AUSCHWITZ, Poland – I am sitting on a plane at Luton Airport, staring at the tarmac.
It’s a cool, crisp autumn morning as the ground crew makes its final preparations, oblivious to the nature of our trip; seemingly it’s a planeload of people heading off on vacation, to be reunited with family or to seal a business deal. In fact, i’m with a group of 200 high school students from across London on a unique visit to the death camps at Auschwitz.
The one-day visit is part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s flagship “Lessons from Auschwitz” program, now in its 12th year. In all, the London- based trust has taken more than 10,000 students, teachers, parliamentarians and dignitaries from across the UK to Auschwitz. Based on the premise that “hearing is not like seeing,” the aim is to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, educate and intimate the extent of what can happen if prejudice and racism go unchecked.
The success of the program has led the British government to recognize its impact and huge importance – in 2005 the government pledged £1.5 million for the program and in the last several years, the Scottish government and Welsh Assembly vowed support to allow for the participation of Scottish and Welsh high school students.
With the government recently promising to continue support – Education Minister Michael Gove said the government “has already committed to give the HET the money that it needs” – the HET will continue to expand the program to reach schools across the UK.
“It is an issue of no contention, across the House [of Commons], that we must ensure that as those who remember the Holocaust fade from our lives, the memory of that unique evil never fades from the minds of any of us in this place,” Gove said in Parliament last month.
With us on the trip is former British ambassador to Israel Sir Andrew Burns, the newly appointed and first UK envoy for post-Holocaust issues, and Conservative MP Mike Freer, recently appointed vice president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism.
“Lessons from Auschwitz” is a four-pronged program.
Participants first take part in a day-long orientation, which prepares them for what they will see, if anything can. They hear testimony from an Auschwitz survivor and share thoughts and motivation for wanting to take part (students are chosen after an application process) along with any preconceptions and anxieties they might be harboring.
After the trip, they come together to discuss the experience and their feelings. In this follow-up seminar, they also discuss the contemporary relevance and how they can pass on what they learned to their peers. This is because for the final, fourth ”prong,” students become ambassadors of the program and are encouraged to create projects, such as exhibitions, talks and memorials, to disseminate what they have learned. This seems an apt way for them not only to let out their emotions but also to teach and inspire high school students to understand the Holocaust and the effects of prejudice and racism.
WE LAND at Krakow airport and shuffle into waiting buses to make our way to Oswiecim, the town which became known as Auschwitz under the Nazis in 1939.
Prior to the war, this tranquil Polish town on the Vistula River was home to around 12,000 people. Some students are taken to the town’s old synagogue; we are taken to the Jewish cemetery. Students see how Jews lived and were an integral part of the town, accounting for no less than 58 percent of the population.
Today there are no Jews here at all. The last Jew died in 2000 and is buried in the cemetery; a symbolic gravestone marks the spot.
Leading my group is Ros Sandhu, a teacher who was so moved by her experience on a previous trip that she became a full-time educator for the program. We have been divided into more manageable groups of 25, each led by an educator who has completed an intense training program run by HET which includes 10 days at Yad Vashem and five days in Poland.
“It was as a teacher that I first came into contact with the HET. I joined students from my school taking part and was so struck by how incredibly powerful the program is that I was inspired to train as an educator, which eventually led me to working full time with the team,” Sandhu says.
“The course is absolutely invaluable, not only as a means for teaching students about a defining episode in history, but as an opportunity for reflecting on the crucial lessons the Holocaust can teach us about the world today – and empowering those young people to share what they have learned in their schools and communities.
Working for HET puts me in a privileged position to be able to pass on the memory of what happened in those dark years.”
As the bus parks at Auschwitz, I feel that sense of melancholy and reluctance usually associated with having to do something you don’t like, have put off doing but have finally resolved to do.
It is no mean feat keeping a group of 200 teenagers focused on a day trip away from school, and I can’t help being struck at how attentive and engaging they are. As we weave through the museum, each part unveiling the truths of what happened here, the visibly stunned students share thought-provoking ideas and some of their innermost feelings. The facial expressions continue to change, some riddled with shock, some with incomprehension as they see the piles of spectacles, hair, shoes and suitcases with names of people hastily written for the owner to identify later – as the Nazis had the victims believe.
“The students are remarkably mature, but the stunned silence is noticeable once they enter the rooms in Auschwitz that show the human hair, the discarded prosthetic limbs and the pile of children’s shoes,” notes MP Freer. “I fully expected to be tearful and overcome with emotion. I was overcome with emotion – but it was anger. And it was interesting to see the students get equally angry at what was done – and what some deny ever took place.
“I just wish we could take more students from each school,” he adds.
“IT BRINGS the whole thing to life,” Jasmine Dineen- Brown, 17, from St Martha’s Convent Roman Catholic School in Hertfordshire, tells me. “It is easy to generalize and say that six million people died, but being here you see individual’s belongings, you wonder where they came from and what their story is.”
“It definitely humanizes the whole experience – the fact that you see much reality, seeing the belongings, the hair and spectacles,” Anastasia Charalambour, 16, also from St Martha’s, says.
“Walking through here I thought that it was only 60 or so years ago that kids my age were here and dying right where I am standing.”
I hold that thought as we approach Birkenau. We stand beside the railway line, the platform which hosted the selections, and in front is the infamous entrance, the ultimate emblem of death.
“Standing where it actually happened, the train tracks and where the executions took place have been the most powerful images for me,” says Danny Tompkins, 16, from Highgate School in north London.
He pauses, then tells me why it was so important for him to come on the trip: “I could be in London and I can go to the Imperial War Museum to get a sense. Being here makes it so real, so defining.
The scale of it, I didn’t know what to expect but to see the size of Auschwitz just astonishes me. I’m not Jewish and none of my family was affected by this, but it was done in my grandfather’s time.
“What I found the most shocking was the element of separation of families during the selections – the simple decision who dies now and who will be saved but will die a bit later.”
“To actually be here it becomes more real to you. I am much more ready to go out there and tell the world about this horrible period,” says Georgia Machinjiri, 18, from Bishop Douglass School in East Finchley, north London.
We walk through the barracks of Birkenau, and then pass what were mass crematoria and gas chambers. As the Red Army approached in 1944, the Nazis tried to remove the traces of atrocities by destroying the camp. I walk with two students from Queen Elizabeth’s Girl School in Barnet, north London.
Grace Collins, 17, says she is dumbfounded by the reality of it all. “I got so emotional; when I saw the train tracks, I knew why they were there, what role they played.
I wasn’t really prepared; we have seen them in films, in pictures, in textbooks, but it just seems so unreal. I think the shock walking around Auschwitz was the fact that it was so real.”
“This has been one of the hardest things I ever done, but at the same time the most inspirational,” adds Alex Van Colle, 18. “I think I have captured the point of the trip – to make sure it never happens again and make more people aware. There was so much I didn’t know before but know now. Being here it hits you about how atrocious and horrific it really was; you don’t really realize until you see it. It’s different for everyone, so I feel that everyone needs to see it and experience it.”
Collins and Van Colle begin to open up and talk with clarity and confidence. It’s as though the opportunity to chat has allowed them to let out their feelings.
“The whole dehumanization process really scares and angers me – their identities taken away and the use of numbers: How could you do that to someone and how could ordinary people, supposedly like us, have the power and mind to want to do this to other human beings?” Van Colle asks.
“I really want to do a school event and raise money for the program so more people can come to Auschwitz and experience it for themselves,” Collins says. “The sad thing is where do you start, how do you change the racism and hate? There will always be racism and anti-Semitism; it is a really hard thing to beat and you feel you’re working against the impossible, but I think it is worth fighting it.”
Van Colle agrees, adding that everyone should visit the death camps. “Everyone should visit Auschwitz and see the true horrors of reality, because this is what happened.
This should never happen again and we can make sure something like this never ever happens again.”
THE DAY ends with a somber ceremony, with readings and prayers, led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, near the bombed remains of a crematorium next to the end of the railway track. Students light candles and quietly reflect, some in groups, some alone.
As we walk back to the bus, dusk approaches and the cold air begins to bite.
The railway line looks like an airport runway, the huge number of lit candles bringing some light to a dark place.
“An amazing experience; it’s had a big impact on me coming here. You can hear and read it all in books, but you can also put it into the back of your mind. Coming here brings it to the forefront, makes you realize what happened and makes you realize that in many ways this is the ultimate symbol of genocide and evil and we should learn from it,” Niall McCarter, 17, of Bishop Douglass School in north London, tells me.
“The day was very overwhelming; I learned a lot more. I still don’t quite feel that I can understand it completely. I think that a massacre as big as the Holocaust can never be fully understood, but I feel today it went a lot further in understanding it,” says Sabina Vaghela, 17, of Greig City Academy, a Church of England school in north London.
“Today’s trip has given me a bigger picture of the Holocaust, not necessarily a better one, as even when you see the images of people’s belongings and pictures of families and the terrible things that went on here, it is so difficult to humanize these acts. Because of the way humans think, it’s difficult for us to comprehend that this really happened, by people, and in some ways we don’t want to comprehend it,” Moirela Ivanova, 16, also from Grieg City, says.
BURNS, THE UK’s first envoy for post-Holocaust affairs, says that “As the new envoy, my concern is to work with British organizations and international partners to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, to open up the archives, to encourage restitution of stolen art and property and to educate future generations in the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust years.”
Visibly moved by the trip, he shares his thoughts with me: “Our visit to
Auschwitz was a most moving and emotionally draining experience. Seeing
is believing, but even so it is hard to comprehend the callous
brutality of this death camp. The HET is to be congratulated on the
careful and sympathetic way it brings British schoolchildren to see for
themselves the reality of the Holocaust. We must never again allow
racial or religious prejudice to take root and threaten the very essence
of civilized values.”
On the plane back to London, I read an excerpt from the Lessons from
Auschwitz project literature, given to students during the trip. Written
by Elie Wiesel about his time at Auschwitz, it sums up the reality of
the day: “So this was where we were going. A little farther on was
another and larger ditch for adults. I pinched my face, was I still
alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for
them to burn people, children and for the world to keep silent?”