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Teaching Holocaust Art

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Caroline Slifkin discusses her role teaching about the Holocaust through Holocaust Arts.

The Holocaust is a defining event in human history and the study of it can help students to think critically about the world around them. Teaching the Holocaust in History is essential but it can be taught with a cross-curricular approach. A study of Holocaust art can highlight how the Nazis used art for propagandistic purposes, and how victims used artistic expression to document, communicate their protest, despair, and/or hope. This helps students to examine art created by Holocaust victims and survivors and explore its capacity to document diverse experiences and study how people living under Nazi control used art as a form of resistance.

In the framework of my lessons, I invite the students to discuss historical artwork and to create their own works in response. Students approach the works as historical evidence, looking at what they reveal about life in the ghettos and camps. It is hard to believe that art was created in camps by people who felt the need to record/express all that they experienced. This need to communicate was so very strong and often created at great risk to the artist. This art may be viewed by students as a form of documentation, witness, spiritual resistance and as evidence from the victim’s perspective. Many Portraits and self – portraits were created they gave the subject a sense that if they did not survive then perhaps their portrait would.  

‘Fragments of Family’

For Manchester Yom HaShoah, I designed a Holocaust Arts project, ‘Fragments of Family,’ and delivered the project in local schools including Bury and Whitefield Jewish Primary, Elms Bank Specialist Arts College, King David High school, Philips High school, The Derby High school and Tottington High school.   

I looked at and discussed with students the use of the different aspects of photography during the Holocaust, to raise awareness of the Holocaust and the impact photography had to play during the Holocaust. Students were able to explore the use of photography, whether for propaganda purposes, evidence and or documentation. Students were able to explore the importance of the identity of the photographer. Students were asked to consider who took the photographs and why? Students discussed the power and impact of the photographs. Students discussed the relationship between the camera and subject, if the subject; co-operated, were under duress, unaware of the camera, posed, staged or candid. It is so important that students understand that most photographs taken during the Holocaust were taken by the perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders.

I then focussed on photographs taken by Jewish photographers such as Roman Vishniac, who was photographing and capturing the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, the idea of a way of life very much extinguished by the Nazis.

At the end of 1941, the Lodz Ghetto Jewish Council created an official photography section made up of eleven photographers. They included Mendel Grossman and Henryk Ross, whose job it was to take photographs for identity cards, photograph official ceremonies, ghetto products and exhibitions, and ghetto buildings that were about to be demolished. In addition to these official photographs, Grossman and Ross took thousands of illegal photos documenting Jewish life and death in the ghetto, showing the truth of what life was really like in the ghetto. They also captured moments of joy in the ghetto. Right before the final liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944, both Grossman and Ross hid their negatives and photographs. Grossman was shot and killed on a Death March. Ross survives and testifies at the Eichmann trial and some of his photographs are used as evidence.

The students then responded sensitively by creating memorial collages that celebrate the lives of the victims and their families. The students used diverse materials, such as wax, acetate, collage, layering and simple stitch techniques. The student artwork was then displayed at the Manchester Yom HaShoah event. Students were invited to attend the event and were able to see their artwork being viewed by Holocaust survivors and their families and the wider community.

Through the use of visual images, students of all abilities are able to develop visual literacy to add to their skills of critical thinking in order to understand, recognize and evaluate arts as a means of expression. Learning about the Holocaust can evoke powerful emotions, and using the arts can help students to express their thoughts, ideas and responses in an appropriate and creative way.

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Caroline Slifkin is an artist and a freelance Holocaust educator who specialises in teaching about the Holocaust through Holocaust Arts. A Fellow of the Imperial War Museum London in Holocaust Education, with her project in Holocaust Arts Education, ‘Art in the Shadow of Death,’ delivered to school and colleges with a generous grant from the Arts Council England. A Fellow of Royal Holloway, University of London in Holocaust and Jewish Civilisation. Caroline is a Yad Vashem graduate, who has received Yad Vashem Graduate grants to further develop her work in Holocaust Arts Education. 
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