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Paul's Journey notes

Teaching notes on the content and usage of the 'Paul's Journey' section of the resource, together with advice on the pedagogical challenges and conceptual issues it raises.

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Paul's journey

Paul’s story, like that of millions of other Jewish people in Hitler’s Europe 1933-45, is a story of fear, persecution and cruelty, which illustrates the dangers of sectarianism and ethnic or racial prejudice – a lesson we must never forget.


Paul’s Journey is based upon the memories of Holocaust survivor, Paul Oppenheimer. Paul was a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was liberated by British soldiers on 15 April 1945. The book describes Paul’s experiences from his early years in Germany, through his family’s emigration to Amsterdam and his deportation to Westerbork and Bergen- Belsen. Paul’s story ends with his journey to England as a refugee in 1945.

The book gives students a human perspective on this catastrophic period of history by focusing on Paul’s testimony. The language used is appropriate for younger students and does not dwell on the horrific descriptions of events in the camps. There are moving descriptions from Paul about his early memories and experiences of family life which students may be able to relate to. There are also many images and photographs in the book which make the events described accessible to all students.

Paul died in 2007, while his brother Rudi and sister Eve are still alive today.

Pedagogical Issues and Educational Principles

When planning to teach a lesson or deliver a Scheme of Work on the Holocaust, there are a number of pedagogical issues that teachers need to consider. The Holocaust was a highly complex series of historical events, the majority of which were horrific and traumatic. The subject matter of the Holocaust is therefore challenging for teachers and students alike, and careful consideration must be given to how this history is approached in the classroom; for while the Holocaust raises a range of important questions and touches on a variety of contemporary themes, there are specific issues around its educational delivery.

In recent years, an international consensus has developed around what constitutes good practice in relation to Holocaust education. An extensive list of these educational principles is available from the the Holocaust Educational Trust as well as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance websites. For the purposes of this resource, the following are particularly relevant:

  • Rehumanise and Personalise

In scale and scope the Holocaust was an enormous occurrence, which is frequently reduced to statistics alone. This is an impersonal approach which makes the events difficult to grasp, and should be countered by focusing on individual experiences and emphasising the humanity of all those who were involved in them.

  • Avoid horror

Sensitivity should be shown to students, victims and survivors. This means avoiding the use of horrific imagery, for this can upset and desensitize students, dehumanise victims, and portray those affected by the Holocaust in a manner recognisable to the perpetrators. With younger students it also means avoiding the more graphic events that occurred in the ghettos, camps, and round-ups.

  • Use testimony

A mass of documentation relating to the Holocaust thankfully still survives today, but does not necessarily reveal the human impact of the events.

The testimony of victims and survivors is therefore invaluable in bringing to life this history.

For various reasons, the Holocaust is not an “easy” subject to learn about, so careful consideration needs to be given to the age at which students are introduced to it. With younger students, it becomes all the more important to have clear planning and intended outcomes which are realised through good educational practice.

Resource Guidance and Suggested Activities

Paul’s Journey is a resource designed in accordance with international educational principles and as such is suitable for use with students in Year 6 and above when teaching about the Holocaust. The book lends itself to class reading, and you will find at the end of these notes a suggested mini Scheme of Work with sample lesson plans. You may wish to contact the Holocaust Educational Trust to arrange for a Holocaust survivor to come into your school.

Paul’s Journey touches on a number of issues that are relevant to students of all ages, and teachers should consider addressing these when using the resource. These include the following:


Although Paul is the focal point of the book, his is very much a story about the experiences of a family – from grandparents, through parents, to children and siblings. This is clear to see not only in the story itself but also in the various family photographs that accompany it, and the theme of family is something which can be used to make Paul’s testimony relevant to all students. One activity the teacher may wish students to do is to construct a family tree, which can record information like dates and places of birth and death, and also be used to explore matters of chronology and continuity through time.

Geographical Scale and Scope:

Paul’s journey traverses a number of different countries at different times during the period of the Third Reich, and in so doing highlights the scale and scope of the Holocaust. While some students may already be familiar with some of the places referred to in the story, a possible activity would involve students marking onto a map of Europe all the towns and cities mentioned by Paul. These markers might also have a box of information about each particular place, including what happened to Paul and his family there. The journeys of various family members could also be shown on the map by way of coloured wool and directional arrows. This activity could be extended further by students additionally plotting the journey of Paul’s contemporary Anne Frank. In turn, students might consider the following:

  1. How is Paul’s journey different to Anne Frank’s?
  2. How is it similar?
  3. Which parts of Paul’s journey helped him to survive?


Paul’s family committed no crime and yet they were discriminated against on account of their religious background. The issue of persecution runs throughout the story, and makes itself apparent at various different junctures. On each of these occasions the teacher can use events described by Paul to open discussions in the class, depending on the age, ability and maturity of the students.

One such instance is on page 5. Here Paul talks about the behaviour of some of his classmates. For this example students may be asked:

  • Why did Paul’s classmates behave in this way?
  • Who could Paul complain to?
  • How can we make sure we accept people who are different to us?
  • What can we do in school to make new people feel welcome?

Another example is provided by Paul on pages 8-9 where he describes some of the laws that were passed – including one forbidding Jews from swimming, as shown in the photograph. Here, students could discuss:

  • What is stopping the boys from going swimming?
  • Why were Jews not allowed to do such activities?
  • What could the Jews do about these laws?
  • What can you do if you disagree with something?

The most extreme example of persecution experienced by Paul is his deportation to Bergen-Belsen. At the camp his life is turned up-side down, but links between his experiences and the students can be made. The following could be discussed:

  • Why were the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen not given more food to eat?
  • What effect do you think the diet had on the prisoners?
  • How might Eve have coped with the loss of her mum?
  • How did Paul manage to stay alive when the rest of his family died?

A final event that could be discussed is Paul’s liberation. Paul begins by saying how the Russian soldiers didn’t speak any Dutch, creating confusion as to what was going on. Students could begin by considering:

  • How might Paul and Rudi have felt on discovering they were free?
  • Paul says he felt ‘completely numb’ as he and Rudi began their journey home. Why did he feel this way?
  • On being reunited with Eve, Paul says ‘even then I couldn’t cry’. What impact had his experiences had on him?
  • Paul, Rudi and Eve start their final journey to England. What hopes and fears might they have had?

In addition to the above themes and issues raised by the book, Paul’s Journey also provides students with key pieces of historical knowledge, such as significant dates, events, and developments. Important concepts and initiatives are also referred to, with Paul mentioning things like deportation, concentration camps, and the exchange of certain prisoners. It is crucial that the teacher’s understanding of these terms is secure, and the following glossary may be useful in this regard.


Antisemitism: Prejudice against and persecution of Jewish people. Auschwitz-Birkenau The largest Nazi death camp, located in Poland.

Bergen-Belsen: Until 1943, Bergen-Belsen was a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. After this date the site became a concentration camp which held a variety of different “types” of prisoners. In late 1944 and early 1945 the population of Bergen-Belsen grew dramatically, as thousands of Jews were evacuated from camps in the East and marched across Germany. This over- population resulted in the spread of disease, especially typhus.

Chancellor: The head of the German Government. The Chancellor is equivalent to the Prime Minister in many countries.

Concentration camp: A site built by the Nazis to imprison individuals and groups of people they considered “enemies of the state”, such as political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews.

Death camp: A site established by the Nazis with the sole purpose of killing people. There were six such camps, all located in Poland.

Deportation: The rounding up of Jews from their homes for transportation in cattle wagons to ghettos and camps in Poland.

Exchange Jews: During the war an agreement existed between the Allies and the Nazis for small numbers of Jews to be exchanged for Germans living in Palestine or other countries of the British Empire. For a Jew to be considered for exchange, certain conditions had to be met. Holding a British passport would make the chances of exchange much higher.

Ghetto: An enclosed area of a city, town or village where Jews were forced by the Nazis and their collaborators to live. Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto without permission, and disease and overcrowding were rife.

Liberation: The freeing of those imprisoned under the Nazis by Allied soldiers of Britain, the United States and Soviet Russia.

Sobibor: A death camp in Poland. The camp was constructed in the spring of 1942 and was dismantled by the end of 1943.

SS: An abbreviation of Schutzstaffel, the German word for “Protection Squads” first formed as Hitler’s personal bodyguards in the 1920s. This organisation grew in power and influence during the 1930s, and came to oversee the concentration and death camps.

Star of David: A traditional symbol of the Jewish people, used by the Nazis as a method of identifying and discriminating against Jews. The Star was sewn on to people’s clothes.

Treblinka: A death camp in Poland. The camp opened in the summer of 1942 and was dismantled in the autumn of 1943.

Typhus: An infectious disease spread by lice.

Westerbork: A camp in Holland which from 1942 to 1944 served as a transit centre for Jews who were being deported to Eastern Europe.

Holocaust Educational Trust

Founded by Lord Janner of Braunstone and the late Lord Merlyn Rees, the Holocaust Educational Trust was formed in 1988. The Trust was developed by MPs and Peers as a result of renewed interest and need for knowledge about the Holocaust during the passage of the War Crimes Act in the late 1980s. Our aim is to raise awareness and understanding in schools and amongst the wider public of the Holocaust and its relevance today. We believe the Holocaust must have a permanent place in our nation’s collective memory.

One of the Trust’s first achievements was to ensure that the Holocaust was included in the National Curriculum for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1991 – for Key Stage 3 students (11-14 year olds). We also successfully campaigned to have the assets of Holocaust victims and Survivors released and returned to their rightful owners.

Having played a crucial role in the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, the Trust continues to play a key role in the delivery of this national commemorative event.

In 2010, the Government issued a new award to recognise the small group of British men and women who worked to aid and rescue Jewish people and other persecuted groups during the Holocaust – as a direct result of an initiative by the Trust to raise their profile and secure formal recognition for them.

We work in schools, colleges and higher education institutions, providing teacher training workshops and lectures, as well as teaching aids and resource materials.

For further information about the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, please contact:

Holocaust Educational Trust BCM Box 7892,
London WC1N 3XX

Tel: 0207 222 6822

Website: Holocaust Educational Trust
Email: [email protected]

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