Teaching the Holocaust and Genocide


1. The Holocaust and Genocide Education and Awareness Act

According to Public Act 18-24, the Connecticut Holocaust and Genocide Education and Awareness Act (Act), public schools in Connecticut are required to provide Holocaust and genocide education to their students beginning on July 1, 2018. The Act states, “each local and regional board of education shall include Holocaust and genocide education and awareness as part of the social studies curriculum for the school district.”  Further, the Act authorizes local and regional school boards to make use of “existing and appropriate public or private materials, personnel and other resources” in their efforts to provide Holocaust and genocide education, and encourages districts to seek “gifts, grants and donations, including in-kind donations,” to support implementation of the Act.

Beyond the provisions outlined above, the Act allows for flexibility in meeting its requirements.  The Act does not identify specific grade levels in which the Holocaust and/or genocide shall be covered, nor does the Act elaborate on the scope, content, and specific learning objectives of the required Holocaust and genocide education.  While the Act does mandate that the Holocaust and genocide be taught in the context of a district’s social studies curriculum, it should be noted the Act does not preclude these topics being addressed in other content areas, such as English Language Arts.  Indeed, one of the primary purposes of the Act is to encourage more student engagement with Holocaust and genocide studies. Teachers are encouraged to continue or develop high quality, appropriate lessons focused on the Holocaust and genocide regardless of content area.

The following essay is designed to help educators better understand the what, why, and how of Holocaust and genocide education so that they better support effective student learning.

2. The Holocaust Defined

The Holocaust was the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during the Second World War. The Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew; Khurbn in Yiddish) remains an event that defies comprehension, as it became state policy to pursue the elimination of a culture, a religion, and ethnic minority that was not a combatant in the war itself. The annihilation of the Jewish people was meant to be total: as German rule expanded from Germany to Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and then with the outbreak of World War II, to Poland and all of Western, Southern and Eastern Europe, no Jew who came under the scope of German rule or that of the Axis collaborators was safe. The Nazis and their collaborators murdered 1.5 million children over the course of the Holocaust. Had the Nazis realized their goal of world domination, every single Jew in the world, 16.9 million by 1939 estimates, would have been a target for annihilation.

As it unfolded, the Holocaust was not one event, but a series of policies and actions. The groundwork was laid in the 1930s, as the Nazi regime first attained and then consolidated power. New laws, such as the Nuremberg Laws (1935), permitted and codified systematic discrimination against Jews.  The Nazi regime established concentration camps, transit camps, and forced labor camps for perceived political opponents, and soon began to populate each with Jews, many of whom had already been confined to urban ghettos. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, mobile killing units commenced mass shootings of Jewish civilians. At the end of 1941, the Germans began deporting Jews to killing centers in occupied Poland. Between 1941 and 1944, Nazi German authorities deported millions of Jews from Germany, from occupied territories, and from the countries of many of its Axis allies to ghettos and to extermination camps, where they were murdered in specially developed gassing facilities.

Although Jews, whom the Nazis deemed a priority danger to Germany, were the primary victims of Nazi racism, other victims included millions of Slavs, primarily Russians, Poles, Serbs, and Slovenes. Some 200,000 or more Roma (Gypsies) fell victim. Homosexuals and other religious minorities were also targeted. At least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled patients, mainly Germans, living in institutional settings, were murdered in the so-called Euthanasia Program.

3. What is Genocide?

One of the first acts of the newly created United Nations, after the conclusion of the Second World War and the Holocaust, was to adopt an international convention seeking to prevent and punish the crime of “genocide” -- a term that had only recently been coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish legal scholar from Poland who had lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust. The new term was defined as certain acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” (The Convention went on to list a specific set of actions covered by the convention, including “Killing (or) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction..; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”)  The UN recognized that the crimes of the Nazi regime were particularly horrific not just for the sheer number of victims, but because they entailed an effort to eradicate an entire identity from human existence. Lemkin also believed that the Holocaust had precursors in history -- in particular the Ottoman Turkish state’s campaign of extermination against Armenians and other Christian minorities during and after World War I, and the German effort to eradicate the Herero and Nama populations in its colonial African possession, South-West Africa in 1905 -- and therefore was not specific to any particular historical era, even if mid-century fascism amidst a global war was certainly a pernicious one.

While the UN Convention continues to provide the international legal definition of genocide, other versions have emerged.  For example, some countries, in adopting the Genocide Convention into their own legal frameworks, have included political groups or gender-based identity as well.  Meanwhile, efforts to come to grips with the concept need not be bound by the Convention’s legal language. The definition of genocide as the “attempt to eradicate an identity group through the murder of its population” is intuitive  -- even as it invites inquiries into what is meant by “identity group” and whether “attempts to eradicate” can involve acts beside that of mass murder.

A brief note about conceptual categories:  Uncapitalized, the word ‘holocaust’ can refer to any episode of mass death, although the use of the word can be confusing since not all such events meet the definitional requirements to be termed a genocide. The Holocaust (with a capital ‘h’) refers to the specific event noted above, and is, of course, a genocide.  It is not the first genocide, as the concept given definition in the 1940s applies to many historical episodes, and even fits the description of some events described in the age of antiquity. The Holocaust is, however, of paradigmatic importance: it gave rise to the term “genocide,” and ushered in an era in which historians and observers of contemporary times alike could apply the ‘genocide lens’ to understand past and current events.

4. Reasons for Teaching the Holocaust and Genocide

Adding the study of the Holocaust and genocide to the social studies curriculum is justified on multiple grounds.  The first is simply an historical rationale: students are expected to learn about and understand critical events of the past, and how those events have shaped our world.  The Holocaust was a global watershed event -- a moment of abject horror that was both intertwined with other horrors of World War II, and tremendously consequential in its own right: through the loss of lives, through subsequent emigration out of Europe, through the impetus it provided for the creation of Israel.  Studying other genocides leads students to recognize that those horrors were not confined to one episode, and may indeed represent an enduring tendency throughout human history.

The second justification is a democratic rationale, which recognizes that the Holocaust and episodes of genocide have almost always been projects of the state, and therefore reflect moments of political failure.  Some of those failures, including the run-up to the Holocaust, involved efforts to pervert the democratic process. Other genocides -- such as that in Rwanda -- demonstrate the danger of weak democracies, authoritarianism, and compromised citizenship.  Victim groups in genocide have almost always been declared to be, in some way, unworthy of the inclusion in the body politic and therefore undeserving of the protection of the state. Teaching the Holocaust and genocide shows how democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained, but need to be appreciated, nurtured, and protected. These lessons can usher forth discussions of the meaning of citizenship, and of the dangers of unchecked state power and unexercised citizen responsibilities.

A third justification is the preventative rationale, wherein students learn about possible means of preventing the scourge of genocide.  These include international actions, including the concept of humanitarian intervention (including the 2005 policy adopted by the United Nations, which is known as “the responsibility to protect”).  The means of prevention also flow from the dynamic established in the previous paragraph, which is to say from our responsibilities, both individual and collective, as members of a democratic community.  In that vein, students should learn to recognize and counteract steps that served as precursors to genocide in the past, such as systematic discrimination and dehumanizing hate speech. Ultimately, the study of the Holocaust and genocide serves as a warning of the dangers of being silent or indifferent to the suffering of others.

Finally, there is an important commemorative rationale to the study of the Holocaust and genocide. By definition, perpetrators of genocide (including the Nazi regime) sought the erasure of entire identity groups.  To study the Holocaust and genocide is to acknowledge the value of those groups, to maintain their vitality, and to honor the memories of those who perished. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote eloquently of the ethical dimensions of remembering the victims of the Holocaust and genocide. “To forget,” he insisted, “would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

5. Teaching the Holocaust

There is no single correct way to implement Holocaust and genocide education.  As with all subjects, teachers need to be sensitive to the individual needs of their students, the associated learning objectives and content standards, and the specific community context in which they are teaching.  While the exact scope, content, and nature of instruction will depend on these and other factors, teachers should be encouraged to approach Holocaust and genocide education utilizing the following key approaches (recommended by the UNESCO in Education about the Holocaust and Preventing Genocide: A Policy Guide):

  1. Open learning environment – Trust and support are necessary for learning about the difficult topics raised in the study of the Holocaust and genocide.
  2. Participatory pedagogies – Learner-centered and inclusive practices are essential for student engagement and effective understanding.
  3. Distinguish historical from moral lessons – The study of the Holocaust and genocide involves both facts and values.  Teachers should root inquiry and analysis in accurate and objective facts within the historical context, and foster conversation and discussion about discrimination, prejudice and injustice.
  4. Embrace complexity – The history of the Holocaust and other genocides is complex and challenging.  Not all questions raised have answers and students should be encouraged to grapple with ambiguity and complexity.
  5. Precise language – Teachers should use precise and correct terminology, provide clear definitions and distinctions, and avoid euphemism and generalization.
  6. Present a range of perspectives – Genocides invariably involved people at all levels of society and all walks of life.  Voices and experiences presented in the classroom should reflect a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
  7. Make distinctions while respecting all experiences of suffering – Accurate and precise facts should be presented to further understanding of the reasons why and the extent to which people were persecuted.  At the same time, teachers should avoid elevating one example of suffering above others.
  8. Contextualize acts of heroism and depravity –   Only presenting the worst elements of persecution and abuse may traumatize students or lead to cynicism. Recognizing the role of the “upstander” -- one who sought to reverse or prevent acts of genocide, even as many others similarly situated stood silent -- is an important lesson to come out of the study of the Holocaust and genocide. However, in cases of genocide, typically only a small number of individuals act to rescue victims, and overemphasis of heroic acts can lead to an inaccurate understanding of events. Nonetheless, certain stories of individual rescuers can be illuminating and inspiring.
  9. Genocide in historical context – Inclusion of preceding, contemporaneous, and subsequent events allows students to understand the development and impact of genocide within history, and connect historical events to contemporary circumstances and events.
  10. Genocide in political context  – Genocides are seldom accidental occurrences; rather, they follow and reflect the strategies and plans of powerful actors. They also depend upon the participation of some non-powerful actors, and upon the acquiescence of many others. By addressing the power and ambition undergirding genocide, teachers can help students think about meaningful measures that might counteract such impulses.
  11. Translate statistics into people – Given the magnitude and reach of events such as the Holocaust and other genocides, it is important not to lose sight of the individual people behind the statistics.  Individual narratives and experiences help students understand the significance of the numbers.
  12. Developmentally appropriate methodologies – Instructional strategies and materials need to be carefully vetted to ensure their appropriateness for the emotional and intellectual development of students.
  13. Dignified learning materials and activities – Guided by compassion for the victims and respect for students, all materials and activities used in Holocaust and genocide education should reflect the seriousness of the topic.  Avoid incidental activities (dioramas, models, puzzles, word searches, etc.), as well as simplistic simulations, role playing, reenactments, or costumes.
  14. The Holocaust and genocide are/were NOT inevitable – Holocaust and genocide education is anti-genocide education.  Just because a historical event happened, that does not mean it had to happen.  The Holocaust and other genocides occurred because of specific decisions made by individuals and groups.  Different decisions would have led to different outcomes. Educators should assist students in understanding the contingency of history and the importance of individual agency in preventing mass atrocities.

6. Guiding Questions

The Holocaust and genocide are difficult topics. It is helpful, therefore, to ground classroom exploration of the topics around a few guiding questions.  

With respect to the Holocaust, these include:

  • Why did a policy of extermination (“The Final Solution”) become the official policy of the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II?
  • What circumstances and policies prevented the rest of the world from intervening to stop the Holocaust?
  • What have been the legacies of the Holocaust on survivors and their families? On the Jewish people? On global politics?

With respect to genocide, guiding questions include:

  • After the Holocaust, the phrase “Never Again” came to be a rallying cry for the prevention of future genocides.  Has that promise been held?
  • What common features do genocides tend to share? Consider the process by which they unfold, the context in which they take place, and the legacies they leave.
  • What are the precursors to genocide? Can understanding the role of prejudice, stereotyping, hateful speech, and discrimination in past genocides inform efforts to prevent genocidal processes from gaining steam?
  • How and when should individuals respond to nascent genocidal dynamics within their own society?  How and when should individuals and nations respond to such cases in the world at large?
  • What are the best ways to preserve and dignify the memory of the victims and survivors, as well as to counter those who deny that specific genocides have taken place? How well do different means, such as transitional justice, monuments, ceremonies, and education serve these goals?

These are generally open questions, on which experts in the field sometimes disagree.  The spirit of the Holocaust and Genocide Education and Awareness Act is that students should be able to engage in informed and sensitive debate on these questions and others like them.  Ultimately, the consideration of these questions can help form students who are engaged in the world and attuned to their responsibilities as citizens in a global sense.

7. Concluding Reflections

Through Holocaust and genocide education, there are critical analogies that can be identified from the Holocaust as well as from different genocides that have occurred in history. For example, many genocides include the presence of a racist ideology that is fueled by demonizing stereotypes and hate speech. Further, in most genocides, such racism and hate speech are wielded by ultra-nationalist or fascist politicians, for political advantage. In each case, a targeted group is "socially constructed" through propaganda and identified as something to be hated, feared, and eliminated. Genocides often culminate in an apparatus of persecution and murder. Most genocides have "succeeded" due to a failure of international intervention. In certain cases, the perpetrators actually deny the atrocities, in spite of evidence and convictions for the crime of genocide.  These analogies provide a conceptual framework for a more authentic and effective understanding of genocide as an historical phenomenon, and for crucial brainstorming about genocide prevention. Together we can strive to achieve the educational and social goals of the new mandate, thereby enhancing a heightened critical awareness of and engagement with Holocaust and genocide education among our students who are vital in so many ways to the future of our State and region.

8. Resources

There are many resources available to help teachers to design course segments on the Holocaust and genocide. This webpage features links to outside websites, bibliographies, audio-visual materials, in-state resources including speakers and field trips, and sample lesson plans

United Nations definition of genocide, Article II