Marking Holocaust Memorial Day
Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on 27th January (27th January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest Nazi death camp), urges us to learn from the genocides of the past so that we might build a better future. It is a day for “everyone to remember the millions of people murdered in the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution, and in the genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “Ordinary People”. As the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust states, “Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (e.g., Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).”
In highlighting the ordinary people who let genocide happen, who were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses and victims, this Holocaust Memorial Day seeks to explore the people who made brave decisions to rescue or to hide, or to stand up, or to ignore what was going on around them, “to be bystanders, to allow the genocide to happen.”
It is an incredibly powerful theme because it is designed to help us to reflect on what we might do, as ordinary people ourselves, to play a bigger part than ever before in challenging prejudice today.
Alex Blake, Senior Education Officer at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, explained that marking Holocaust Memorial Day through school activities helps students to learn about the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups and genocides that have happened around the world since 1945. She explained, “They will also make the connection to current situations where people are in danger because of their identity. By learning about the real people affected, students will have increased empathy and consider what we can all do today to make the world a safer place for everyone.”
This increased empathy that can come from learning about the suffering and persecution of others can help to drive action for a better world. Blake went on to explain, “The free teaching materials provided by Holocaust Memorial Day Trust help teachers to ensure that real people's experience and testimony are included in Holocaust Memorial Day activities, and support teachers to broaden the History curriculum's focus on the Holocaust by including information about the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.”
How can schools raise awareness?
Schools and individuals can mark Holocaust Memorial Day in many ways. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website (hmd.org.uk) invites people to learn more about genocide and to explore the life stories of people involved. This is about meaningful engagement on a humanitarian level. There is a downloadable short film called “Ordinary People”, that anyone can screen as part of their activities, and a brand-new website called “Ordinary Objects Extraordinary Journeys” which features four people affected by the Holocaust, their stories, objects and journeys (ooej.org). The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust also provides a range of free lesson plans, assemblies, tutor time material and other resources such as films and poems to support people to mark the day.
At 4pm on 27th January there is a national moment called ‘Light the Darkness’ when people are invited to light candles in their windows to remember those who were murdered for who they were and to stand against prejudice and hatred today.
Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for students to further explore these topics each year and add to their knowledge and understanding. “Holocaust Memorial Day Trust teaching materials also provide opportunities for schools to mark a range of anniversaries of different genocides throughout the school year, and to include different subject areas in a cross-curricular approach, ensuring that students get a well-rounded understanding of these complicated issues.” Blake explained.
There is no doubt that teaching these themes and helping children to understand such horrific events requires a huge amount of sensitivity. Making sure that definitions are correct is important as is being able to manage the complexity of such events and resisting the temptation to oversimplify. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states, “The Holocaust was not inevitable. It took place because individuals, groups, and nations made decisions to act or not to act. Focusing on those decisions leads to insights into history and human nature and fosters critical thinking.” These are tough concepts to take on board, but they are key to understanding these events.
The Holocaust Education Trust points out that by law children are to be taught about the Holocaust as part of the Key Stage 3 History curriculum. It states that, “the Holocaust is the only historical event whose study is compulsory on the National Curriculum.” While history lessons are where many children encounter their Holocaust studies, it can also be explored in Citizenship, English, PSHE and RE.
The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote at length about guilty bystanding. The idea that bad things can happen when we do little or nothing to stop them is particularly challenging, but needs to faced. This Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to do just that, on 27th January and beyond.
- If you have taken part in Holocaust Memorial Day with your students, please add your school on the HMD map by visiting org.uk/letusknowor emailing email@example.com.
- Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (hmd.org.uk)
- Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org)
- Holocaust Educational Trust - Teacher Training (het.org.uk) – free online and in person professional training workshops and CPD residential courses for new and experienced teachers across the UK.
- For school visits to support learning about the Holocaust, try the Imperial War Museum in London, the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, the Jewish Museum in London, the Manchester Jewish Museum, the Wiener Library Institute for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, in London.
- Podcasts – Centre for Holocaust Education
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.