Oestricher Family
Oestricher Family

Tackling Holocaust denial with teaching materials

The basic historical knowledge of Dutch youth is substandard, recent studies show. Secondary school teachers are sounding the alarm: more attention must be paid to history education. The teaching materials Todesfuge and Drillingsberichte, developed by professor of German language and culture Paul Sars, help create historical awareness and combat disinformation.

Research shows that many Dutch teachers are confronted with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the classroom. These are worrying results that show that historical awareness and knowledge are declining. "We have arrived at an important point in considering what we want students to be able to do and know after high school," writes Marco van Vemde, history teacher and Radboud Pre-University College of Society (PUC) Teacher in Residence, in a column. A good historical foundation ensures that students stand strong in a world full of conspiracy theories and polarization, he reasons.

But how do you make a topic like the Holocaust discussable in the classroom? Professor of German language and culture Paul Sars pondered this question. With a team of students and teachers, he developed study materials that allow students to delve into themes related to the persecution of Jews during World War II, in the form of the school projects TodesfugeA Poem Not to Remember and Drillingsberichte.

Jewish letters and poems

In those projects, schoolchildren engage with stories that connect to their own perceptions. "By developing the teaching materials together with secondary school teachers and students, we find out that students think it's important to learn how to resist oppression and Holocaust denial," says project leader Sars. "That is why in Drillingsberichte, for example, students are introduced to the inspiring German-Jewish sisters Helly, Beate and Maria Oestreicher."

The father of those sisters sent letters to relatives between 1937 and 1943, describing the lives of his daughters. Although their story is set during the emerging war, the personal development of the sisters is the main focus of his letters. "Their escape to the Netherlands, their deportation and the death of their parents are poignant. But the girls survive and become successful as artists and scientists," Sars says. "They show their resilience, which appeals to students."

The Todesfuge project uses another text by a Jewish author: the poem "Todesfuge" by Paul Celan. He writes about the horrors of the Holocaust. Using assignments, students analyse the poem and examine the connection between historical facts and poetry. In this way, students delve into the history of the persecution of Jewish people, but are also encouraged to form their own critical opinions about important contemporary issues, such as the consequences of discrimination and the meaning of remembrance. For the latter, a historical basis is very important: "If, as a student, you have basic knowledge of the past and if you can explain events in the period in which they took place, you can better compare situations," Van Vemde writes.

The teaching materials of Todesfuge and Drillingsberichte can be ordered through the Radboud Pre-University College of Society (PUC). Marco van Vemde is Teacher in Residence History at the PUC.

The Drillingsberichte module was co-created by third-year students of the bachelor's programme German Language and Culture. You can find more information about this programme via the button below!



Contact information

Want to know more? Get in touch with Paul Sars (project leader) via paul.sars [at] ru.nl.