I admit that before leaving the UK for Israel, where I was due to attend a teacher training course at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, I was unsure about what to expect, both of the country and of the training course. The opportunity to visit Israel, particularly Jerusalem, has long been an ambition of mine, and I am glad to say I was not disappointed. Jerusalem felt both familiar and unique (an unusual combination), juxtaposing a distinctive history with a modern and vibrant way of life. Everyone we encountered was very hospitable and interested in what we were doing in Israel, which made me feel very welcome and eager to return soon.
I was keen to participate in the course, organized by the UK-based Holocaust Educational Trust, because teaching about the Holocaust raises a number of challenges for teachers in the UK. One of the major challenges of teaching the subject is how to adequately convey both the scale and personal experiences of the tragedy, especially within the constraints of limited curriculum time. Many students find it difficult to understand the real breadth and diversity of the events, and it is challenging to enable students to explore the events of the Holocaust in enough depth to do the topic justice.
In addition, in rural parts of the UK, like Devon, where I teach, many students have little knowledge or experience of prejudice and anti-Semitism, and they can struggle to understand its causes and impact. It is a real challenge to address issues outside of the students’ own personal experiences in a relevant way, to make both the events and impact of the Holocaust comprehensible. Yad Vashem is a special place, and to study there during the 10-day course was incredible. Over the course of the visit I became more familiar with my surroundings, as we were given a tour of the site and museum over a series of sessions. Seeing a range of memorials in such a beautiful and peaceful setting highlighted many pertinent points, such as the significance of the loss of Jewish communities through the Holocaust.
Throughout the course we also listened to lectures and participated in a range of workshops that imprinted upon me a richer and more real understanding of aspects of Judaism and the Holocaust. The opportunity to engage with renowned and passionate academics such as Professor Yehuda Bauer instilled in me a deep interest in historical events of which I had little knowledge.
Listening to the personal account of survivor Esther Schlesinger was the most emotional part of the week. To put a face to everything we had studied was incredibly moving, and I felt very privileged that Esther chose to share her testimony with us; it really emphasized the lasting impact the Holocaust had on survivors and the ongoing difficulties it created. The key principle from the course that I will be incorporating into my own teaching is the importance of exploring individual experiences and giving the victims of the Holocaust an identity. I also appreciated the opportunity to work with other teachers from a variety of disciplines, discussing our individual experiences of teaching the Holocaust and sharing good practice. We will next meet up for a follow-up seminar in November, after we have all had time to reflect on our experience at Yad Vashem.
In September I will no doubt be returning to my classroom with an increased confidence and many new ideas for teaching about the Holocaust effectively. I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity, and will be passing on the skills, knowledge and teaching methods to my colleagues and to the students I teach. I am already planning to make changes to reflect the wide variety of experience both in pre-war Jewish life and during the Holocaust; I want to ensure personal stories are used to illustrate the complexity of the events, allowing students to draw their own important lessons from the past. On a personal level, I had the experience of a lifetime, and will always remember my time on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s course at Yad Vashem as something that truly changed me and the way I view and teach about the Holocaust.