Manchester Jewish Museum in association with the Imperial War Museum NW is developing a programme of Holocaust education for young people. Our Learning Officer and CEO wished to observe other Holocaust educators handling this subject matter. The Holocaust Education Trust organizes visits to Auschwitz for secondary school students so they decided to accompany one such visit. Of course, both members of staff had visited Auschwitz previously.
Ten days before the visit, the Holocaust Education Trust holds a briefing session for students, which our Learning Officer attended. He was impressed with this session which set out to “re-humanize” the victims by discussing the lives of people in the Jewish communities in Europe before 1939, as well as making sure that students had a realistic idea of what to expect when they got to Auschwitz. The testimony of a survivor, Kitty Hart-Moxon helped students to feel a connection with what they were about to experience. Our Learning Officer was very impressed with the session, his only concern being that maybe the educators were relying too much on the students, all volunteers, having read up on the subject before hand.
On November 3rd, the flight left for Poland at 7.30am. As well as students, there were teachers and MPs on the trip. After such an early start, those who thought they could have a little doze on the plane were mistaken. Each participant was expected to read a little booklet to prepare them further for what they were about to see in Poland.
Arriving in Poland the group was taken directly (and without losing anyone) straight to the village of Auschwitz where there had been a Jewish community before the war. At a restored synagogue/museum Rabbi Barry Marcus spoke about Jewish practice for the mainly non-Jewish audience. This also put into context the next part of the visit.
At Auschwitz 1 itself the group spent one and half hours looking round the Museum and the barracks. Divided into 10 sub-groups, each was lead by their own guide. The CEO and Learning officer, drew the short straw, as theirs, although knowledgeable, was very “fierce”, which apparently is not typical.
The Learning Officer said he deliberately did not try to engage with the students, as he thought it was important for them to process what they were experiencing without any subjective input from others. He observed that they were all very reserved and quiet, but when faced with the piles of shoes and hair, they did produce an emotional response as you would expect.
The Learning officer told me how impressed he was at the tight organization and how there were always people to direct you and tell you which coach to get on. In spite of this he managed to get himself a bit lost during the transfer from Auschwitz 1 toAuschwitz 2.
A further one and a half hours were spent atAuschwitz 2 (Birkenau). The site is more spread out than Auschwitz 1. There is less to see as the Germans tried to destroy it before the Allies arrived. Visitors are directed through areas which had been gas chambers and the trail brings them to the former reception centre where people would have been “processed” – made to give up their possessions, deloused, heads shaved and tattooed. At the end of this process each individual had become a “non-person”. All this was clearly explained by the guides and by wording on panels. The groups were also shown reconstructions of the barracks, which had been pre-fabricated stables, and a reconstruction of the toilets.
As the afternoon wore on it was getting colder and darker, conditions which fitted in well with the last formal session of the day which was a memorial service lead by Rabbi Marcus. Some students participated and others just listened respectfully.
Six days later there was a debriefing session. Again students were divided into groups. They were asked to focus on the two sites at Auschwitz and decide what had made most impression on them. They were asked to think about what they had learned from the visit. In order to do this they were presented with a series of cards with statements on. The idea was to choose the ones they felt were the most appropriate. Our Learning Officer sat in with one of these groups and as before observed that they were very quiet and reserved and it was hard to determine what effect the experience had had on them. Before, during and after the visit all students had been keeping a log of their thoughts and feelings about the Holocaust. It would have been interesting to see some of these and to evaluate how attitudes had changed or crystallized over the period.
Our Learning Officer found it very moving to go to Auschwitz again especially with a group of young people. The Holocaust Education Trust’s organization of the visit was faultless. This is particularly important as when you are dealing with such a serious subject you don’t want people to be distracted by logistical errors.
Once back at school, students would be creating a project and passing on information to fellow students who had not been on the visit. It has been stressed how reserved and quiet students were throughout this experience. Maybe the presence of adults inhibited them. Maybe they were inhibited by the presence of students they had not known before. Maybe it was just typical British reserve. How interesting it would be to find out how these students got on when they went back to their schools to educate others about their experience. I am sure that back in familiar surroundings they would all have plenty to say.