How women perspective can empower Holocaust education

The Holocaust has been a fundamental part of my life for the past ten years. It has always interested me as a historical event, but ten years ago, I began to engage with the subject systematically. I noticed daily how much my students in secondary education, teenagers aged 15-18, were characterized by historical ignorance. This ignorance, in turn, contributed to the perpetuation of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews. Meanwhile, the rise of neo-Nazism both in Europe and in Greece made the effects clear, with cases of racism and xenophobia causing increasing concern for all of us democratic citizens. The economic crisis that hit Greece in 2010 contributed furthermore to the rise of the far-right and the intensification of racist phenomena.

All of these factors led me to deeply believe that as an educator, I had a duty to offer not only the knowledge prescribed by the curriculum but also to contribute to the establishment of substantial knowledge among teenagers regarding the Holocaust. This would help to mitigate the phenomena of racism in Greek schools and instill tolerance in teenagers, enabling them to understand the unique violence of the Holocaust.

From the beginning of my personal quest, I was fortunate to attend seminars for educators on teaching the Holocaust in Greek schools organized by the Jewish Museum of Greece with the support of the General Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education, Religious Affairs, and Sports. In 2014, I attended the seminar for educators organized by Yad Vashem. In 2015 and 2016, I participated in the Summer Academies of Centropa. Through Centropa, I made contact with a network of teachers from many European countries with whom we continued to stay in touch, share the same concerns, and address similar problems. It was very relieving to seek solutions together and to be able to organize joint programs. Now, after these seminars, I had the necessary knowledge in theoretical background but also the very important equipment of educational tools and teaching methods with various approaches and depending on the age level of the students.

Of course, there were various problems I encountered due to the prejudices of some of my colleagues or even superiors administratively. Although there were no institutional obstacles, there were indirect behaviors that created obstacles; negative comments, insinuations, criticisms, and even obstacles when students had to participate in some action. Such behaviors pose a problem for the educator who wants to actively integrate Holocaust education into their classrooms. However, they are part of broader prejudices, ignorance, and the prevalence of stereotypes. But if we truly want to teach about the Holocaust, because our goal is for our students to feel the motto "Never Again" and for it to be a fundamental parameter of their lives; if we want to maintain the tradition of Jewish communities and Jewish presence in our country; if we want to revive the history of Jewish communities that were lost or decimated; if we want all of these, then these difficulties must be overcome.

The first years of my involvement in Holocaust education, the main goal was to engage more and more educators in teaching proposals related to the Shoah and to find opportunities in the curriculum to teach basic elements related to the Holocaust. And we succeeded. More and more educators were creating educational programs, activities, participating in the annual video creation youth competition of the Ministry of Education, Religious Affairs and Sports along with the Jewish Museum of Greece. With the training we had received and continued to receive, we managed to incorporate the Holocaust into Greek schools.

Today, we have the opportunity, after the progress of previous years, to delve into more specialized aspects of the Holocaust. Our enthusiasm was evident when we attended the seminar for educators organized by the Jewish Museum of Greece in November 2023 and learned about the Her Stories project.

The HerStories project combines two very important parameters. Firstly, it is based on six interviews of Jewish women from European countries: Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, who survived the Holocaust, and on the written memories of Lisa Pinhas from Greece. Using the testimonies of these women, the Holocaust takes on a more personal form. It becomes humane. Each one narrates her experiences, losses, the attempt to pick up the pieces after the war, and try to live with her experiences. The story of each one is the voice, the story in some way, of all those millions of people who did not survive and were lost forever in concentration camps and mass graves in Eastern Europe.

In our days, the last survivors of the Holocaust are passing away, often without having shared their unique stories. In this particular case, however, we were fortunate that these survivors' accounts were recorded and preserved. They constitute rare, unique, and invaluable evidence. We observe how individuals' personal perspectives on events depend on how memory retains or repels events, on the perceptions of each informant, but especially on such a traumatic event as the Holocaust, on how each person tries to manage the trauma consciously as well as in the level of unconscious. 

The seven narrators were ordinary women, but their testimonies are extraordinary and remarkable. I use the words in all its possible meanings: these are extraordinary stories that convey something very important about our shared European identity, they are stories that capture our attention, evoke feelings of admiration, and at the same time deep sorrow.

The second aspect that makes HerStories delve into a particular aspect of the Holocaust is that all narrators are women. Before World War II, women were raised with quite conservative standards. The Holocaust subjected all its victims in concentration camps to unimaginable humiliations. For women, with the humiliations that affected their feminine nature and their role as mothers, the ordeal and trauma, both at the moment they experienced them and in their post-war lives, were particularly burdensome.

These women, with their stories, weave the threads of a common fate of women in various parts of Europe, shaped by Nazi policies of extermination of Jews, while also presenting the differences depending the different living conditions, and the personal choices. Through their testimonies, they preserve the rich diversity of life-styles among the pre-war Jewish communities of Europe. Often, in Holocaust education, we focus mainly on pre-war anti-Semitism, concentration camps, and horror. However, it is of immense importance for Holocaust education to focus on life before the destruction, so that the victims do not appear merely as numbers but retain their human essence. Furthermore, it is extremely important to keep alive the memory of their communities, which were either decimated or completely eradicated.

Within these communities lived the seven women who became the focus of the HerStories program. And through their stories, they give us the opportunity to approach the Holocaust from a different perspective. Through their stories, we understand that these women grew up differently. Each one as a child dreamed of her future according to the social, economic, and family but also personal circumstances, without anything predicting that she would do something special, unique, and memorable in her life. The Holocaust comes to overturn their lives, to dissolve every certainty, to deprive them of their families and loved ones. After the war, their need to confront the trauma forces them to confront their most difficult memories. Most of the women of HerStories will eventually find a way to tell their story. Thus, from simple everyday women, they became distinct, special, unique narrators. Women who survived, who found ways to survive, women who wanted to tell their stories to establish historical memory, to prevent future horror. Women who marched with strength in post-war life, carrying the trauma.

With this particular perspective, we can approach the Holocaust with our students through HerStories. In the next section, I will present a lesson plan that can be applied in Greek schools. In the detailed curriculum, there is no specific chapter referring to the Holocaust. However, we can use it with various opportunities in several classes. First of all, in history class regarding the chapter on WWII. In literature class by utilizing literary texts referring to the Holocaust, the persecution of Jews, and anti-Semitism. In chemistry class concerning the analysis of the chemical composition of Zyklon B used by the Nazis for the extermination of people in concentration camps. In religious education, it can be used since the Jewish tradition, the culture, and the basic principles of Jewish religion are taught. It can also be used on the occasion of the national celebration of October 28, 1940 (National Holiday for the struggles of Greeks during WWII) as an action, as well as within the framework of local history, as in many parts of Greece there were flourishing Jewish communities before WWII.

For the implementation of the presented lesson plan, it is proposed to use three teaching hours, something that is applicable within the official framework of the detailed curriculum. The time is sufficient for the effective conduct of it. The suggested ages are 15-18 years old (high school students, according to the Greek educational level), because at this age they can realize the importance of gender for the analysis of social phenomena. They also have the maturity to study the Holocaust and to deal with, with the help of the teacher, sensitive areas related to the inhuman conditions in concentration camps and the management of trauma.

Lesson Plan

• Age Group: 15-18 years old.

• Classes: History, Literature, Geography, Religious Studies, Foreign Languages, Chemistry.

• Summary: Students are called upon to examine how the women of HerStories managed to become exceptional women-examples. What can we define, through their stories, as courage, resilience, humanity?

• Educational Objectives:

  1. Understanding the motivations behind their actions.
  2. Focus on and recording the risks they faced.
  3. Determination of the actions that make them exceptional women.
  4. Highlighting their distinctiveness. How do they react differently from men under the female perspective, or how are they influenced differently?
  5. Highlighting and recording the criteria that make a person exceptional.
  6. Comparison of the particular elements of courage/survival of these women with established elements that characterize 'brave' people.
  7. Gathering evidence that there are "invisible" groups of people in history. Highlighting their characteristics and the dynamics they bring. Comparison with personalities in history considered exceptional.
  8. Exploration of pre-war Jewish communities. Way of life, customs, professions, diet, family customs. What is the image of these communities after the war?

• Sources-Materials: HerStories interviews, maps, timeline of World War II events, photographic material.

Implementation steps (three teaching hours):

  • Introduction: 1. Brainstorming ideas about words that students associate with the Holocaust. 2. Clarification of terms. 3. Use of the timeline - familiarization with the historical context. 
  • Classroom exploration through questions-discussion: When are some people considered exceptional? What are the criteria? Who are the "invisible" groups of people in history? Based on what criteria would we characterize some people as courageous? What was the expected life trajectory for women at the end of the Interwar period? etc. 
  • Presentation of material from Her Stories. 
  • Division of the class into groups. Each group is assigned to study an interview from the Her Stories narrators. Then, they are asked to identify: a) the life trajectory of each narrator as it was predetermined before the anti-Semitic measures and the Holocaust, b) the causes, actions, and choices that transform these women from ordinary women to exceptional women both during the Holocaust and afterwards, c) all groups undertake to identify, for the community in which the informant they have studied lived, elements indicating the way of life of the Jewish communities before the war and what their situation was like after the war. Presentation in class by a representative of each group of the conclusions about the narrator with whom the group dealt. 
  • Activity: a) Students can create an artistic creation (painting, collage, etc.) reflecting their inspiration from the transformation of these women. b) Creation of posters using women from Her Stories and indicative elements of their transformation into exceptional women, as well as posters with everyday women e.g., from their family, whom they consider to belong to exceptional women, with brief justifying texts. The posters can be part of an exhibition that can be presented throughout the school. With the same idea, students can create short films, which can also be presented throughout the school.


I would like to conclude this text by quoting the last paragraph from Lisa Pinhas's book. And this paragraph alone proves how remarkable this woman was and will continue to be in our memory:

“I, the Auschwitz survivor, who miraculously escaped the Nazi camps' machinery, today represent a part of that society to which I once belonged, and I compare. What a contrast between the two lives... And to think that I could now be a handful of ashes, mixed with so many others, scattered in Poland, in Vistula, or somewhere else in Germany, useful for fertilizer. What strange twists life takes. And indeed, from now on, the life I have left to live is ‘free,’ if one can call it that, and I am in a hurry to lose not a minute from my new life, whatever it holds for me. And besides, I must hurry. I am already two years late.”


Maria Bitakou

History teacher at 1st General Lyceum of P. Faliro, Athens Greece