Journey to the Third Reich

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Hannah stands before a floor-to-ceiling glass cabinet coiled high with human hair, some of it still in plaits and pigtails. "It's so personal because we've all got hair," she says, brushing the tears from her cheeks. Nearby, Samantha has to turn away from a pile of children's shoes: "I can't handle that . . . Everything they ever owned in their little lives has just been slung there."

Like most of the 17 and 18-year-olds from Yateley School in Hampshire, Hannah and Samantha have learnt about the Nazi era in class and they've seen Schindler's List. But nothing has prepared them for the reality. At one level, the Third Reich Tour is an educational trip for A-level students doing the modern world syllabus. At another it's an emotional assault course.

First stop - after crossing the Channel and driving most of the night - is Nuremberg, the site of Hitler's spectacular pre-war rallies. Most striking is the scale of the parade ground and the size of the buildings, everything calculated to dwarf the individual. It's a glimpse into the mechanics of mass manipulation.

Sitting on the steps of the raised tribune, the students have no difficulty mentally superimposing the speeches, the cries of Sieg Heil!, the torches, the banners the swastikas. .. In a pattern that will become familiar over the next days, Matt relates it to his own experience: "I've been to rock concerts and I guess it's a similar thing. There's a real vibe. Everyone's there to see the same thing, to do what everyone else does." And, as the guide points out, Matt's reaction is an echo of what the British ambassador felt 60 years ago as he watched one of the rallies. "For two minutes," he recorded, "I became a National Socialist."

After Nuremberg, the coach crosses into the Czech Republic, following in the steps of the German army in 1938. In Prague, the students visit the old Jewish quarter. The silence of what today seems almost a museum is more eloquent than any guide book; chilling testimony to the effectiveness of Hitler's extermination programme. At Terezin, which the Nazis used as a transit camp for Auschwitz, the students are shown the drawings done by the Jewish children as they awaited deportation. Jeevan can't help but compare them with her own childhood efforts: "They've drawn butterflies but they're trapped. I remember drawing pictures when I was little and they'd all be happy in bright colours. These are so dark."

From the Czech Republic into Poland and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The coach arrives at the international hostel outside the camp the night before the guided tour. Hannah records in her diary: "after dinner a walk to the perimeter. Apprehension. No longer knowing what to expect. Very emotional."

Gill Butler, one of the two teachers on the tour, calls the students together, to prepare them for what they'll see the next day. As she reads from her notes, she falters and stops. A teacher breaking down before their eyes is unnerving for the students but, as Gill points out, this is itself a lesson: "Here it's all right to show your emotion."

The next day is as searing as the students have been warned. But again, what comes across is their ability to absorb what they see by relating it to their own experience. The essential horror of the place - that it was expressly designed for the dispatching and disposal of human beings - needs no gloss. The devil is in the detail. It comes as a jolt to the students to learn that the standard "batch" for the gas chambers was 1,500 people. Unlike six million, it's a number they can visualise. Coincidentally, 1,500 is the size of their school, pupils and staff.

By the time they reach Berlin, the students have acquired as much knowledge of the horrors of the last war as they can reasonably handle in a week. But the tour isn't finished. Having "done the Third Reich" they have an unscheduled meeting with some German students of their own age.

It turns out to be a lesson in politics as much as history. The long shadow cast by the Nazi era has made the young Germans fervently European. Asked about her own sense of history and living with the legacy of the Holocaust, one of the students replies: "even 50 years after the war we're not allowed to have any identity with our state and Germany. I can't say that I am proud of my country - it would sound as if I am a Nazi."

This insight into what it is like to be a young German today has an unexpected impact on our students. Before they crossed the Channel most were Euro- sceptical "Little Englanders". By the end of the trip, a surprising number have become "Greater Europeans". Adam is one of the converts: "I still think all countries in Europe should be independent and do what they want. But I know what the Germans mean about getting on with the union of Europe. All my stereotypes have gone. Really, they're just the same as us."

The 10-day tour costs about #163;350. Just as a cultural and emotional experience, it's worth the money. But academically? Gill Butler isn't sure it produces better A-level results but says she has certainly noticed more of her sixth formers opting to read history at university. If education is more about lighting the fire than filling the pot, the Third Reich tour passes the test.

Other teachers from other schools confirm that the benefits are not to be measured in grades alone. To quote one: "You can tell from their essays which kids have done the trip. They seem to have a deeper understanding, a deeper feeling. What comes out in their work is that - quite simply - they've been there."

Michael Delahaye reported on the Third Reich Tour for BBC2's First Sight programme. The tours are organised by Key Stage Travel. For details, tel 01691 718181

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