Empowering young minds through Holocaust education

The overarching vision of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand is to inspire and empower individuals to stand against prejudice and apathy.

Its founding chairperson Steven Sedley shares his story and explains what the centre offers to New Zealand teachers and students.

As his parents were taken by Nazis from their Budapest home, Jewish nine-year-old Steven Sedley memorised the Wellington address of his aunt.

His parents told him if they didn’t come back from the concentration camps, he was to make his way to New Zealand. Seventy-three years later, he still remembers the address.

It is a story that astonishes New Zealand students today – they listen intently to Steven, who is the founding chair of the New Zealand Holocaust Centre in Wellington.

The centre has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Over the past decade, 15,700 mainly school- and college-age students have been through its education programme.

Steven, now 82 years old, says the centre’s education programme helps to make young people aware of what happens when hate speech turns into hate actions.

“We want to empower young people to stand up against prejudice and apathy by teaching about the Holocaust from a New Zealand perspective, through the lives of the survivors and refugees from Nazi Europe who came here to make a new life,” he explains.

Students come to the centre from all over the country, from Northland to Dunedin. Many classes make the visit part of a day trip to Wellington that includes Parliament and the National War Museum.

And it’s not only students who have been through its education programme; there’s also been professional bodies and groups from government departments such as the Ministry of Justice. Classes spend a minimum of 90 minutes going through its programme.

The centre has a team of nine educators. Steven and the centre’s director Inge Woolf are the only remaining Holocaust survivors.

Both were children when Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, the date the Holocaust is now recognised internationally thanks to a 2005 United Nations resolution.

Other educators are second generation survivors or have joined the centre because of a strong interest in Holocaust education.

Steven tells students his own story

“They’re all good listeners,” he says. “I relate my story to the topic they’re studying – whether it is human rights or bullying. And I try to make a connection with modern-day refugees like Syrians.

“I tell them I survived the Budapest Ghetto and talk to them about the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. By the time my grandparents and I ended up in the Budapest Ghetto in 1944, most of the Jews of Europe had been murdered.”

Steven tells students that he was lucky he lived in the Hungarian capital as the 200,000-strong Jewish population was a challenge for the Nazis to deport to concentration camps.

“Those in the Hungarian countryside had all been deported. If I lived at the end of the tram line, I wouldn’t have survived.”

He was also lucky to be nine years old at the time.

“If I had been six years older I would have been sent to a labour camp.”

Amazingly, both his parents survived the concentration camps.

“It was a miracle,” says Steven.

In the 1930s his father had eyed New Zealand after Jews in Austria were persecuted. Steven says his father was attracted to our world-leading social services.

“He liked the fairness of New Zealand. No one was very rich or very poor. And he wanted to live in a house with a garden.”

Unfortunately for Steven’s father, he didn’t have the skills New Zealand was looking for, so his migration application stayed on the files.

However, his uncle – who was an electrical contractor and whose clients included Budapest Airport – emigrated to New Zealand before the outbreak of World War II.

“It meant that after the war we had sponsors to come here.”

The centre encourages educators to teach the Holocaust and has a wealth of information for teachers on its website. While it advises teachers not to be afraid to tackle the Holocaust, it warns that it’s a disturbing and emotionally charged subject.

It suggests avoiding gruesome images and descriptions that are not always age-appropriate and can be counter-productive.

So why should teachers even go there? The centre believes teaching a topic such as the Holocaust is some of the most rewarding teaching and learning that can take place in the classroom.

In fact, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found that most students were highly interested in studying this history because of the questions of fairness, justice, individual identity, peer pressure, conformity, indifference, and obedience that it raised – issues that teenagers are confronted with daily in their own lives.

To help build teacher knowledge in Holocaust education, the centre sends groups of teachers to Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem, every two years. To date more than 60 teachers have gone.

The centre also began an outreach programme this year through which it spoke to 1,000 students in the South Island in April alone. It’s now about to start in the North Island.

Steven can’t say the world has learnt lessons from the Holocaust “because it keeps happening”. “There are genocides and genocides.”

But he says the lessons of the Holocaust are more important than ever.

“What was called ‘propaganda’ in World War II would be called ‘fake news’ today.

“It was the spread of fear and misinformation which allowed the Holocaust to happen. We teach students to question what they read online.”

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