The Holocaust of the Second World War is the subject of this assembly for primary schools. Gerald Haigh tells the story of the Holocaust in order to give an overview of how the murder of so many innocent people occured, offering a message about the potential consequences of racism and oppression of minorities

Note for teachers
Holocaust Memorial Day is on 27th January, however, the assembly is provided now because there will be many events organised leading up to the day. In Coventry, for example a ‘Stand up to Hatred’ walk for schools is planned for Saturday the 24th, as well as a specially written musical performance by adults and children – ‘One Voice’ – on 24th and 25th.

As well as the Nazi Holocaust of the Second World War, Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates many other acts of genocides in history – Cambodia, Bosnia. Rwanda, and Darfur, for example. Here, though, we focus on the Nazi’s mass murder of Jews, Christians, gypsies, the mentally ill and political dissidents, among others.

Many particular aspects of the Holocaust are familiar to children in school – individual children’s stories, accounts of the ‘Kindertransport’ and of course The Diary of Anne Frank. In my experience, however, there’s often less familiarity with the overall picture. Therefore, in order to help the understanding of children and teachers, we present as straightforward an account as possible of the Holocaust – whence it emerged, how and why it developed as it did, and how it still resonates through all our lives. It’s a complicated tale, necessarily abridged here, but if there’s one essential point to be made it is about how easy it is for prejudice and hatred against a minority to grow until it becomes murder and genocide.

It’s also a horror story, of course, that may upset some children. That, though, is a matter for teachers’ professional judgment.

The 27th January is National Holocaust Memorial Day. That day is chosen because it was on 27th January 1945 that the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz was reached by the advancing Russian Army who liberated more than 7,000 remaining prisoners towards the end of the Second World War,. We hear a lot about the Holocaust and the stories of people caught up in it, but we don’t always put what we know together so that we see the whole picture. That’s what we’re going to do today. It’s one of those stories that must be told and retold so that it is never forgotten and so that the lessons it contains continue to be learned.

The story of the Holocaust
The word ‘holocaust’ means a burnt offering’ sacrificed to God – although in Victorian times it was used to reference natural disasters and occasional mass deaths. It has now been permanently applied to the Nazi extermination of six million Jewish people and between three and five million others by the Nazi government of Germany in the 1940s. We now refer to the deaths of large numbers of people as ‘genocide’ to differentiate the Holocaust from similar events, but the outcome is the same.

Jewish people live in all parts of the world, practising their faith – Judaism. They’re an ethnic group as well as a religious group, with ancient origins in the Middle East.

In the early part of the twentieth century, in many countries in Europe, the Jews were unpopular. It’s difficult to explain why; it was mostly just straightforward racism, of a kind that ethnic minorities are often forced to put up with. Jews and other minorites still sometimes suffer racism even here in our own country.

In Germany in the 1930s , this prejudice became much more serious. This was because the elections in Germany in 1933 were won by the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler. The Nazi Pary was racist – racism was part of its beliefs and its policies. Having a racist party in charge meant the government didn’t protect minorities, or pass laws to punish racism, which is what we expect of a government today. Instead, the Nazi government did the exact opposite. It passed laws to make life worse for Jews – stopping them from working for the government, or being teachers, farmers, lawyers or doctors. People were encouraged to show hatred towards Jews by name-calling in the street, and the police, instead of protecting Jews, took part in humiliating and attacking them.

Many Jews left Germany, of course – but most didn’t. That’s because in a way they couldn’t believe what was happening, and they were sure that things would get better. Instead, things got worse and it became impossible for Jews to live successfully in Germany. They couldn’t work or trade, and after a time they were no longer allowed to leave the country. Their businesses, and often their homes, were taken away from them and given to non-Jewish people. Finally, their citizenship and civil rights were taken away; they were moved into poor ghettos separate from their other German neighbours.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and the Second World War began. They were successful in conquering other European countries such as Poland, Hungary, France, Holland. And in each country they began to make the lives of Jews, and other minorities, a misery.

Soon, the Nazi Government decided to get rid of the Jews and other groups they disliked in the countries that they controlled. That, they thought, would solve their ‘problem’. When the Nazis attacked Russia, they thought they might make all Jews go to live in the far-off icy parts of Russia, but they had to give up on that idea because they weren’t very successful in conquering Russia. But still they continued to kill more and more minorities in the countries they attacked,. In Poland and Russia there were special squads of soldiers who simply rounded up Jewish men, women and children, made them dig their own graves and then forced them to get in them and be shot by machine guns and rifles. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in this way.

So in the end, the decision was made that the way to get rid of every Jew was to kill them all. This was called, by the Nazis, ‘The Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. Similar programs applied to others, for example, Polish people, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Mass shootings continued. But the Nazi government was impatient and knew they wanted quicker methods of killing,.so they set up special death camps. Now, camps themselves were not a new idea. The Germans had always had concentration camps – thousands of them, big and small – where anyone might be put if the government or the police didn’t approve of them, without bothering much with a trial. In some of these camps, people were worked to death; the Nazis said the work they did was going to boost the economy.

The actual death camps, though, were different. There were five main ones, all in Poland, all specially equipped to kill large numbers of people by gassing them. The biggest one was at Auschwitz, and the others at Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec. Jews from all over Europe were taken to these camps by train, on long journeys in overcrowded cattle trucks during which many people died. On arrival, some were selected for work before being killed. Others were killed immediately. All ended their lives in the gas chambers: men women and children. Then their bodies were burned to ash.

Six million European Jews – a million and a half of them children — were murdered by the Nazis. A million and a half Jews were killed at Auschwitz alone. The death toll of all the people killed in the Holocasut may be as high as 11 million..

How can such a thing happen?
The writer of our assembly today tells this story about his teacher.

‘When I was first at secondary school, my maths teacher was a pleasant man we all liked (and still talk about), called Mr Wessely. Much later I learned that Rudy Wessely had been on the last ‘Kindertransport’ train by which Jewish children escaped from Germany in 1939. His parents put him on the train to save his life. He never heard of his parents again. Rudy went to school in England and had a distinguished career as a teacher. Many years on, in a TV programme, Rudy was asked that question – ‘How does such a thing happen?’

‘It starts,’ said Rudy, ‘when one group of people begin to believe that they are better than another group, and should have more rights.’

Rudy Wessely, had he not escaped through the unselfish act of his parents, would most likely have been murdered along with them. Instead, he lived to teach many generations of school children about better things; better attitudes and better ways of living.

A prayer
Lord, we remember all the many survivors of the Holocaust, and all of those whose lives were scarred by what happened to relatives and friends. May we always turn away from racism and hatred and prejudice, remembering that we are all equal in your sight. Amen.

‘The human struggle continues generation after generation. Yet, each generation seems to make similar mistakes. Will we ever learn?’ – The Islamic Garden website.

Further information
There is much information and many resources available on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2009

About the author: Gerald Haigh