THE BLOG

Why We Need to Teach Young People About the Holocaust

26/01/2015 17:34 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

In 1945, after the Second World War had ended, Josef Perl, a survivor of Auschwitz, returned to his home in Veliky Bochkov. As he approached the family home, the door opened and a neighbour appeared. He was pointing a shotgun at Josef and demanded to know what he wanted. Josef had hoped to find some family left, but the neighbour shouted at him to go, that the house belonged to him and his family now, and that Josef wasn't welcome. He aimed his gun at Josef and said 'Leave now, or I'll finish Hitler's job for him...'

After the liberation of the camps, as the world began to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, there was a sense that antisemitism had been exposed for what it was, we had learned where it could lead, that it could never be a part of our society again. The experience of Josef and many others in returning to their home towns showed that antisemitism didn't end with the Nazis, and sadly it continues to this day.

Just this month, four people were murdered in Paris, just because they were Jewish. On the streets of Britain, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, shops have been vandalised and synagogues have been targeted. In the last year, antisemitic hate crimes have risen by 94% in the UK. The conflict in the Middle-East last summer led to a backlash against Jews here, in Britain. Last July, in one month alone, over 300 incidents of antisemitism were recorded. On the streets, there were scenes of protesters shouting 'Jews to the gas' and on social media, 'Hitler was right'. Antisemitism isn't just seen in the jackbooted Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s - it is seen in the language that is shouted on our streets, in the graffiti that is sprayed on Jewish tombstones and in the poison that is spread on social media.

Once again, Jewish communities across the world felt fear and apprehension. The far-right have been making electoral gains in Greece and Hungary with rhetoric and symbolism reminiscent of the Nazis. The ideology and hatred that allowed the Holocaust to happen is still flourishing in communities across the world. 

That antisemitism can still exist in the UK today, with the Holocaust still in living memory and Holocaust survivors living in communities across the UK is shocking. Every year, Holocaust survivors share their testimony through the Holocaust Educational Trust's Outreach Programme, reaching close to 100,000 young people across the country. Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s regularly travel the length and breadth of the UK to tell their stories, and the stories of their friends, families and neighbours who didn't survive. These survivors want to make sure that their stories, and those of their friends, families and communities who didn't survive, are remembered. They also act as a warning against allowing hatred to once again take hold in our communities. 

Learning about the Holocaust isn't a quick-fix for societies' problems, it isn't the 'cure' for antisemitism. But Holocaust education, and understanding where antisemitism led during the darkest days in Europe is a start point for young people to consider their actions and responsibilities. It's more important than ever to encourage young people to explore the behaviours, motivations and choices of all of the people involved in the Holocaust - the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders, and the brave men and women who risked their own lives to save Jews. Students should be given the opportunity to explore the complexity of the Holocaust as a historical event, but also to start to grapple with the questions it raises about human behaviour. Our new app, 70 Voices: Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders, aims to bring this understanding to new audiences beyond the classroom. 

It is a sad reality that Holocaust survivors won't be with us forever. They are becoming older, fewer and frailer, and the time will come when witnesses to the Holocaust cannot share their testimony in classrooms. We will have to look to new ways to ensure that their stories are told. Organisations across the UK, and the world, are now considering how they will ensure that the Holocaust remains relevant in the coming years and decades, how will generations who have never known people who experienced the Holocaust relate to it? And if people cannot relate to this history, how can it serve as a warning in years to come?

The Holocaust wasn't committed by monsters. The perpetrators were, in most cases, ordinary people, with friends, families, hobbies - they were not dissimilar to you to me. Yet, they committed the most heinous of crimes. We need young people to understand the victims, to understand what happened and how, and just as importantly, to consider who the perpetrators were and to understand the choices that those people made that had the most horrific of consequences. Learning about and understanding the complexities of the Holocaust gives young people the opportunity to explore their own choices, their behaviours and their role in society.

Despite the fantastic work being done across the field, we know that it is still not enough, there are still students who we do not reach, who never hear from a Holocaust survivor, who do not really understand the Holocaust. Now is the time, while the survivors are still with us, to redouble our efforts to reach these people. We have to pledge to the survivors that their experiences will not be forgotten. And we have to remind people where antisemitism and hatred can lead, and work to stop it in its tracks. ​