‘It happens to real people’: how to help children grasp the horror of the Holocaust

Remembering the questions of his own childhood has helped Michael Rosen to tell pupils difficult truths

Last modified on Thu 23 Jan 2020 06.16 EST

As a very young child, the only inkling I had of the Holocaust was that every now and then my father would say that he’d had two uncles in France who were “there before the war and weren’t there afterwards”. I’d wonder, how could they have just disappeared? How could there only be a nothing?

At weddings and wider family gatherings, we would meet his cousin Michael and later we would be told that Michael had been “put on a train in Poland” by his parents, been sent to a prison camp in the Soviet Union, fought with Polish forces in General Anders’ army, and had somehow arrived on our aunt’s doorstep in east London, but had never seen his parents again. Living in the London suburbs of the 1950s, I couldn’t figure out how any of this could have happened. How could you lose your parents?

When I am drawn into doing Holocaust education with children of the age I was then, I often think of how I heard these terrible things without understanding them or fully feeling them. To put it crudely, these things sounded to me, as a child under the age of 10, as sad but strange, with no connection to the safe kind of life I lived.

A bit later, on a trip to Germany in 1957, my parents said that they were being taken on a visit somewhere that was too awful for my brother and I to go with them. It was Buchenwald. When my mother came back, her face was grey. She tried to explain that thousands of people were tortured and killed there, people like us: Jews. I was 11. I thought of a place I had visited a few weeks earlier: the torture room at the Tower of London. Again, I think now of how my mind worked then: using a horror that I knew as a way of trying to understand the horror my mother was talking about.

All this was before the days of the internet, Wikipedia, documentaries about the Nazis on TV, or novels for children such as Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

My childhood curiosity about the disappearances of my relatives turned into an adult quest, fuelled at first by irritation that nothing more was known other than my father saying he didn’t know. Later, I became infuriated that the Nazis had not only eliminated people from our family but that there were no traces. They had got away with it. When, in the late 80s there seemed to be concerted efforts to try to make Holocaust denial respectable, it felt more urgent to find out more.

Over the next 30 years, I pieced together the stories of how the two French uncles were seized and deported to Auschwitz, one as part of a Nazi roundup in Nice, the other as a result of ordinary French village gendarmes doing what they were asked to do: knocking on a door at 2.30 in the morning and arresting a Jew for being Jewish.

Because I started writing short pieces about these things, I found myself on several occasions in front of school students telling my family stories, thanks to teachers asking me in. At this point, let me acknowledge the years of work in Holocaust education by organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust, University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London, and others.

On other occasions I worked with the Anne Frank Foundation and later with children and survivors for a Radio 4 programme about memorialising the Holocaust.

Then, in one college, a young man raised his hand: “But none of this happened, did it?” It stopped me in my tracks. I had shown the students photos, lists, maps, diagrams, letters. Why hadn’t it convinced him? What should I have presented him with? More facts? More details? Eyewitness accounts? I still feel uneasy about this moment.

A couple of years later, Helen Weinstein, a public historian and the creative director of History Works, a media production company, asked me to take part in workshops across Cambridge schools – primary and secondary.

She had been asked by Cambridge city council to work with the schools in the lead-up to Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies.

She wanted me to mix several of the things I do: tell the story of what I had found out about my family, write poems, read them to the school students, write lyrics for songs that children, teenagers and adults would sing, help the children write poems, and offer ideas for teachers to carry on the work in their own ways. I’ve since taken part in Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies at which a survivor, Eva Clarke, has spoken alongside Eric Eugène Murangwa, a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi, and other witnesses of discrimination and persecution.

Each time I take part in these activities, I have to check with myself: why are we doing this? And are we going about it in the right way?

Adrian Kidd, the headteacher of Trumpington community college, Cambridge, where we’ve worked several times, says that Holocaust education has demonstrated to his students “the power of propaganda, extremist ideologies, hate, violence and the abuse of power”.

Tony Davies, the headteacher at St Matthew’s primary school, Cambridge, says that through hearing the stories from Clarke, Murangwa and me the children have come to understand that “genocide is not some abstract event that happens to ‘others’. It happens to real people, people like themselves, and it has happened in the past and in the present also.”

I’m glad of that. Clarke talks in a quiet, calm, determined way about the horrors faced primarily by her mother. Murangwa tells of his own survival in the teeth of what seemed like certain death.

Davies says children today are already very much aware of the terrible tragedies that occur across the world. “And of course, some of our children are refugees who themselves have fled genocide. So learning about these experiences, discussing them, expressing our feelings about them in a safe environment – this is essential.”

A year 6 girl at one of the Cambridge schools wrote:

Leaving my heart behind …
I will take the lullaby I knew when I was young.

This feels very different from my own childhood, and yet the way I tried to understand my parents’ visit to Buchenwald through making analogies must, I sense, work like that with children now. Sometimes we must be prepared for these children’s analogies and make space for them, in whatever shape they appear. A child in year 5 at St Matthew’s, wrote:

I sit on the warm spring grass
looking at an old, old bee dying on the leaf of a maple tree …
snatched away from its one and only home …
I sit on the warm spring grass …

Davies says: “The children have learned that when we remember the atrocities of the past we honour those who have been lost.”

A girl in year 7 wrote this:

Remember it
Remember it
the day they came
the day they asked my name
I packed a bag
and was never seen again.

Davies believes the children have learned “that it is possible to meet prejudice, hatred and division with fortitude and love, and that when we stand together to do so, as we do on Holocaust Memorial Day, we truly are better.”

I hope so.

Michael Rosen’s latest book is The Missing, about his search for information about his own family. It is suitable for children aged 10 and over

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