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29th Jun 2017

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Schools doing a bad job of teaching pupils about Holocaust, EU study says

Europe's Holocaust memorials, exhibitions and museums offer young people too little reflection on current human rights issues, and current school programmes do not establish this link either, a report published by the EU's fundamental rights agency shows.

Schools should "go beyond the mere transmission of historical facts to include discussion and debate on past and present human rights issues," the Vienna-based EU body said on Tuesday (26 January) ahead of the 65th anniversary of the Auschwitz death camp's liberation.

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  • Holocaust memorials such as the one in Berlin do not focus enough on current human rights issues (Photo: markhorrel.com)

The report examines the role of historical sites and museums in Holocaust education as well as human rights education in the European Union. It surveyed 22 memorial sites, education and culture ministries in all member states (except Cyprus) and held focus group discussions with teachers and students in the UK, France, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy and Lithuania.

Statements by teachers and students pointed to a weak link between education about the Holocaust and human rights education at school level. Students in the focus groups felt that "human rights" was a concept not frequently dealt with in school education.

"It is not enough to listen to a witness who is over 80 years old if you do not connect his/her experience to the present time, if you don't recognise there is still a deficit in human rights today," the agency quoted one teacher as saying.

Although education on the Holocaust is now mandatory in many EU countries, the very term is problematic throughout Europe, the report notes, as there is "no common agreement as to what exactly is to be covered" by the school programme besides the central and accepted common denominator – the extermination of European Jewish people by the Nazi regime.

It could also include a concentration camp which had little or no importance for the genocide of European Jewry but was used for the oppression of political prisoners, or a site connected to the euthanasia programme of persons with intellectual or physical disabilities.

Different national interpretations of the end of the Second World War are also an issue. "As different European nations were affected by World War 2 in quite different ways, and the post-war narratives about these events are far from homogenous, it is far from clear how the Holocaust will be integrated into the different national narratives which still tend to dominate the school curriculum," the document reads.

As for the various national and regional ministries surveyed, most of them expressly recommended the integration of visits to historic locations, memorial sites and museums into school teaching about the Holocaust. However, they also pointed to the autonomy of schools and teachers' freedom of choice.

Both teacher and student groups showed a similar level of hesitation concerning the link between human rights and Holocaust education.

Students from the Czech focus group complained that the Holocaust was treated as a marginal subject at

school.

"The issues are presented as a distasteful subject‚ which is taboo, too narrowly, superficially and one-sidedly treated," a student was quoted as saying. Their colleagues in Lithuania also agreed that in their schools, the topic was "just touched on briefly," but not talked about in-depth.

The surveyed Holocaust commemoration sites also scored poorly in terms of linking the historical facts with current human rights issues. Only one of the 22 memorials and museums regarded informing people about human rights as its most important objective, while all the other focused on historical knowledge.

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