The Holocaust in Public

On 25 January 2022, the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre, in collaboration with the British Association for Holocaust Studies, hosted a panel discussion on the Holocaust in Public. 

Taking as a starting point the late British historian David Cesarani’s assertion that there is a ‘yawning gulf’ between popular understanding of the Holocaust and academic scholarship, we invited four speakers to offer their experiences and opinions on this claim.  

Kicking off the discussion, Dr Christine Schmidt (Deputy Director and Head of Research at The Wiener Holocaust Library, London) discussed the wide range of publics the Wiener Holocaust Library seeks to engage with its work, and how she and her colleagues support and encourage academics to work in a more public-facing way. In return, academics help the Library work towards historical accuracy and complexity. Dr Schmidt closed by saying that Holocaust education should not be a one-way street, with academics bestowing their knowledge on the public. Instead, scholars must ask: how can curiosity about the Holocaust from different publics inform research? 

Professor Tony Kushner (Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations and History Department at the University of Southampton) explored the ways in which the Holocaust continues to resurface in discussions about a wide range of topics, and how it can be ambushed by conspiracy theorists for their own agendas and even be used ‘innocently’ by members of the general public—some of whom, for example, likened their experiences in lockdown to that of Anne Frank in hiding. He praised the new Imperial War Museum exhibition, stating that it allows for greater complexity and self-reflexivity. He called for a genuine two-way dialogue between teachers and academics to create stimulating resources for Holocaust education.  

Dr Alasdair Richardson (Senior Fellow at the University of Winchester) tackled the question from the perspective of an RE teacher. He championed complexity in our engagements with the Holocaust, saying that people should disagree about the way it is taught, how it is represented and commemorated. The Holocaust is complex, he stated, and should not be reduced to learning a few key facts and dates. He called for vital conversations to take place between teachers, educators and policymakers.   

Concluding the panel discussion, Dr Hannah Holtschneider (University of Edinburgh), commented on how we continue to identify the ‘gap’, as outlined by Cesarani, without thinking about our own position in relation to it as students, teachers, educators or interested members of the public. She implored us to ask: where are the gaps in the communication? Agreeing with the other panellists, she concluded that contributions from all sides are necessary for a fruitful public dialogue and knowledge exchange on the Holocaust.  

The event moderators, Professor Shirli Gilbert (UCL, Academic Director of the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre) and Dr Andy Pearce (Institute of Education, UCL) skilfully guided the discussion and handled the numerous questions from attendees. 

You can view the recording of the panellists’ presentations here: