffering of others, or to the infringement of civil rights in any society, as a factor that can—however unintentionally—perpetuate these problems.
  • To understand the importance of antisemitism and racism in Nazi ideology and their impact on the events of the Holocaust.
  • To understand the connections between World War II and the Holocaust as historical phenomena.

IOE research identifies that 90% of teachers believe it will always be important to teach about the Holocaust but that almost half think it is difficult to teach about it effectively.  There are a number of challenges when approaching the subject:

  • As a teacher your choice of what to include or omit will reflect you existing interpretation
  • Making places historically meaningful
  • Deconstructing images and representations of ghettos
  • Bringing individual stories alive especially when eyewitnesses are fewer
  • Relating the history of the Holocaust to other genocides and atrocities
  • Authentic learning  – tangible connection with the past; space to create your own meaning; respect for evidence (Centre for Holocaust Education).
  • The moral versus the historical as failure to “engage with its historical and highly complex reality …leaves young people open to manipulation and coercion from those who would use the past to push their own social and political agendas.” (Paul Salmonds, Teaching History, Dec 2010).
  • Airing and challenging misconceptions
  • How do young people make sense of it?  Deciding what constitutes progress in learning on this subject.

In light of these considerations, recent historiography suggests a good starting place for any enquiry is to ask three key questions: Who are the victims?  Who are the perpetrators? When & where did the Holocaust take place?

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 is Stand Together. The Trust lays out the scope of the theme:

  • Steps leading to genocide
    • Us versus Them
    • propaganda to divide

Policies were developed in the lead up to the Holocaust and subsequent genocides that deliberately separated people, causing certain groups to be treated as ‘the other’. Propaganda using stereotypes and existing prejudices dehumanised the persecuted groups.

  • ‘Standing together’ during genocide
    • assisting persecuted people
    • standing together in resistance
    • speaking out against persecution and challenging a hostile culture

Despite the introduction of oppressive policies examples can be found of inspiring individuals who showed solidarity with, assisted or rescued those who were being persecuted in their communities and countries.

  • ‘Standing together’ today
    • standing together against rising division and hate
    • standing together with the memory of people who were murdered
    • standing together to support those in need

An extensive range of guidance and suggestions of how the 2020 theme of Stand Together can be marked by Primary, Secondary and SEN schools can be found at https://www.hmd.org.uk/resources/. These include:

MAKE A MEMORIAL FLAMES DISPLAY – AN ACTIVITY FOR HMD This activity is suitable for use by primary, secondary or SEN schools, young people and HMD activity organisers. Read about the experiences of people affected by the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution or genocide, and do a craft activity to make a commemorative display, using the image of a memorial flame.

HMD ASSEMBLY – PRIMARY SCHOOLS This assembly for Key Stage 2 (or equivalent) introduces students to Holocaust Memorial Day, what we are commemorating, and how we can mark it. It includes poetry and film to engage students with the day. It can be delivered on or around 27 January.

Sharing  easy to read life stories.  

Our collection includes Michael Rosen’s new book The Missing, which traces the story of his own family and chimes with recent historiographic concerns to expose the individual lives and stories of victims.  He says

“If, in our family, there was a ‘nothing’, then it felt as if that was almost a Nazi success. Even their names we were not 100% certain of, or where they lived.” The Nazis had created a gap where people in his family should have been, “and therefore they had won, not the war, but somehow over my family.” (The Guardian, Dec 2019).

Michael talked with Nikki Gamble about his experiences researching the book and about the importance of remembrance. You can hear the full ‘In The Reading Corner’ interview here.

He has also produced a video for children suitable for use in the classroom to accompany the book.


Holocaust Memorial Day

Holocaust Education Centre at UCL

Holocaust Education Trust

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Nazi Concentration Camps – features a range of materials including primary sources that are accessible to schools and can provide the basis to an activity

Museum of Jewish Heritage Holocaust

Teaching History Magazine – Special Editions – Dec 2010 & December 2013

BBC Teach – Holocaust Memorial Day – Teaching Resources