There is a hole in the heart of the 20th century into which everything of value, everything that was good, fell. The Holocaust is so enormous, vast as a continent, that it feels impossible to address it. To pull back far enough to see it in its entirety is to lose the human detail: it simply becomes an event, like a homework poster in a classroom, next week, the Vietnam War. To go close up to it is unbearable, and obscures the broader plain.
Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Memorial of Israel, West Jerusalem. We took our school party from Raine's Foundation to visit on the last day of our pilgrimage, because any journey to Israel that ducked a consideration of the Shoah would be a crime against history. Zionism stretches back far before the Second World War, but the Final Solution acted as a grotesque catalyst to the invention of the Israeli state. The Holocaust and Israel are as intrinsic to each other as the double helix of DNA.
It's odd: the East End, where our party is from, used to host the largest population of Jews in England – the bakers, tailors and businessmen of Brick Lane and Whitechapel. Now, their diaspora has driven them to Edgware, Stamford Hill, Golders Green. Our pupils speak the language of Mecca and Nazareth – and secularism – but barely a word of the Torah. In Year 7 I regularly puncture a litany of misconceptions concerning Judaism. Children do not invent such myths; they receive them from other people who have been taught them in turn. Some are merely offensive: the money under the hat, the assumption that Jewish women are bald under their wigs, etc. Some are ghastly: the blood libel, the Protocols of Zion, for the more advanced bigot. The internet has a lot to answer for.
But the internet is only a carrier, not the inventor of such demonisation, and anti-Semitism is a weed with very deep roots. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a few days before, Yad Vashem prohibits photography and laughter, because what it contains must be seen without intermediary or irony. Our students, sensitive to the demands of the visit, knew what was expected of them and entered cautious as monks.
Within minutes, a natural diaspora took place of our own: the memorial is built like an enormous zig-zag of huge concrete chambers, the walls and cases exhibiting a chronological analysis of the roots, soil, fruition and demise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Students and teachers alike fell into their own step, separating as they built their own narratives. For me, staring at the Holocaust is difficult. I've visited Auschwitz and Birkenau several times, as well as the Holocaust Museum of New York, and London. Auschwitz is a harrowing, awful place; a well of memories almost too tragic from which to draw water. A drab, utilitarian place of brick and grass and iron tracks and ruined wooden barns that hosted every horror man could imagine – the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt put it.
Yad Vashem absorbed our students into its shadows and I became lost – not in space, but in time – as the story built up, beat by dreadful beat. What struck me the most was the way in which such atrocities as the Final Solution are not achieved all at once. The conditions by which it becomes possible accrue like brush strokes become a painting: the prohibition on mixed marriage, then holding office, then civil posts, then high status jobs; the disenfranchisement from political suffrage, restrictions on travel and the creation of ghettos...a list of increments that whittled away their humanity in heartbeats until, dehumanised, they could be slaughtered like cattle. This was the last, inevitable step that began with the simple belief that some humans were created above others. All concepts of justice and humanity begin with the antithesis to this equation: all humans are born in equal dignity.
I saw students, ahead and behind, lost in their own stories, solemn and sober. Everyone has their own raw nerve; for me, the extermination of the disabled and the unspeakable crimes visited on infants and children crushed me. I have a six-month-old child. There is a duty that surpasses all other in the acknowledgement of our common humanity: the protection of the innocents and the helpless. I would have been furious if the grief of contemplating its neglect hadn't dragged my heart down into the shadows of impotent empathy, a black, hopeless howl. Pictures of the children of the ghettos, weeping for mothers and fathers forever absent. Lord have mercy; Lord have mercy. At times, religious language is the only language capable, I think, of encompassing our reactions to such experiences; it is the only conceptual apparatus that can approach and encapsulate our understanding of the ineffable terror and tragedy of the Shoah, which would otherwise surpass our ability to describe. And even then it is a helpless gesture, pointing at something beyond human imagination to circumscribe.
The final chamber, the well of remembrance, overwhelmed me.
Outside, and on the bus, we sat silently as we pulled away. Leaving the heart of darkness is not easy, nor should it be. It was one of the most moving and difficult places I have visited, and every student would be well served by attending it.
I'm writing this on the plane home. The past four days have been not only the best school visit in which I have participated, but also one of the most memorable and powerful trips of my life. School visits can be trivial, superfluous activities, devoid of impact, aim or educational coherence. We've all seen the jollies, the treats, the merely tangential trips to workshops, cinemas and theatre. But this was, to borrow a phrase worn into a bland paste by overuse, unforgettable. Everyone is still processing the tsunami of sensation, and assembling meaning from the noumena of immersing ourselves in such an ocean of experience. I suspect that what was learned wouldn't map precisely to any scheme of work or syllabus, but I'm also sure that I don't give a damn.
This was a pilgrimage, both secular and spiritual: the struggle to obtain sponsor funding – incidentally, I tip my hat to the TES, which helped subsidise some of the cost, as well as the Raine's Foundation trustees – and the effort required to plan and put it together. My thanks to the marvellous Father Brian, our chaplain, and the most punk rock man in a collar you will meet outside of a Vivienne Westwood show; to Lesley Swarbrick, the most astonishingly agreeable colleague and friend with whom you could hope to travel, Khalil our polymath guide, and especially to the pride of the school: Jessica, Brandon, Alexei, Dominic, Tilly, Gabrielle and Natasha, who all discharged themselves with dignity and a maturity that I lacked at their tender age. And to the people of Jenin, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, for their fathomless generosity and hospitality.
Finally, thank you to anyone who read this account as the days progressed, and followed us as we walked in the footsteps of prophets and pilgrims; you have been our abstract partners, and your messages of encouragement and support have been a balm as we went. Shalom, salaam, to you.
A toast: next year – in Jerusalem.