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An everlasting memory: South African teachers visit the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem

| April 10, 2018 | 0 Comments


“Good teachers, like good entertainers, must first hold the audience’s attention and then they can teach their lesson.”1

These words by John Henrik Clarke were true of the Yad Vashem Seminar on Teaching about the Holocaust2 in December 2017. A group of 20 South African educators had the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem to participate in a 10-day seminar centred on the Holocaust and Holocaust pedagogy at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre.

As a group, we had our attention held, our curiosity fed and our perspectives broadened. We were exposed to the leading strategies and methodology around teaching this difficult part of human history in a meaningful and impactful manner. Through the exploration of various themes within the Holocaust as well as modern anti-Semitism and prejudice, we left empowered with tools and ideas on how to bring our own learners safely into the study of the Holocaust, and safely out of it.

Looking at history through multidisciplinary lenses

The International School for Holocaust Studies at the centre designed the seminar specifically with South African educators in mind, with many of the topics mirroring issues we face in the teaching of our own complex history. We were lectured by and had the chance to interact with true master teachers and experts. This deepened our understanding of the Holocaust, as we explored the period through multidisciplinary lenses. From learning about the Abrahamic Covenant, the Jews and their history with God, Nazi ideology, the representation of the Holocaust in literature and the concept of the Righteous Among the Nations to issues around anti-Semitism today, current issues in Holocaust education and research, and the recent problems facing Israel, our programme provided a comprehensive account and investigation into the topic. A highlight of the seminar, for many, was a lecture by the acclaimed academic Yehuda Bauer3 on the “Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in the Age of Genocide”. Bauer began by challenging the definition of genocide as it is commonly understood, and argued that this narrow understanding should be expanded to include the highly respected work of academic Barbara Harff and her definition of politicide.4

Bauer questioned whether encouraging people to learn about the Holocaust is helpful or destructive, and proposed that we explore the universal lessons reflected in the Holocaust and apply them where necessary, making the most of “opportunities that might be missed”. This, among other lectures, highlighted the need for education centred on ubiquitous concepts such as prejudice, oppression, tolerance and understanding.

What underpinned all the lectures was the importance of critical thinking and the challenge that exists for us, as educators, in fostering such skills in our students and the wider community.

Jerusalem and other sites provide more reflection

In addition to our master classes at the Yad Vashem campus, we also had the chance to immerse ourselves in the city of Jerusalem itself. From guided bus tours of the region in all its limestone glory to strolling through the vibrant night markets, it was here – outside the classroom – where we could debate, debrief and reflect on the lessons of the day. Our various excursions to the Western Wall and Oskar Schindler’s grave,5 as well as our trips upon the Light Rail train system to the local shops, illuminated a world that in some ways differed greatly from our own – a world of young girls clad in Israel Defence Forces (IDF)6 uniforms, bearing arms, and ultra-orthodox men riding e-bikes7 in the humming streets of the Jewish quarter; a world of burning candles and the smell of spices in the air. But on the other hand, Jerusalem reminded us about the complexities that are a part of our South African setting, because although it is diverse, it is also seemingly divided.

Feasting on Chanukah doughnuts, visiting the immense Masada, tasting fish from Lake Tiberias, floating (and laughing) together in the Dead Sea, and contemplating the various exhibits at the Yad Vashem Museum – our trip was filled with so many opportunities and experiences, many of which we doubt anyone of us will ever forget. And, in reflection, perhaps it is interesting to note that out of the myriad of resources we received in terms of books, CDs, educational strategies and pedagogical explanations, the most significant were the relationships we built and encounters in which we engaged. Twenty South African educators met as strangers but said goodbye as colleagues, friends and, most importantly, as fellow students.

Learning how to teach our children not to forget

We are sincerely grateful to ISASA and the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation8 for the wonderful professional development opportunity, as well as to Yad Vashem for hosting us and creating a moving and constructive programme. It is trips such as this one that remind us just how vital the teaching profession is, and why we do it.


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4. Barbara Harff is professor of political science emerita at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. See:

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Category: Autumn 2018

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