Best Practices in Holocaust Education: Guidelines and Standards

by: Shirah Hecht

Shirah W. Hecht is a Research Associate with Goodman Research Group, a company that consults in educational and non-profit program evaluation. Dr. Hecht has worked on diverse projects in the Jewish community, and has been a Lecturer at Boston College and Boston Hebrew College in Boston. In this article, she summarizes recent research into best practices in holocaust education.

I) Introduction

Holocaust education is facing a challenge that is transforming the field and setting the stage for creative new educational approaches. Citing the Holocaust Art and Memory Project as one example of a new approach, a recent article in The Washington Times sums up the current educational and historical challenge, noting: “time robs us of an important source of memory – the stories of survivors willing to share their past with students” (“Keeping Holocaust Stories Alive: As More Survivors Pass Away, New Ways to Remember Are Found,” Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Times, 8/10/2009). Pro-actively engaging with this issue, the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund asked JESNA to explore the state of this field in order to establish best standards in the field of Holocaust education with an awareness of the challenge posed by the very passage of time itself.

The research conducted for this report was originally designed to provide general information about “best practices” in Holocaust education, Holocaust education delivery systems, and the training of Holocaust educators. It was also intended to respond to an interest in considering alternative educational models to address the diminishing access to survivors (who are aging and passing away) and whose first-hand presentations have been a centerpiece of many of the educational programs. The questions addressed by the research included several designed to identify characteristics of the most effective Holocaust education programs, including: What are characteristics of these programs that make them effective? What is the role and importance of first-hand testimony by survivors? How are field leaders thinking about Holocaust education in coming years, in light of the diminishing access to survivors and first-hand testimony?

The results reported here are based on interviews with leading professionals in a variety of positions related to Holocaust education, in addition to other collected documents and resources. Using a “snowball sample” approach, the interviewees included noted professionals associated with a range of institutions related to Holocaust education, including Holocaust museums, Holocaust education and resource centers and state commissions (Due to the larger research agenda, the sample included an emphasis on professionals in California and the San Francisco area.) More than 50 experts were identified and 22 professionals were interviewed. (The complete list of interviewees is available in the full report available on-line.) Of these, 16 individuals participated in extensive telephone interviews that followed a structured protocol and six individuals responded to more focused questions about specific topics of interest.

II) Curriculum Guidelines for Holocaust Education

The interviews indicate that guidelines for excellence in Holocaust education apply across audiences, whether they are school students, teachers at professional training seminars or other adults. There are two commonly cited sources of guidelines for teaching Holocaust material: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the International Task Force for Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Commemoration and Research.

At the same time, as experts caution, published guidelines are inadequate in that they do not prescribe how to convey the educational content. The following educational principles elucidate the official published guidelines and identify hallmarks of appropriate and effective Holocaust educational programming.

Based on these expert interviews, effective Holocaust education programming needs to reflect the following essential principles in its content and process.

1. Educators must use powerful teaching vehicles and materials to engage students.

  • Museum artifacts and other primary materials hold great power in creating authenticity and restoring the individual voice. Professionals in diverse educational domains value using personal artifacts as a key means to engage students and help them internalize the personal nature of the events.
  • Interdisciplinary approaches increase student learning. An interdisciplinary approach includes historical facts along with poetry, art, music, theology, psychology, literature and other disciplines, a combination which positively impacts students’ learning outcomes.

2. Curricula should connect with larger curricular goals and extend the learning over a longer duration.

  • Place learning into the context of larger curricular goals and broader ideas, and not only historical narrative. Effective Holocaust education relates ideas and understandings to specific curricular goals, rather than focusing on historical chronology alone. Within the standard curriculum, Holocaust education is usefully connected to other key concepts students learn, such as empires, nationalism, human rights and genocide. It is also common to place Holocaust study explicitly alongside a study of other genocide events.
  • One-time events are not sufficient; longer instructional time-frames are necessary. Educators and programmers agree that “one-shot events” are much less effective than well-structured units of longer duration. School-based history teachers are frequently under pressure to complete a textbook and/or cover a span of history in the course of the year, in order to meet state testing standards. At the same time, effective Holocaust curricula allow teachers to integrate the ideas into their curricula throughout the year, rather than only touching on the topic briefly at the school year’s end, when the lessons concern World War II.

3. Educators must attend to both cognitive and emotional aspects of learning.

In presenting the Holocaust, teachers must attend to historical accuracy and complexity, and respect the historical figures under study – and make connections that personally reach students. Dan Napolitano, Director of the Education Division at the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, articulated four principles in this regard, which were touched upon and elaborated on by others:

  • Providing accurate historical information is a necessary (but not sufficient) requisite for effective Holocaust education. In addition, access to actual artifacts, such as those available through the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is one way to ensure historical accuracy.
  • The Holocaust cannot be understood as an isolated event, and must therefore be presented within a larger, more complex, historical context. Students must appreciate what came before (and was lost) as well as subsequent events. This approach includes presenting a complex view of the perpetrators and their context as well.
  • Effective Holocaust education seeks to foster students’ empathy with those who experienced the events. Student face difficulties in fully appreciating the circumstances of the Holocaust, and focusing on the experiences of individuals can be a powerful means to foster the empathy desired.
  • Education needs to connect the historical events and experiences to students’ contemporary activities and lives. The majority of the educational experts interviewed stressed the importance of making connections to other historical and ethnic situations explicit, and of relating the learning to current events and situations. The experts also shared a belief that Holocaust education could not be considered effective if students did not relate the lessons of the Holocaust to their own daily lives, such as in their experiences of prejudice or bullying.

4. Effective holocaust education demands an emotionally safe environment and an age-appropriate approach.

At all age levels, it is vital to create an open and “safe” educational environment for the study of the Holocaust. Students (children as well as adults) can only learn when they are free to think and speak their honest thoughts and views. To create an atmosphere for effective Holocaust education:

  • Educators must create a safe and respectful learning environment to encourage open dialogue and to avoid “shutting down” conversation. Learning about the Holocaust involves a conversation that crosses boundaries and challenges learners to connect with individuals and experiences that may touch them deeply while also at first appearing foreign or uncomfortable. In this educational context, educators must remain open and ready to accept the variety of responses students will offer at different stages of their learning.
  • In creating an appropriate educational environment, it is important that content and presentations are developmentally appropriate. Issues related to bias and prejudice can be introduced at early ages. At the same time, experts caution about the temptation to introduce materials or concepts too early and that are not developmentally appropriate.

Sample programs that demonstrate these principles include, for example:

  • Beginning with attention to the issue of “identity” and then moving to an understanding of “we vs. they” dynamics before examining historical case studies such as the Holocaust and other historical examples of genocide (Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) curriculum).
  • Use of Samantha Power’s work and the language of “upstander.” (FHAO) (For more on Powers see and
  • Bringing students to empathy rather than to fear and shock or judging, while placing events in a larger context of Jewish history (Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust).
  • Addressing a range of topics, designed for grades K-12, including: prejudice and propaganda, altruism (including empathy and Holocaust rescue), bystander inaction and conformity, legal issues and trials, victim reaction and resistance, accepting differences, the geography of Holocaust events and the history of Holocaust events (New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education).

III) Presentations by Survivors and Alternative Strategies

Survivor Presentations: Benefits and Educational Contexts

The experts interviewed all strongly endorsed the great benefit of Holocaust survivor presenters in educational contexts. Their comments underscore the power of such interactions and reflect their understanding of the loss the field will sustain in the future when survivors are no longer available as speakers.

At the same time, the interviews put the inevitable loss of this resource into perspective in two ways. First, this kind of loss is the case with all historical events. Second, even in the U.S., there are parts of the country, such as rural areas in states without large Jewish populations, where access to survivor-speakers has never been easy to arrange.

Presentations by survivors potentially offer three primary educational benefits. First, the immediacy of first-hand experience effectively conveys the reality of the Holocaust. Second, they offer the possibility of personal interaction with Holocaust survivors. Third, survivor presentations have emotional power, as the presentations connect students with individuals who experienced the Holocaust first-hand.

At the same time, survivor presentations require preparation in order to be educationally effective. In this regard, creating a context for the student is the first and foremost requirement, as both appropriate preparation beforehand and de-briefing afterwards are key to effective survivor presentations. Two quotes from the interviews exemplify the consensus of the educators consulted:

People would say: provide a survivor speaker. It’s terrific to have a speaker for 1 500 kids in gym. But all by itself, it’s moving to a number of kids, and it may solidify some ideas about the Holocaust for them; it provides one simple or complex narrative. But that’s an event, not education. Education requires opportunity for reflection, connections, analogies, distinctions.

There’s nothing better than encountering a Holocaust survivor – for adults or kids – if the survivor is a good presenter and presentations are rooted in context. Often those two things don’t happen. Are the kids prepared to hear the story?

Alternatives to Presentations by Survivors

Given the realities, we are profoundly aware that the time is rapidly approaching when Holocaust survivor presentations will no longer be options for Holocaust education. Expert educators offer the following comments on alternative educational approaches to consider.

1. Taped Testimonies

Videotaped testimonies create very different experiences, from the perspective of the survivor as well as the student. Among the benefits and challenges inherent in using taped testimonies in educational setting are specific strengths associated with this medium:

As we are talking to each other, there are things that distract me as we speak: I’m wondering if I’m understood, wondering all kinds of things that are part of the listener and speaker’s experience. Watching testimony, you don’t have that and it’s more intimate. You can stare at them. You can listen to them, unabashed. And the survivors, speaking to the camera, also are not worried about distractions. They are giving their testimony for future generations. It has a profundity.

Visual history testimony is, without question, an experience. It is very moving. For students – the ability to connect with someone, even in 3 or 4 minutes, can have a profound effect on how they see history. It’s not just dates and figures – it’s personal, poignant, it sparks their interest.

Taped testimonies also allow educators to select and highlight specific elements across presentations for educational purposes. Interview comments suggest examples:

You can make selections that are thematic or content-oriented for a classroom. You can create a reel with selections, for example, that are only about the “hidden child.” Then you can relate it to classroom experience directly – for example, if they are studying Anne Frank. Compared to a survivor speaking, this is a very different experience.
When you are doing it electronically, you can be very selective about the survivor experience that you hear. Typically, now you have one day with 35-45 minutes with a survivor, who is telling lots of stories. Now, electronically, you have so many diverse stories – as you are doing a unit, you can play oral testimony that goes with your units – and for 10-12 minutes, which is the maximum attention span. And it’s not tied to a site or assembly time or place. You can integrate pieces throughout. There are on-line tours – history, geography, etc. – all integrated into the same moment. You can play an oral history, as they read a primary source, after reading a book chapter.

Educators do, however, need specific training and professional development to integrate technological modalities into their teaching. The following interview quotes describe the challenges and opportunities:

The medium of visual history. Our focus is just that. This is an emerging field of education. Teachers use movies and other media. But video testimony is a primary source document really. Teachers don’t know how to use a primary source video like that. Policy-makers, curriculum developers also don’t know how to use it. They don’t know how it’s different from showing a movie, or how it’s different from hearing a live survivor, or how you take a 2.5 hour unedited testimony and find clips that are age-appropriate and how to design classroom materials around it, to create an interactive, empathy-building experience.

Technology will resolve it. It won’t be the same. It will be better in a different way…. Because the presentation itself is less reliable, there will be an attempt to better prepare kids for the learning – that’s the good news. It necessitates more work from the teacher – that’s good.


Presentations by second-generation survivors can be very effective, particularly if combined with other speakers and materials. Many educators use second-generation and survivor-speakers from other contemporary or past historical events, such as the Armenian Genocide. As for effectiveness, one interviewee shared that she still recalls how moved she was as a child when she heard a speaker describe the African American slave heritage based on family history.

At the same time, the second generation speaker is notably different from the first generation speaker and educators must consider how best to use them as resources. One option is to combine second-generation speakers with video testimony or even with first generation speakers in the coming years. The following comment describes this approach while also recognizing the validity of the second-generation story in its own right:

A combination of these things will be the rule, and what is possible. We will identify and orient people who were children during that era – even babies then – who can speak to their family’s experiences. They may not remember the experiences, but it is part of their family history. Children of survivors can provide effective testimony about their own experiences, and not just their parents’ point of view. It is equally powerful emotionally, to hear from people whose lives have been impacted by their parents’ histories. We might have them speak in concert with video presentation.

There is also a challenge that lies ahead in preparing second-generation survivors to speak to these historical events effectively. Many second-generation survivors have not been told of their parents’ experience in great detail and therefore are not prepared to speak to these events. In response, academics and others who are interested in this area must take the lead in bringing this issue to the fore and preparing these potential speakers for this role.

2. Technology and the Internet as Educational Tools

Finally, some experts suggested other innovative uses of technology and the internet as educational tools. They asserted that use of electronic technology will be an increasingly essential component of any Holocaust education curriculum. As one expert argued:

Any grant proposal for teaching must include a technology component. Technology is friendly to increasing historical understanding. Use the internet as a historiographical/pedagogical tool, to teach the methodology of doing history, to teach historiography. There’s no ultimate thing as objective history. Everything has a point of view. This is teaching critical thinking in its basic form. You can use technology to increase historical understanding, then use it in critical analysis of historical thinking (e.g., by having students go to different websites and compare the content).

IV) Guidelines for Effective Teacher Professional Development

A second area for establishing guidelines and standards concerns teacher professional development in the field of Holocaust education. In general, experts concurred that teacher training in Holocaust education must adhere to “good professional development” principles, with an emphasis on creating ongoing support for the teachers’ continued learning, interests and work. In addition to providing initial training that has sufficient duration and intensity, follow-up and continuing to involve the teacher in the conversation of Holocaust education is crucial. Professional development in this field must also be coordinated with opportunities within the larger curriculum, as well as meeting the challenges presented by the teacher’s professional demands.

Overall, to be effective, a professional development structure for teachers must emphasize content as well as pedagogy, build the ongoing relationship with the teachers over an extended period, include opportunities for demonstrations, modeling and coaching, and base professional development efforts within schools to maximize impact over the long term and across classes.

Effective professional development in the area of Holocaust education additionally requires a commitment to raising educator skills in: historical knowledge; pedagogies and teaching methods; and technology useful to increasing historical knowledge and creating student learning activities.

The experts also made these suggestions for professional development program content in this field:

  • Integrate the theoretical and the practical, by addressing the theory and research related to Holocaust education as well as practical applications in every professional development program.
  • Follow through on the practical elements including instruction in the use of technology as relevant, incorporating and demonstrating specific teaching strategies, and effective modeling of teaching practice by the presenter.
  • Limit the topical focus by addressing a single topic rather than the full range of possible subject areas related to Holocaust education. Examples of single-topic themes include bullying, the perpetrators, the rescuers, hidden children, and the bystander response.