The death camps of Nazi Germany were the site of unimaginable human suffering. Millions of Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, black people, gay people and political opponents were imprisoned in intolerable conditions or murdered. Some camps are now museums – visited by survivors, their families, school groups and tourists. Use this lesson plan to supplement other work on discrimination and genocide and to explore the importance of learning from the horrors of the past.
By the end of the activity students will be able to:
provide various reasons why people might choose to visit memorials, such as the one at Auschwitz-Birkenau
say how remembering the atrocities of the past can help challenge hatred and persecution today.
Suggested age range
Show the photograph, available in a powerpoint. Do students recognise this gate? Invite guesses and share what students know about where it is and what it represents.
If necessary, prompt with additional information such as:
- The words fashioned in metal above the gate are "Arbeit Macht Frei" – a phrase in German meaning "work makes you free" or "work liberates you".
- The words were adopted as a slogan of the Nazi party when it came to power in Germany in 1933.
- The slogan was placed above the entrance to several concentration camps operated by the Nazis before and during World War II.
- Some of the camps were for forced labour, linking with the slogan on the gate. Others were extermination or death camps. A total of six million people, most of them Jewish, were killed.
After discussion confirm that the picture shows the entrance to the Auschwitz camp. The largest established by the Nazis, Auschwitz was a complex of three large camps near Krakow in Poland. More than a million men, women and children died there, from starvation, brutal treatment or murdered in gas chambers.
Discuss what students know about the museum and memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Use online or library research to find more about the guided tours and the education centre at the museum. How many people visit each year? Then ask students to complete the following sentence.
- "I would visit the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau because..."
Vary the question according to the group. Another option could be "I think people want to visit the memorial because..."
In December 2009, the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" was stolen from the Auschwitz camp. It was later recovered. Why did the theft upset people? Talk about damage to other war memorials that students may know about. Why is there often a powerful emotional reaction to such damage?
The organisers of Holocaust Memorial Day, which is in January, stress that the day is not just about the Holocaust. It is also an opportunity to remember the millions of civilians from persecuted groups who died in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ask students to write a short piece expressing their thoughts about how remembering the atrocities of the past can help challenge hatred and persecution today.
For an out-of-class activity ask students to interview someone - family or friend - who has visited, or who would like to visit a memorial at a camp. What motivates them? Was it what they expected? Are they glad they went? Would they encourage others?
Pose the question, why remember? What is the point of memorials, particularly those that recall horrific suffering of millions of people?
Here are some possible answers. Invite students to sort them according to which they think are most important or persuasive. There are nine, so it can be used as a diamond ranking exercise. Or just use the ideas to structure a general discussion.
It is important to remember the horrors of the past...
- to stop others falsifying the truth
- so those who suffered are not forgotten
- so future generations can find out what happened
- to bring bereaved families together for support and comfort
- so politicians can prevent history repeating itself
- to identify the guilty and clear the innocent
- to give strength to those fighting intolerance and hatred
- to be reminded of the horrors that human beings are capable of
- to show respect to those who survived and those who helped.
Add other answers in students' own words.
Is it sometimes better to forget? Recent history can be so painful that people feel like destroying, not preserving, memories of the past.
This sometimes happens when a country changes government. A civil war or a war involving other countries may lead to the fall of a long-standing government. Then the people and the new government may want to…
- demolish buildings that represent the old regime
- replace emblems, signs, symbols and slogans favoured by the old regime
- rename streets and public places.
Discuss this. Do students see any problems? Talk about the kinds of buildings that might be destroyed – perhaps a government building, a leader's home, an infamous prison or detention centre.
Refer back to the ranking exercise in the previous activity and the discussions about the reasons for remembering. If the evidence of the past is destroyed, how will people avoid repeating the errors?
Point out that this kind of dilemma has been very real for some countries in recent times. Express it like this:
- "If we don't mark the existence of repression then it will be as if it never happened. We risk forgetting those who suffered. However, if we do preserve the hated and feared buildings of the past, they could be a constant painful reminder for those who suffered. They could even be a rallying point for those who want a return to the old regime or those who want to glorify it."
There may be no easy answers to this dilemma. Individual countries must work out whatever seems best for them at the time. Ask students to say in general whether remembering or forgetting is, in their view, most likely to reduce the chances of future conflict, or minimise suffering if it does happen.
As an online research exercise, ask students to find examples of countries grappling with these dilemmas after a change of government. How many controversial memorials to the past can they find and describe?
British history provides fruitful follow-on explorations. For example:
- On the eradication of links with the past, look at the way German names and cultural references, which had been very popular in Britain, were dropped or amended during World War I. Look at the renaming of streets. Do not forget the changes to royal houses, such as George V's adoption of the family name Windsor, in preference to Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
- The destruction of images from the past has a name – iconoclasm. It often refers particularly to destruction of religious images. Explore instances of iconoclasm during the reformation and the English civil war. Ask students to say how they might tell whether accounts of iconoclasm are accurate or exaggerated or invented for propaganda reasons.
Public memorials to those who died can come in many forms. How many can students think of?
Talk about the main types, including the following:
- A physical place where the events happened, such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
- A physical memorial separate from where those remembered died – such as a war memorial for the dead of the World Wars in an English village
- A website or other online presence
- A book of condolences.
Focus on the way that the names of those remembered are listed. One obvious way is in alphabetical order. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC lists members of the US armed forces in date order of their death. The 9/11 memorial in New York groups names according to "meaningful adjacencies". This means those who died on an aeroplane are listed together, so are those who died working in or visiting the north or south tower. Work colleagues are also together, firefighters are together, and, where possible, friends and relatives are listed together.
Discuss how much this careful attention might have been appreciated by the next-of-kin. Why would a meaningful grouping make the bereaved feel better than a purely alphabetic list?
Task students to visit a war memorial in the locality. It might be in a parish church or in a square or other public place. Are there names on the memorial? How many? How are they organised? Discuss who might have decided on the organisation. If families of those who died had had a say, might it have been done differently?
This lesson plan was written in January 2012 by PJ White and reviewed in January 2013.