Learning lessons from Auschwitz

Written by: John Galloway | Published:
Never forget: In May, students and teachers from across the UK travelled to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, which were situated in Nazi-occupied Poland, as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz programme (All images: Yakir Zur www.yzphotography.co.uk)

Since 2006, the Lessons from Auschwitz programme has seen more than 30,000 students visit the notorious Nazi death camp. In May, John Galloway joined the latest group of students and teachers travelling to Auschwitz-Birkenau

“You can read about the Holocaust, or watch a film, but to be confronted with Auschwitz-Birkenau makes history much more tangible,” explained Anita Parmar, head of the Lessons from Auschwitz project at the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).

As SecEd readers will know, Lessons from Auschwitz sees around 3,000 British school students and teachers every year make a day visit to this infamous site of mass murder.

It sets out to provide these students with the opportunity to learn directly from what Ms Parmar believes “shouldn’t simply be another episode in history”.

As every key stage 3 student knows (the Holocaust is compulsory in the history national curriculum), nearly six million Jews were killed by the Nazis in the early 1940s as part of a programme of mass murder that also saw at least another half a million people – homosexuals, trade unionists, Roma, communists, Russian prisoners of war, people with disabilities, and others – die. All carried out with unprecedented industrial efficiency. Such are some of the facts, but behind those facts are very human stories, ones which the HET seeks to reveal through this programme.

“Ultimately the course is called Lessons from Auschwitz, not Lessons about Auschwitz,” Ms Parmar continued, emphasising that there are no fixed learning objectives.

“Fundamentally they are learning about the Holocaust, but the lessons they take way from the experience aren’t prescriptive. The lessons are for them. They vary from student to student. Some will reflect on their own life. Or it may highlight the dangers of prejudice and intolerance.”

That was certainly true for Senel Deveci, a sixth form student at Seevic College in Benfleet, who visited in May: “It’s one thing being taught about such a vital historical event such as the Holocaust, yet being there and actually witnessing (the site) yourself is another thing entirely. It’s a little hard to comprehend at first, as you find yourself slowly coming to terms (with the fact) that you’re walking on the same grounds they did, you are here in a place where millions of innocent people were slaughtered for their beliefs. Not only does it educate you but it makes you appreciate life a little more.”

This sense of personal connection is true for others, too. For Jo Ann Galloway, who was a sixth former at The John Roan School in Greenwich when she visited in 2009, it left many memories.

“There is no substitute for being there yourself, for walking across the train platform, imagining yourself being selected to either live or die but not realising at the time, trying to survive in conditions designed to weaken and destroy you.”

Such an empathetic response isn’t always to be encouraged. When teaching about the Holocaust, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) gives guidelines on what approaches to take, and does not advocate the use of role-play, or trying to put learners in the shoes of those who were sent to the camps.

However, the reality of walking in the footsteps of those who died can have a powerful impact, as Jo Ann found: “The gas chambers did truly resemble showers and it was easy, if horrifying, to imagine the certainty of those believing they were entering in order to shower not knowing what was waiting for them.”

The actual visit is only one element of the programme, along with pre and post-trip seminars, and an expectation that those involved will engage in a “Next Step”, to help pass their knowledge and experiences on.

Kevin Murphy, head of humanities at St Benedicts Catholic School in Bury St Edmunds explained: “I sincerely hope that the participants will use what they have learned to ensure that the lessons learned from the past are remembered and acted upon to build a better future.

“This is particularly important in the present climate when some nations and communities are seemingly becoming more insular and less tolerant of diversity.”

Such reflections are shared by friends Harry Parks and Max Johnson, students at Bungay High School in Suffolk.

As Max told me: “It is very important that we do think about what happened. It’s very horrible. They didn’t die for a cause. They died because they were selected.”

Harry felt that the Holocaust was “one of the examples of humanity’s least human actions”, yet it is something that still remains a threat. He explained: “We have to remember that we (humankind) are capable of this. However wonderful we are, there is this capacity to be attracted to a certain doctrine, a certain agenda. In a world of information that can be transferred in a matter of seconds you have to be really careful about what you say. You have to think carefully about your impact on the world and whether you are a force for good.”

Max agreed, concluding that as humans, “you don’t have an obligation to do good. Humans are a medium for good and bad”.

The ability to share ideas, especially in the current climate, is also important to Jo Ann.

“I think I’m still struck by the understanding of how fragile our freedom is. I also see a lot of posts on Facebook from people I went to school with (that are) filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and hate, which is only getting worse. I sometimes think that if they had learnt a lesson from history they would have a better understanding of the consequences of that rhetoric and where it can lead.”

Such perspectives help to explain the on-going backing for the HET’s programme from across the political spectrum, with governments of all persuasions giving it their support since 2006. This has enabled more than 30,000 students and teachers from across the UK to take part. Funding from regional governments ensures the involvement of participants from all the UK’s home countries.

It is not just the Department for Education that prioritises this agenda. Suzanne Kochanowski, from the Department for Communities and Local Government, attended the recent visit. She told me: “(Our) objectives are to ensure remembrance of events such as the Holocaust that involve prejudice and hatred towards other ethnic groups, to ensure that they do not happen again. In this context, it is hugely important that young people – who are disproportionately affected by hate crime offences, as well as being the future generation – have awareness about the impact of such events.”

It is a lesson that has not been missed. As Senel told me: “It is important for us to be educated, to learn and understand the past as much as focusing on the future.

“A quote on the walls of one of the blocks in Auschwitz 1 by George Santayana – ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – really spoke to me because it reminds you of how vital the past is and how we can’t let another genocide happen, or let the world relapse into a corrupt place.”

Five lessons for humanity

Each HET visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau concludes with an act of remembrance. Rabbi Raphy Garson, senior rabbi of Ohr Yisrael in Borehamwood, who has led many of these, suggests five lessons for humanity that can be learnt from the Holocaust.

  1. Evil and unwarranted hatred are a reality that exists in our world. The human being has an infinite capacity for evil that, left unchecked, can destroy the world. Man is not born necessarily good but it is our job is to become good.
  2. Remembrance. The Holocaust is not a matter of abstract statistics. For every victim there is a name. For every Jew and millions of Poles, Gypsies and other non-desirables in the eyes of the German Reich who were murdered, there was a life filled with dreams.
  3. The Holocaust was successful because of the state-sanctioned ideology of hate.
  4. Prevention never happened. History cries out with crimes of indifference, because of silence. When the moment comes … protest and speak out!
  5. Spread the love. Stop the hate. Understand that by infusing the world with more love it can only become better. The mantra of never again can only occur if we maintain the other side of the coin to never forget.

He concludes: “Our duty is to play our part in speaking out against injustice and prejudice, against racism and negative stereotyping – stand up and be counted among those who will voice their opinions against what is clearly wrong.”

  • John Galloway is a consultant, writer and trainer in technology and inclusion, with a particular interest in SEND.

Further information

  • Lessons from Auschwitz is only one part of the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. There is also an outreach programme in schools, and on-going CPD which sees teachers visiting other sites including an annual trip to Yad Veshem in Israel. For more information, visit www.het.org.uk
  • For further advice and guidance on teaching about the Holocaust, the IHRA guidelines can be found here www.holocaustremembrance.com/educate


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