It is all about the number: Teaching about the Holocaust

Over the years I have been extremely fortunate to take part in a number of events hosted by the Holocaust Educational Trust including a free CPD course on how to teach the Holocaust as well as visiting Auschwitz myself through the Lessons from Auschwitz scheme 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 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: Leaving a Lasting Impression: Personalised Holocaust Memorials).

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”.

When it comes to teaching about the Holocaust, there is an abundance of resources available. As far as books are concerned I tend to avoid the overly used but still very good ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ instead choosing passages from Elie Wiesel’s work.

For example:

“I am not so naïve as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of the world. Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.”
( Preface of the New Translation p:8, Marion Wiesel, 2006)

From such a passage I would ask a very general question for the students to consider such as: what do you think this passage means? Depending on the depth of their answers I may probe further: why have books lost their power? or who kept silent yesterday and who is keeping silent today?

If you need an effective and easy to prepare activity I recommend finding a selection of Holocaust pictures (roughly 10 spanning the whole of the Nazi rise to power and the Holocaust), write on the back a short description of each picture and ask students in small groups to select only three pictures that they believe represents the events of the Holocaust.

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Another option is to select a variety of images and ask the students in small groups to write on a post it note: what is happening or who are the people in the pictures?  The class cannot look at the answers (which are on the back of each image) until after whole class discussion.

A final option using pictures (this takes a little longer to prepare) is an activity I call ‘Guilty’. This activity comprises of images of individuals involved in the Holocaust with a description of their actions on the back. The students, in groups, read about the individuals and order them from most to least guilty. This activity will give you surprising results. There is, of course, no right answer! Sit back and listen to the discussions that your students will have as they take on the roles of Judge, Jury and Executioners.


For a free support worksheet and power point, click on the images below:

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