A day out at the Nazis' biggest death camp

Two sixth-formers from every school are to visit Auschwitz to learn about genocide. But critics say that reading books and watching films would provide a better lesson. Tim Walker reports from Poland

Can young people learn anything new by visiting Auschwitz in a world where TV is full of documentaries about history's definitive atrocity, where Holocaust literature is everywhere, and where the curriculum groans under the weight of Nazi Germany and its crimes?

Gordon Brown and the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) certainly think so. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently received an award from the trust for his personal commitment to Holocaust education in the UK. From February 2007, with the help of £1.5m in Treasury funding, the trust is hoping to take two sixth-formers from each school in the UK - more than 6,000 students - to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau within three years.

But not everyone agrees with the idea, arguing that it is an odd use of taxpayers' money - albeit a relatively small amount - and that there are other ways to teach children about atrocities. The critics also complain that it keeps Britain locked in an old-fashioned 60-year-old mindset about Germany and about British relationships with that country when, in reality, they have changed beyond all recognition.

Walking around the camp on a bitter November day with a large group of remarkably composed 16- and 17-year-olds, Kay Andrews, head of education for HET, explains the value of showing students something of the scale of the Holocaust. "Coming to Auschwitz brings home the mechanics of the Nazi death machine, which is what made the Holocaust such a unique event," she says. "Often the students don't become emotional about their experiences while they're here, but by the time of our post-trip seminar, after reflecting on what they've seen and trying to express it to their family and friends, they're more affected."

The Holocaust has lessons to teach us today, but Andrews does not resort to the pat exhortation, "never again". He says: "It's lame to say 'never again' because there has been more genocide in the past 60 years, and of course there is still prejudice in the world. But I think learning about the Holocaust can inspire young people to try to make their own little world a better place, by doing something to prevent bullying or prejudice when they see it."

Reflecting on the trip later, Clark Tooley, a sixth-former from Crown Woods school in Eltham, south-east London, explains that he didn't feel affected on the day. "But talking about it with my family afterwards, it felt quite strange and emotional," he says. "I think it's hard to express those emotions when you're with a big group, because your reaction is a very personal thing. It felt wrong to be able to go to the camp and then walk away from it; it makes you value your freedom. I'm not sure other people realise how mechanised the whole thing was, that it was built simply for killing huge amounts of people. Having been there now, I'm never going to forget it."

School trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau are popular; among the other coachloads at the camp are schoolchildren from as far afield as the US. The group of around 200 UK students are far from the first to make the trip with the Trust, which has been organising such visits twice yearly since 2000. Next year the number of its trips will leap to around 10, increasing in the future. "Students select themselves," says Andrews.

Schools respond to a mail-out by nominating two of their pupils to join the trust's Lessons From Auschwitz course, which includes a trip to the camp. The students are prepared for the visit by a seminar, where they hear at first-hand the testimony of Kitty Hart-Moxon, an Auschwitz survivor. When they return to their schools, they are expected to present their experiences to a school assembly. Many generate their own remembrance projects and speak to local community groups, even to the media.

Clark Tooley and his fellow Crown Woods student Stephanie Johnson are writing an article for a teachers' magazine, as well as giving lessons at their school. The trust will ask each pair of students from the November Lessons From Auschwitz course to devise imaginative commemorations for the next Holocaust Memorial Day, in Newcastle on 28 January. The pairs devising the four most successful commemorations will speak at a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament, where the very best are chosen to become the Trust's student ambassadors for the ensuing year, working for and with the trust.

Karen Pollock, the trust's chief executive, explains how two students from Dudley College who visited Auschwitz with the trust in March were inspired, with the help of their MP, Ian Austin, to leaflet against the British National Party candidates standing in their local council elections. "That's a great, tangible effect that the course has had on someone. I don't want to prescribe how students think and feel about visiting the camps," explains Pollock. "But I hope they come away with a sense of responsibility for the world around them today."

The trust, established by Lords Janner and Merlyn-Rees in 1988, works closely with parliamentarians. Among its other guests on the Auschwitz-Birkenau visit are Labour MPs Pat McFadden and Gordon Banks, and Conservative Anne Main, all of whom have come with schoolchildren from their constituencies. A teacher and four of the students on the trip are from Banks's Scottish constituency, and he is proud of the fact. The Scottish history curriculum, he explains, contains no official slot for Nazism like that in the English version, so this visit makes a particularly useful lesson for them.

Not everyone, however, agrees that taking students to Auschwitz is the way to put the memory of the Holocaust to use. Some question government backing for a trip to one particular atrocity site. Others say you don't have to physically visit such places. "You don't have to go to Auschwitz to appreciate the horrors of the period," says Professor Frank Furedi, whose mother survived the concentration camps, and who has been critical of the Government's "sanctimonious" approach to the Holocaust before.

"I think that Auschwitz and the camps have come to serve a symbolic purpose as a metaphor for evil in the imagination," he argues. "Learning about the Holocaust has become a rite of passage for schoolchildren. The Government uses it to try to inspire a moral literacy in young people, and I think that's a bad way to go about it. In a time when morality, good and evil are uncertain concepts, there's an impoverishment in using the Holocaust as a standard of good and evil. Atrocities are not the only way to get children to think about morality, or right and wrong. We should look more at good things, at human achievement rather than destruction and catastrophe."

The Historical Association has criticised the excessive coverage of Nazi Germany on the school history curriculum. But Sean Lang, the association's honorary secretary, supports the trust's work and the Government's decision to fund trips to Auschwitz. However, he suggests, there is one slight danger - that we can take comfort in the distance of time between the Holocaust and today.

"That can act as a smokescreen to disguise present-day atrocities," he says. "It's what happened with Rwanda in the 1990s, and it's what's happening now with Darfur. Auschwitz is the symbol you can't get away from. It has come to symbolise all the atrocities and crimes against humanity in the 20th century, and I can see why people might feel uncomfortable with that. Some groups might consider in the future funding similar visits to the sites of more recent examples, for example in Africa."

Some of the students on the trip said they felt less affected by their encounter with the camp's remains than by the personal stories in films such as Schindler's List and The Pianist, or in the work of writers such as Primo Levi.

Kay Andrews recalls returning to the camps with a survivor, and asking him how he coped with the experience. "He said it was the human beings, not the place, that made it what it was," she says.

"The most emotionally affecting part of the tour is seeing the victims' possessions - the cooking equipment, the spectacles, the artificial limbs or the shoes - because they're human and have personal stories. I hope the students won't go back and just show their peers photographs of the place. I hope they tell some of those personal stories."

Sixty years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, one of the main challenges facing Holocaust remembrance organisations like HET is the impending loss of one of their most powerful resources - the survivors. The Trust has dealt with this by creating an interactive DVD, called simply "Recollections", made up of some of the 52,000 recorded testimonies collected by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Visual History Foundation. Clark Tooley doesn't think the impact of passing time will be too great. "When the survivors are gone there will still be people like Rabbi Marcus," who accompanies the HET trip and coordinates a ceremony of remembrance at the camp. "He wasn't in the camps," says Tooley. "But he goes on educating other people about the Holocaust. I think it's great that the Jewish community keep on remembering it. In Russia, where Stalin killed just as many people in the purges, people don't discuss it and it hasn't been remembered in the same way."

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
i100
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
peopleBroadcaster has a new role bringing 'the big stories that matter' to US
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
Moves to regulate e-cigarettes and similar products as medicines come amid increasing evidence of their effectiveness
healthHuge anti-smoking campaign kicks off on Wednesday
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently
filmsAn 'eccentric' choice, certainly
Sport
footballBut the Newcastle United midfielder's news has 'left his mistress furious'
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Supply teachers required for secondary schools in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

English Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: English Teacher A Hull school i...

Humanities Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities, Religious Education ...

Science Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - South Es...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style