Over the years I have been extremely fortunate to take part in a number of events hosted by the Holocaust Educational Trust http://www.het.org.uk including a free CPD course on how to teach the Holocaust as well as visiting Auschwitz myself through the Lessons from Auschwitz scheme http://www.het.org.uk/lessons-from-auschwitz-programme. The one message that comes loud and clear through all of these courses is “teach about the individuals not about the number.” That ‘number’ being the death toll: six million Jews, over three million Soviet prisoners of war, 200,000 gypsies and about 70,000 men, women and children with mental and physical handicap to name a few.
This is why a few years ago I attempted something rather controversial in my classroom.
Some might deem this tasteless, others might be shocked by the idea however my intention is clear: make it about the right number – the individual victim’s number.
Within most schools and colleges students are given a student number. This is on their ID cards, used to log onto campus computers and identifies students in the email system. As the students enter the room they write their student number down their forearm using washable black board pen (making sure of no allergies etc first). The number remains on their arm as they study about the Holocaust in that lesson.
At the end of the lesson I introduce the students to a website http://auschwitz.org/en/. By clicking on Museum and then Auschwitz Prisoners (left hand side links) you come to a page that says ‘Search data’. I ask if there are any students who wish to see the name of the individual who was in Auschwitz with their number. I have found this is by far one of the most powerful, memorable and meaningful activities for the students. Because of this it has been the source and influence of many of the students classroom memorials (see post: Holocaust: Leaving a Lasting Impression).
As the students leave I say to them that they now have the choice: they can either remove their number or they can leave it on and explain to others why it is there. Most leave it on for the day.
This is a poem written by a student:
“I share my number with Leopold Zinn
I wonder now what i could say to him
To make him better, take away his pain
Restore his faith, to let him live again.
Leopold Zinn shared his number with me
The only difference is i am free.
I can walk home at the end of the day
But at the camp he will always stay.
I don’t know if he survived
I don’t know if he’s still alive
If he is, for one day, we shared the same mark
Number 30120 tattooed on our arms”.