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."

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