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Swiss schools remember the Holocaust

Lest we forget: a still from the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah (CNDP) CNDP

For the third year running, Swiss schools on Friday are taking in part in Holocaust Memorial Day, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The event is marked by schools across the European Union, but it is not known how many classes in Switzerland will participate. Central themes this year are racism and tolerance.

This year marks the first International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

The United Nations passed a landmark resolution last year to make 27 January an annual day of remembrance for the six million Jews killed during the Second World War.

Holocaust Memorial Day started in the EU in 2002, when it was decided to hold in schools of member states “a day of remembrance for the Holocaust and for thinking about the prevention of crimes against humanity”.

The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Education Directors decided to follow suit two years later, and in 2004 the first memorial day took place in Swiss schools.

The event is always marked on January 27, when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz before the end of the Second World War in 1945.


Richard Heibling, general secretary of the Foundation for Education and Development, says it’s important for children to know about the Holocaust.

“The subject matter is very distant for kids today,” Heibling told swissinfo. “It has to be brought to life – and that’s not very difficult.”

For although the murder of millions of Jews happened over 60 years ago, genocide and crimes against humanity are still shockingly prevalent: Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya can all be brought into the discussions.

“The day enables us to remember the genocide and to work in related themes to history lessons,” said Michel Rohrbach from the Conference of Cantonal Education Directors.

Gradual introduction

Rohrbach said schools choose different ways of approaching the topic. “This year pupils in Geneva are being shown the film Shoah [French director Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 nine-hour collection of interviews with people connected to the Holocaust, ‘Shoah’ in Hebrew].

“Of course one day isn’t enough to deal with this subject,” said Rohrbach, adding that young people have to be introduced to the difficult issues gradually.

Exhibitions are staged, reports from witnesses and victims are read, and themes such as racism, discrimination, human rights and tolerance are discussed and debated. Canton Lucerne has produced a book containing ideas for teachers.

Teachers receive support from Educa, an information exchange platform belonging to the Conference of Cantonal Education Directors, and from the Foundation for Education and Development, which provides suggestions for projects and complementary teaching material.

It’s then up to the individual cantons and schools – and ultimately the teachers – how and if they want to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

“I think it’s important to talk about all this,” said one student. “Fascism is something we’re still always discussing in school.”

Shame and horror

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Friday that it was imperative that the world remember the unique tragedy of the Holocaust and reject all attempts by “bigots” to deny the extermination of the Jews during the war.

“It must be remembered with shame and horror for as long as human memory continues,” Annan said in a statement released to mark the first international day commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.

“Holocaust denial is the work of bigots,” he said.

Annan, who is attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, was due to meet Holocaust survivors in Zurich on Friday.

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein with agencies

Auschwitz, in Poland, was the biggest Nazi concentration camp.
Opened in May 1940, it was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.
A total of 1.1 million people died there, 90% of them Jews.
The Nazis killed around six million people, mainly Jews but also homosexuals, gypsies, Russian prisoners and handicapped people.

In 2004 the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education made January 27 a day of Holocaust commemoration in the country’s schools.

Switzerland has denied that its neutrality during the Second World War was a crime, an accusation levelled at it by the chairman of the World Jewish Congress last year.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR