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South African Province Makes Teaching of Holocaust Mandatory

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A South African province is preparing to make Holocaust studies a mandatory part of the school curriculum. The Cape Town Holocaust Centre recently conducted a four-day workshop for some 50 people in cooperation with Kwazulu-Natal province’s Department of Education, training senior teachers, subject advisers and education officials who will provide support for the course.

Holocaust survivor Irene Klass, who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto for two years as a child, flew in for the day from Johannesburg to give a first-hand account of her experiences.

“Most of the people here have never heard or seen a survivor, so to them history began to live,” she said.

Following her talk, an emotional Ravi Pather, subject adviser for history in the Port Shepstone district, told Klass that he appreciated how difficult it must have been to recount her story. Meeting a survivor will add passion to the teaching of the subject, Pather said.

The Holocaust will become a compulsory subject in Kwazulu-Natal province in grade nine and part of the history syllabus in grade 11, beginning next year. It’s hoped that the pilot program will be replicated in all of South Africa’s provinces.

“We’ve had a longstanding and good relationship with the Department of Education in the Western Cape area, and their need has shown us that there’s a need throughout the country,” center director Richard Freedman said. “It’s almost unfair to expect people who don’t have the expertise to convey the content. We’re drawing on years of Holocaust education — not only our own, but that of other Holocaust centers throughout the world.”

This is the center’s first national venture, Freedman noted.

Educator Toni Peterson, who took part in the training, called the course “excellent.”

“When I’m teaching it I’ll be able to explain it beyond what the text is saying, and that’s valuable for providing insight into the events,” she said. “Obviously your primary sources will not be as easily accessible as they would be in Europe, so bringing it closer to home makes it that much easier.”

The course has another aim as well: to impart the values in South Africa’s Constitution.

“We need to encourage an ethos of activism, to speak out when you see someone being maltreated,” Marlene Silbert, the center’s education director, told the educators. “Even if we don’t learn from history, we as educators have a moral obligation to teach it and focus on the questions of how and why terrible things happen and how we can prevent them from happening again.”

Diversity and tolerance educator John Biyase led a session examining the similarities and differences between Nazism and apartheid.

“Let us not be tempted to compare which was the worst atrocity or who suffered more — I believe pain is subjective,” he cautioned. “We’re all prejudiced, but when you add power to that, it results in discrimination. The Nazis and the Nats” — as South Africa’s apartheid rulers were known — “both abused their power. Atrocities occurred because they both had the power to act on their prejudices.

“Being born into the human species doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be human — we have to learn the path to be human,” Biyase told the educators. “You’re in a very critical position. You can help those children to be human beings.”

Speaking on behalf of the attendees, Gregory Khumalo, chief education specialist in the Sisonke district, said he found the workshop “very informative.”

“Some of us have never heard of the Holocaust before,” he said. “It’s a very depressing subject, but the way you did it with passion, commitment and dedication, we’ve learned a lot from you. Your good work will not go to waste.”

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