Remembering history's worst

10th February 2006 at 00:00
From Nazism to the horror of the Holocaust, pupils are learning about the Second World War on tailor-made trips to Germany. Gillian Thomas reports

The words "Den Lebenden zur Mahnung" (a reminder to the living), inscribed on a war memorial in Nuremberg, will long be remembered by 35 17-year-old students from Carisbrooke high school on the Isle of Wight, following their recent school trip to Germany.

Organised through Key Stage Travel of Llangollen, by Steve Thompson, the school's head of history and politics, the trip's theme is "The Third Reich Uncovered". As well as Nuremberg, it includes Prague, Berlin, and the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in Poland. Over the years, Steve has taken several Years 12 and 13 groups on similar trips, honing them to the school's needs. This time they are linking up with 28 students of similar ages from the Wilhelm-Lohe school in Nuremberg, an idea which Key Stage Travel hopes to develop across its programme.

"The trip is specifically relevant to sixth-form work on Hitler and the Second World War, but it encompasses much more," Steve Thompson says. It's an inspiration for the wider study of the Reich and enhances understanding of 20th-century history. It benefits citizenship and raises awareness of moral issues in general".

Following their overnight coach journey to Nuremberg, the students first visit the courtroom of the Palace of Justice where the surviving Nazi leaders were tried in 1945-49. Their weariness quickly forgotten, they can scarcely believe they are actually standing where history took place. "It was surreal," said Gaspar Sena afterwards. "We'd seen it in films and nothing had changed."

The memorial stands in an area of parkland near the former Nazi parade grounds which the group visit with a local English guide. In the 1930s, Hitler staged his vast National Socialist rallies on the Zeppelin Field there, taking the salute from a towering rostrum in the centre of a long row of columns, long since demolished. The unfinished shell of his colossal red-brick Congress Hall, modelled on the Colosseum in Rome, stands beyond a small lake. It was destined to hold 50,000 people and endure for 1,000 years.

"We'd seen photographs of the Congress Hall, but you only understand the scale of it by being there," says another student, David Kinnaird. "Its long arcade of tall marble arches makes you feel very small. The individual clearly meant nothing to Hitler."

After work on it was stopped in 1942, the vast unroofed auditorium area was used as a car park until 2001 when the city finally felt able to confront its dark Nazi past and help the world learn positive lessons from it. Part of the building was imaginatively transformed into an exhibition area, the Dokumentationszentrum ReichsparteitagsgelAnde (document centre of the Nazi party rally grounds); it was deliberately not called a museum to avoid any Nazi glorification.

The centre documents the rise of National Socialism through photographs, archive film, computer simulations and filmed interviews with local people about their pre-war experiences. Its final display is a recreation of the War Trials courtroom complete with actual recordings. Altogether it provides a lesson in history that no one could forget.

Not surprisingly, emotions run highest when the students visit Auschwitz.

They are shocked by walls covered with photographs of Holocaust victims, especially the faces of children, by the six tons of human hair, by baby shoes similar in size to those worn by a god-daughter of one of the girls, and by the sheer ordinariness of the surroundings.

"So many aspects of the trip are a very emotional experience," says Andrew Thomas. "Reading about things is not the same as being there."

Everyone agrees that linking up with the local school has added a valuable dimension to the trip.

Although the two groups visit Auschwitz together, they go round it separately. Afterwards, the Carisbrooke students said they felt it would have been inappropriate to discuss what they had seen with them in case the Germans found it difficult to express their feelings in English.

"The war probably affected them more than us and no one wants to carry anything on," said 17-year-old Will Coldwell.

Steve Thompson says that, while every trip provokes a different reaction, he thought this year's group were especially thoughtful. "Going there always refocuses history work and widens the students' horizons."

Hollie Cave, who is studying drama, hopes to put on a play about the Holocaust. "Although seeing a place like Auschwitz is not enjoyable, you're glad you've done it. I think we all feel privileged to have gone on the trip," she said. Stage Travel, tel: 0845 130 6070, organises curriculum-based trips for school groups in the UK, Europe and worldwide

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