As we mark 27th January as Holocaust Memorial Day, I am inspired to revisit an article I wrote in 2007 when I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. I include the article here, along with a poem Broken Dolly:
Ten years ago, in March of 2007 I was invited to accompany two sixth form students from Weald of Kent Grammar School on a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The visit was organised by the Holocaust Education Trust as the focus of its ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project. Since 1999, over 30,000 students and teachers have had the opportunity to see for themselves the site of many of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
The course is run over three non-consecutive days. The first session is a seminar, preparing participants for what they will see. This is followed by a day trip to Auschwitz-Birchenau in Poland. The last part is a post-visit seminar to share experiences and to plan what ‘follow up’ will occur in the individual schools.
I was impressed by the level of engagement from the students throughout all three sessions. Many of the participants had to compete within their school for a place by submitting an article – ‘Why I want to go to Auschwitz’. There is an expectation that all participants will carry out some follow up work in their own school.
The highlight of the first day was the opportunity to hear from Mr Zigmund Shipper, a Holocaust survivor, Zigmund (Ziggy) was ten years old when the Nazis invaded his home town of Lodz, where he lived with his father and grandfather. He told us of his life in the ghetto, having to wear a yellow star, being rounded up and taken to Auschwitz and how he survived there as a teenager. He described his liberation in 1945 and how he was finally reunited with his mother in England. He had not seen since her since he was five years old. Despite all this he declared that he had lived a ‘wonderful life’. He proudly told us he has two daughters and six grandchildren. When asked what should happen as a consequence of the Holocaust, he replied “never hate” but he cautioned his young audience with “the only thing that can be done is for you to make sure that it never happens again.”
The day of the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau required careful planning. We had to be at Luton airport in the early hours, so this necessitated an overnight stop at a hotel. The return flight landed back at Luton a little before midnight and so it was a long day for students and teachers, especially on a school night.
We were accompanied by various visitors, including MPs and the media. The visit was well documented on local and national news.
Our first stop was the cemetery in Oswiecim. It was bitterly cold and snowing and, as we stood among the grave stones, we were asked to reflect on the question ‘where does the story start?’ Before the war, this was a thriving little town with a Jewish population of 60%. During the war the grave stones of the Jewish dead were torn up by the Nazis and used to pave the roads. In 1947 as many of these as possible were returned but there were no records and so it was impossible to match grave stones to grave sites. There is a memorial to Mr Shimshon Klueger, the last Jew in Oswiecim, who died in May 2000.
We travelled on to Auschwitz One, which has become a museum to the atrocities. Our guide gave us a factual account of the events that took place, and we were shown enormous glass cabinets containing ‘a field of hair; a sea of shoes; a mountain of suitcases’. There was a respectful silence as we filed through the gas chamber and past the incinerators.
Strangely Auschwitz Two, Birkenau was an even more emotional experience. Although there is less to see, the sheer scale of the atrocities is suddenly apparent. Standing in the watch tower, the rows of huts seem to go to infinity. We stood by the railway track at the point of ‘selection’ as we were told the story of David, the young Jewish boy who argued with his mother and sister on the journey to Auschwitz, and of his last haunting words to his mother which were, “I wish you were dead!” The outlines of the gas chambers, destroyed by the Nazis just before the liberation, are still evident.
The focus of the trip is extremely well balanced, with the focus on the lives of the Jewish people and their loss of identity, rather than just an exploitation of the horrific and the macabre.
During late afternoon we had a period of reflection in front of a wall of photographs of the Holocaust victims. This was followed by a service by the memorial, where the Jewish prayer was sung in Hebrew and the sound of the Shofar echoed through the dusk. Each student was then given a candle to place on the railway track and as we made our way to the coaches, the only sound was the trudging of our feet in the snow. As we walked back through those gates I am sure the same thought was on many minds – “Thank God I am free to leave.”
The post visit seminar was productive in terms of sharing ideas for follow up work. Many schools are organising Assemblies to share what was experienced. My own students and I planned three lessons for our year ten students. These were themed as Loss of identity, The Story Unfolds and Hard Choices. We made use of a DVD of survivor’s recollections, provided by the Holocaust Education Trust, which was extremely useful.
This is a very worthwhile project and, following a grant from the Treasury, it will expand to offer every secondary school in the country the chance to participate.
The question of ‘what lessons can be learnt’ is a complex one. It is clear that the students return with an increased knowledge of the Holocaust and an understanding of what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable. However, when you hear of the atrocities taking place around the world today, it is also apparent that the risks are still very real.
Holocaust denial, the revisionist movement that seeks to argue the Holocaust did not occur on the scale claimed, is a movement that has the potential to grow in strength over time. It is important that future generations see the evidence of what happened so that they can work towards ensuring, as Ziggy requested, that it never happens again.