Two boys from our Lower Sixth Form were honoured to be invited to take part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s programme ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’, which included an extremely moving and poignant day trip to Poland to visit the Auschwitz concentration and death camps along with around 150 students and teachers from schools across the country.
Lucas Inman and Moritz Stahl were nominated by the school to attend the programme after they, along with other Lower Sixth formers, were invited to make an application by outlining why they thought learning about the Holocaust is so important and why it interests them. Their texts are published below with their kind permission.
Based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, the three-part programme explores the universal lessons of the Holocaust and its relevance for today. It aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.
The visits to the former Nazi concentration and death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is preceded and followed by seminars in order to ensure an exceptional educational experience. The first seminar was held in London on Thursday 14 March where the boys heard an inspirational and thought-provoking talk from Holocast survivor, Susan Pollack MBE, who was the only member of her family to have survived. This gave the boys a first-person perspective on the Holocaust, the first contribution towards humanising the victims of the Holocaust rather than just viewing them as a statistic.
The next stage was the trip to Poland, which included a short stop at Oświęcim (the town of Auschwitz), where they learnt about pre-war Jewish life (Oświęcim’s population was about 60% Jewish at the time), and visited a synagogue which now also serves as a museum.
They then travelled to Auschwitz 1 and stood inside the only remaining gas chamber, an experience which Moritz recounts as being, “Really intense and unsettling, and gave me an odd feeling – it was a difficult situation to be in. No-one talked – it just wasn’t a good feeling.” They saw things they could never forget, such as piles of human hair, victims’ belongings and the conditions the prisoners had to live in.
They then took an emotional tour round Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the vast majority of victims were murdered. They walked along the railway track which brought the victims to the camps, but which never let them leave. They looked at the buildings where the prisoners were kept, giving them an idea of the cramped and cruel conditions. In one building, there was a wall of photographs showing the prisoners before they entered the camp; including family portraits, wedding photographs and baby pictures, which was truly upsetting and, again, humanised the victims. The boys were encouraged to note down just one of the victims with a view to researching their life before they entered the camp. At the end of a very emotional day all the students on the trip gathered for a ceremony performed by Rabbi Daniel Epstein, who gave a poignant address about how these were the actions of humans, not monsters. They then lit a remembrance candle which they placed next to the railway track.
Reflecting upon on the trip, Lucas told us that he feels, “Ashamed that no-one did anything about it, and I wonder how people would react if it happened in this day and age.”
The third part of the programme, is a follow-up seminar where they will discuss how they felt and what they learnt from the trip. They will also pledge to a follow-up project to share their experience with others and explain why the Holocaust is still relevant today.
Mr Bolton, Head of RE, who accompanied the boys on the trip said, “I am delighted the boys were able to take part in the programme. It was emotionally draining but they got a huge amount out of it and I look forward to seeing how their summer project manifests itself.”
I would love to have the opportunity to participate in this project.
I have always expressed an interest in this particular aspect of the Second World War, not least because my Grandfather was a Jewish survivor of the war; he was forced to flee Germany in July 1938, when he was just 13, and was quickly thrust into English education knowing very little English himself and thus found the initial years after arriving in Britain particularly difficult. In addition, when I visited the British War museum, I found the Auschwitz exhibit particularly poignant, with piles of shoes, clothes and forgotten belongings on show and can only imagine the profound effect the camps would have on me where I to witness them in person.
The Holocaust nowadays is what one might consider common knowledge, and may be one of the few things people would talk about when asked about the Second World War. However, it quite often simply ends up being a statistic: 6 million Jews died as a result of the Holocaust, and this is why it is of importance that we are able to learn about the Holocaust in greater detail. It is not just about the number of people who died as a result of it, however tragic that may be. But more importantly we need to understand the extent of the fear and discrimination that quite simply drove millions from their homes, and would have likely have haunted the lucky few who escaped unscathed for the rest of their lives. We forget that it is one of the biggest cases of mass discrimination against a certain religion. We are reminded so often of the racial, sexual, religion or gender based discrimination that occurs today, yet we forget that a generation of millions of Europeans lived through a period where this was the norm, and thus instilled a subconscious sense in our minds that such things are acceptable. Although it may be clichéd, we do need to learn from the mistakes of others in order to ensure that we do not make the same.
In addition, it is important that we remember the Holocaust, and particularly those who suffered and died as a result of it. We must recognise that although it seems like an entirely un-relatable situation and would never happen to us ourselves, the people who suffered as a result of the Holocaust were no different from any of us. They died purely due to their religious orientation. Only then will we be able to begin to empathise with those effected and thus begin to contemplate the gravity of the horrors of the Holocaust. It is of paramount importance that we do remember the Holocaust, but above all, it is important that it does not just become a statistic and we treat it with the respect that a tragedy, such that it was, deserves.
In my opinion, the Holocaust and other crimes committed by the Nazi government of Germany during their twelve-year rule of terror were the most important and impactful events that took place in the 20th century. It was a major turning point in the mentality of Western states regarding race and human rights. The crimes committed against humanity in this most dark period of time for the world were so unbelievably gruesome and cruel, that people started to question and debate whether or not social norms and racial profiling could be carried on with. The clear conclusion – it could not. In the decades following the Second World War, social and political changes took place around the globe, examples of this being the fall of the British Empire and the Civil Rights Movement in America. This has a gigantic impact on the world how it is today and is one of the reasons why studying and remembering the Holocaust is so crucially important for us as humanity.
A second reason is, very sadly, more personal. Parts of my family have been on both sides of the Holocaust. Parts of my father’s family were Jewish and virtually wiped out during the Holocaust and members of my mother’s family served in the German army – some of them with the SS. I do not feel guilt per se because of this, however, it gives me a personal incentive to deal with this topic. Growing up in Germany, dealing with the country’s past is a vital part of education. The word ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ meaning “the struggle to overcome one’s past” is a key part of post war Germany’s literature, culture and art. It is taken very seriously to make sure to prevent any similar tragedy from occurring ever again. I personally feel that it should be everyone’s duty nowadays, especially for young people, to educate themselves about the Holocaust, even though it is not always easy to do so.
Thirdly, I have a great interest in history, especially the WW2 time frame. I’ve read numerous books about the matter, depicting all kinds of viewpoints involved in the conflict. From Axis and Allied pilots in “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander, to strategic descriptions of famous battles such as that of Stalingrad and the Ardennes by Antony Beevor and a book about the Nuremberg Trials. The most remarkable one so far, however, has been a book titled “Liberation Was for Others” by Pierre Seels, which depicts his life. He was a gay French man and the book tells the harrowing stories of the tens of thousands of homosexual people, which were persecuted by the Nazis. Homosexual prisoners were often assigned the most gruelling tasks. There are many reports of SS soldiers using homosexuals as target practice, aiming specifically for the pink triangle, positioned over the prisoner’s heart. But with the liberation of the concentration camps, persecution of gay people did not end. Homosexuality was still a crime at the time, meaning these people were not acknowledged as victims of crimes committed by the Nazis thus making them not eligible for any sort of reparations or government support. Most of them were sent from the concentration camp directly into Allied prisons. I believe it is because this book showed me an aspect of the Holocaust that I had not thought about before, that it stood out for me. Often other minorities apart from Jewish people, Sinti & Roma or Eastern Europeans are “overseen”. For example, a school trip last summer dealt, amongst other things, with the persecution of the sick and disabled people killed in the Holocaust. It is individual accounts like these that make you realise that, behind this gigantic number of killed, stand individual stories of people, which is why it is important to remember the Holocaust -to never forget those people who had to pay with everything they had.
In conclusion, I believe it is important to remember the Holocaust for several reasons. First, because of the immense suffering that the people directly involved in it experienced, regardless of which side they were on. Second, because of the duty that comes with these horrifying events for our generation and generations to come to make every effort to prevent a repetition of this history. Finally, because of the major impact on our current world and society in regards to politics and social affairs.