Pair of red shoes made trip to Auschwitz real

9th April 2010 at 01:00
Teacher Carol Byran-Jones explains how she's keeping the memory alive in the next generation

I have taught the persecution of the Jews for 30 years and had visited Auschwitz with groups of students before. Yet recently I had became aware that pupils were becoming increasingly desensitised to the horrors of the Holocaust - small wonder in an age of computer games where war and violence are glorified. I was hoping to improve my approach to teaching the subject and make it more relevant to my pupils and I wanted to learn how to keep the memory alive among the next generation.

So when I was offered the opportunity to go back with the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz project - this time as part of a group rather than leading a trip - I was keen to take it up. Before the visit, the trust organised an orientation seminar in Wales to enable pupils and teachers to meet and listen to the personal experiences of a survivor.

I have met other survivors, but none as erudite as Zigi. His memory unimpaired by the years, he spoke without faltering for an hour in a voice which mesmerised everyone in the audience as he recalled his experiences as a young boy, first in the Lodz ghetto and then at Auschwitz. As I saw the interest he generated among the students, it became clear that my teaching of these events had to become more personal and needed to seek out the individuals among the huge numbers murdered during the Holocaust.

Following an early-morning flight to Krakow in Poland, we passed through the Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets you Free) gate into Auschwitz I; the events of the past bore down on us, the students became more subdued as the statistics of those murdered here were reeled off. They were difficult to take in; how can you picture 1.5 million people? My students confided that they saw and heard the numbers but found them difficult to grasp.

As we followed our guide through the exhibitions, I tried to visualise those who had owned the spectacles, suitcases, kitchen equipment and artificial limbs - all "harvested" from the Jewish transports. I failed. The huge pile of hair, like wool in a shearing shed, accompanied by a reading of the poem on the theme, `Pigtail' by Polish writer Tadeusz Rozewicz, had a profound effect on several of them.

We proceeded to the exhibition of shoes, dusty shades of grey, black and brown. A flash of red caught my eye, red shoes which demanded attention and called across the years "Look at me". These were the shoes of a confident woman, dancing shoes which once danced a waltz, too soon forsaken for the danse macabre. All the shoes "spoke" to me of individuals; they jostled for my attention; workers boots worn through; a child's first shoe; high heels for best; a businessman's spats; summer sandals with a broken strap - had it snapped as their owner was jostled along the platform to the "showers"? From then on, the camp became real, populated by the ghosts of individuals, all different, each unique.

In Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the wide open spaces emphasised the enormity of the crimes committed here. Students commented on the acreage of the camp which bore witness to the sheer size of the extermination programme. In the so-called Sauna building, which served as a processing room for those selected from the transports as slave labour, students read poems and memoirs of survivors in a remembrance ceremony conducted by Rabbi Barry Marcus, pioneer of the educational trips. He reminded us that if we showed our respect in the usual manner by holding a minute's silence for each of those who had lost their lives in Auschwitz, we would be standing in silence for several years.

As we left the Sauna, the snow was falling; had we been in this area in 1944, ash would have been falling as the crematoria on both sides of the building worked full pelt.

We stumbled back in the dark along the tracks, lighting candles of remembrance and laying them on the sleepers, their feeble flames fighting with the wind and snow.

On the return journey, my students talked incessantly about their experience. One said: "They kept going on about `the Jews', but using that term loses sight of the individual. They were more than just Jews; they were people, individuals, all unique."

That will be my mantra from now on; instead of dwelling on the ideology and the statistics, I will make more use of individual testimony and personal photographs and emphasise the vibrant lives these people once lived.

My students have been inspired to pass on their experiences to younger pupils in the school and have already arranged a series of activities based on some of the photographs we saw in Auschwitz; they too believe the way to make the Holocaust more real is by emphasising our shared experiences and humanising the statistics. I am confident that if pupils are taught in these terms, they will better understand the tragedy of the Holocaust - and they will not forget.

Carol Bryan-Jones teaches at Ysgol Gyfun Garth Olwg.

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