Silent pilgrimage

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Terence Copley asks whether Auschwitz should be a school-visit destination.

Oswiecim in Polish. Forever known to us as Auschwitz. A factory dedicated to the mass production of death. Our minds already hold the graphic picture of that watch tower in Auschwitz II (Birkenau) with the railway lines passing underneath.

I visited on a hot day in May. On entry we were conducted into a darkened room to see a video including scenes of the liberation of the camp - the children walking or limping out in pairs, holding hands; the adults, often with glazed eyes still seeing what we could not bear to behold.

Finally, the doors of the cinema were thrown open. We stepped out into the warm sunlight and Auschwitz I, the better preserved but smaller of the two complexes. After the darkness of the cinema it felt strangely like stepping onto the set of a film that we had seen before many times. Clean, light, unreal. The tour began. I could not take photographs inside the gas chamber, though some people could. Nor could I trivialise the wall in front of which so many people were shot by reducing it to a souvenir picture in an album or a disk or an item for a class display. 1.1 million people were done to death in this place, without dignity or regret. We cannot smile there. Above all, Auschwitz is a place to be silent and grieve, for those who are gone, for humankind that can so successfully create the dark epiphany of death, then try to erase it as the war was coming to an end and afterwards even to deny it. As a member of this species that manufactures death so successfully, I am still coming to terms with what I saw and felt on my visit. Can we even contemplate taking a school party?

For some teachers to teach about Auschwitz is supremely important anti-racist education. But Jews are not a race. They are a people. Yes, Auschwitz is a study in anti-Semitism, which should as Joyce Miller suggests ("Building better communities", TES Teacher, page 14, July 1, 2005) embrace the victims, perpetrators, bystanders and heroes. But Auschwitz also illustrates the persecution of gay people, of Jehovah's Witnesses, of Roma (Gypsies), of political misfits. It is also a testimony to collusion in genocide well beyond the borders of wartime Poland or Germany. These additional casts of victims, bystanders and heroes need to be remembered and explained. Nor is Auschwitz merely history, for anti-Semitism, genocide, homophobia, hatred of groups perceived to be outsiders are all potent still.

So much is at stake that a school visit must be possible - has to be possible - if we ever are to learn from what happened. But even to start to take in what will be seen and described by guides requires a minimum level of emotional maturity, so that Year 10 is perhaps the very youngest age at which children should visit (I saw primary school classes on tour). The national framework for RE highlights the potential role of RE in "studying a range of ethical issues, including those that focus on justice, to promote racial and religious respect and personal integrity" and the contribution of RE in exposing "destructive prejudice, challenging racism, discrimination". This is a suitably wide context to place preparatory work in school.

Preparation needs to embrace the historical context of Auschwitz rather than the technology of death. It needs to ask how could anti-Semitism and the other "antis" thrive in a civilised country such as ours? Preparation can fasten on small details such as Alfred Kantor's record that the prisoners' 1943 ration was 250 grams of bread daily, twice a week a teaspoon of marmalade and a dab of margarine. Twice a week, a sliver of salami. Occasional turnip soup. In front of a class, one weekly ration speaks eloquently. Similarly, it is better to examine case studies of individuals rather than the numbing piles of bodies on black and white film.

Chapter 12 of Hugo Gryn's Chasing Shadows (written with Naomi Gryn, Penguin) offers a good example of life there by a survivor. In Auschwitz itself, the surviving artefact exhibits speak eloquently enough for themselves when the visit is made. They include carefully assembled piles of toothbrushes, shaving brushes, the suitcases with chalked names "so you can be sure they will be returned to you", the bales of cloth from human hair. There is the 1,000-seat no-privacy, no-running- water latrine block.

Young people visiting need to be prepared for sights like this. It's OK to cry, at the time or after, or to see teachers cry. Or to light a candle and be silent. Or to be ready to challenge small dose prejudice and hatred when it happens in the sometimes cruel world of school. Or to hear selected readings from survivors such as Hugo Gryn at chosen points on the visit.

The departing SS could not quite efface the gas chamber undressing room from which he was rescued. To hear his account of the rescue, in the place itself, is moving beyond words.

Properly to educate young visitors, a visit to Auschwitz has to be a pilgrimage. Not one which assumes a religious faith on their part, but one which acknowledges in the words of the Hebrew Bible that we are our brother's keeper and that here is blood crying out from the ground (Genesis 4.10). A pilgrimage that reminds us that suffering is real, that memory can be bitter-sweet, that not all stories end happily, that people live and die (and sometimes kill) for beliefs, both secular and religious. Therefore scrutinising beliefs is supremely important, because beliefs are not harmless disembodied ideas in the attic of our minds, but rather the very mainspring of our actions.

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