Panel Evening: "Teaching the Holocaust. What do we tell children and how do we tell them?"

Panel Discussion

On Sunday 15th of August a wonderful evening of discussion was enjoyed by our members and guests on the topic of “Teaching the Holocaust”. The three speakers were Sue Hampel from Mount Scopus College, Rob Devling from St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School and Zandie Alter a former student and tutor from Monash University.

The panel of speakers was introduced by Pauline Rockman, President of Descendants of the Shoah, Inc. The issues to be addressed by the three speakers were: How will the Holocaust be perceived, viewed and remembered as we move into the next millennium? How will our educators deal with this?

Sue Hampel spoke first. She began by referring to her childhood where references to the war and the death of six million Jews were hushed whispers. These were dark secrets and faceless names of lost grandparents and relatives. Teaching the Holocaust was the result of a quest to address these secrets.

In teaching Holocaust Studies at Mt Scopus, Sue presents thirty lessons with a historical and chronological overview. The students read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, interview a survivor, visit the Holocaust Centre, and see “Schindler’s List”. A further fifty students chose Holocaust Studies as an elective and this is taught thematically. Themes used are indoctrination, anti-semitism, war crimes, holocaust denial, Helen “Demidenko” Darville’s book and David Irving’s writings. Survivors who work at the Holocaust Centre visit the students. The students report that the most effective and meaningful part of the course is the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from the survivors. They also study Alan Hopgood's play, The Emperor of the Ghetto, about the Lodz Ghetto. They attend the JCCV Community Commemoration of Yom Hashoah at Monash University and the Carlton Cemetery service. Part of their studies includes a report on “How we may commemorate the Holocaust in the future”.

Courtney and Maya, two of Sue’s Year 10 students, spoke about why they chose this elective. They wanted to learn about the Nazis and their indoctrination of the German people. They believe it is important to commemorate the Holocaust and remember. They wanted to learn about its history and hear from the survivors who each had a different story. They learned about their grandparents’ experiences and made a video about them which will be kept at the school. “It is important to learn about the Holocaust because it is part of us”, they said.

Sue discussed how students can become desensitized and complacent. They can get tired of hearing about these issues and in teaching about the Holocaust, it is important to be aware of this overload.

Two years ago the school had a ceremony to honour Righteous Gentiles. The students assisted in the planting of trees and this was an important way of involving them.

As a teacher, Sue is constantly grappling with how to get her students to feel and understand these issues. She would like to take a group of Jewish students to Poland to the March of the Living, an annual event for high school students from all over the world.

Rob Devling has taught history for 27 years. He now teaches in an independent Anglican school in Warragul, a small rural community. Anglican school. He was very pleased to be invited to speak as he believes “it is good to hear from a gentile teaching about the Shoah.”

St Paul’s Grammar has 1,000 students who come from all over Gippsland. Fifteen years ago, when Rob started teaching there, the school had only 200 students. In that time 500 students have chosen the subject Rob teaches - History of the Shoah and Nazi Germany, which is a full semester subject. Why do the students choose this subject? There is something about the nature of the experience that attracts them. These students have no connection to the Shoah like those at Mount Scopus.

They do have an interest in humanity and in history. Rob’s aim in teaching history is to get the students to value and to learn lessons from the past which is being trammeled and destroyed through denial and neglect. The teaching of history has changed; when we went to school we were taught a body of knowledge that was called “history”. It is not like that now. The students study Nazi Germany, the rise of Nazism, the impact of this ideology on the Jews of Europe. The resources available to teach the Shoah are enormous; they use the Makor Library, the Holocaust Centre’s library and the internet. They also have interaction with Survivors who work at the Holocaust Centre which is the most powerful part of their learning. The students value the validity of the experience of those who went through it and are extremely moved by meeting them. Rob is on the Education Committee of the Holocaust Centre with Sue Hampel, which has input into the content of the school tours held daily at the Centre.

Rob’s students comment on how the survivors are the most amazing communicators, their ability to share their personal experiences displays incredible courage. The survivors teach them about fundamental human principles of good and evil and how they want this generation to learn from history. In teaching about the Shoah, Rob aims to expose his students to the darker side of human nature. This is challenging both emotionally and intellectually. He recognises how difficult it must be to study the Shoah if your grandparents were there.

Rob talked about going to Yad Vashem in 1991 and knew this would be a great place to bring his students. He now takes a school group on an overseas study tour every three years. There is something about the experience of taking students out of the classroom and to be there. Rob takes them to Yad Vashem, other parts of Israel, Berlin, Krakow and Auschwitz. It is an enormously powerful experience it has shaped and changed the seventy students who have been on this trip.

For gentiles, it is important to to build a bridge between the Shoah and other contemporary related issues eg the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Kosovo, Aboriginal reconciliation. These issues are not the same as the Shoah, but there are links. Rob faces difficulties in teaching the Shoah, the school talks about his obsession with the Jews, but he goes on regardless. He teaches from a position of strength as he does not have any vested interests and can speak openly, because he is a passionate teacher of history and this is what he wants to teach.

Where did this passion come from? Rob had many Jewish friends and neighbours growing up in Kew. Many significant people in his life were Jewish. Rob’s father died when he was very young and he had three surrogate fathers, two of whom were Jewish. One was Harry Smith, his neighbour, who treated him like a second son. He recommended many books such as Exodus and Mila 18 and these influenced the young Rob. Rob had a tolerant mother who accepted the imprint the Smiths had on him. They have lived in Israel for 27 years and he still feels their impact and love. This came out in his teaching. He has been asked if he wishes he was Jewish. He believes in another life he probably was.

Rob believes the Shoah is one of the most significant historical events of this century and needs to be studied and understood. There is no one interpretation of this event but many different perspectives. It has a powerful impact on the lives of this generation: what human beings are capable of doing to one another; how one may have reacted if one was there as a victim, a bystander, a perpetrator, or a righteous gentile. After studying the Shoah the students reflect on how they might live their lives differently in the future.

Zandie Alter is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Her early memories of learning about the Holocaust were of being frightened of a painting of the Warsaw Ghetto, of her grandparents’ tatoos and of a speaker at school in grade 4. These are very powerful memories.

As a Year 10 student at Mount Scopus College, Zandie was inspired by her teacher, Sue Hampel. She read everything she could get her hands on. At University her passion flared again and she chose Holocaust Studies in her Law degree. She also tutored in Holocaust studies at Monash University and since graduation has worked as a researcher into war criminals in Australia.

Zandie talked about learning about the Holocaust from a historical perspective. She grappled with resistance, the psychology of the perpetrators and why the Allies did not do more. She watched, read and listened to as much as she could, with the distance of a student of history. This lead her to a desire to do as much as she can to curb intolerance and discrimination. Zandie is now passionate about equal opportunity and this is her chosen field of employment.

As a Jew, Zandie feels strongly about her heritage. She feels the enormity of what was lost and will never come to terms with the rich cultural Jewish world that was destroyed forever. It is this world she wants to learn about. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Zandie has not really learnt a lot from them. She feels her grandparents are protecting her, they don’t want to burden her. She is reluctant to discuss these issues with them and does not want to cause them pain. She is not sure how she would react to their stories; to sit with them now and go through their stories panics her. Zandie is keen to know more about their lives before the war, she loves to hear these stories and can’t get enough of them. This is what Jewish people will never recover, the rich pre-war cultural life in Europe.

The oral testimonies of survivors won’t be there for future generations, that is why it was so important to record them on video. In the future we will need to teach and learn about the Holocaust in a different way as the distance grows. Commemoration of the Holocaust will be important whether it is in the home such as lighting Yarzheit candles, a service in the synagogue as a part of the Jewish calendar or the community commemorations. It is not only important how we teach the 3rd and 4th generations now, but we need to think about how we will teach the 23rd and the 24th generations in years to come.

Questions and discussion followed the three speakers. Issues raised were about encouraging students to think about wider issues such as understanding and promoting tolerance, combating racism and thinking beyond what happened to the Jewish people. Rob was asked why the students at Warragul are interested in studying the Shoah. He believes that there is something about the nature and enormity of the event that is universally interesting and students want to learn more about it. There is an amazing amount of resources available, books, films, videos and websites that stimulate their interest. The students are at an age where they are starting to get an idea of what the world is really like in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice. To them, this event is incomprehensible and extraordinarily disturbing.

Questions were asked about the danger of basing Jewish identity on the Holocaust and how important it is to teach Jewish students that there is more to being Jewish. The youth movements explore Holocaust Education as do the schools and universities. This all needs to be taught in a context of the richness and diversity of Jewish education and history, both religious and cultural. It is important that these issues are discussed in the home and books and movies can open up the discussion.

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