Unforgettable journeys

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Winning trips abroad to visit significant places and meet people involved in the Second World War proved a very moving experience for students from two UK schools. Lynne Wallis reports

Pupils and teachers from Harrogate Grammar School won a free school trip to Berlin for 24 pupils when their ideas for a day of activities to commemorate the end of the Second World War in July won a national competition.

Five prizes of trips were part of the Imperial War Museum's Their Past Your Future campaign to teach about and commemorate the war. Other winning trips were to Auschwitz, America and Canada, Thailand, and Singapore and New Zealand.

"We'd been working with a BBC website, interviewing veterans," says head of history, Barbara Hibbert. "Through that, we learned about competitions organised by IWM with the Big Lottery Fund."

Although entries had to propose activities for an imagined visit, the winners were not required to stick to those suggestions on their prize tour. Harrogate Grammar's winning entry, which proposed ways in which the trip would benefit the school, included a planned email diary of the trip, a comparison between war museums in the UK and in Berlin, and tracking down the grave of one of the school's old boys who died in action in Berlin.

Barbara Hibbert, who accompanied the pupils, along with two staff from the Imperial War Museum and a war historian, says: "The kids' consciousness was really raised. They found out lots about Germany - not just the Nazi element, but about how the war affected German people. They were surprised at how much Berlin had suffered. When we visited the Kaiser Wilhelm church, they saw photographs displayed of the whole town with all its roofs missing. We had six weeks of the Blitz in London, but bombing there went on year after year.

"The historians we met knew so much to pass on to the children, like how the Red Army treated the civilian population. The Berlin wall came down when a lot of the children were just months old, so they had no concept of a divided city. What people endured came as a terrible shock to them."

Barbara says she has never seen so many tears as on the day pupils visited the Saxenhausen concentration camp near Berlin and the Wannsee villa where the "final solution" was planned. "I hadn't expected to see l4-year-old boys hugging each other crying," she says. "They were saying very teenage things, like 'this must never happen again', and then someone mentioned Rwanda, which added another perspective."

Berlin Rabbi Walter Rothschild spent time with pupils and told them how he was regularly beaten on the Underground during wartime, but also pointed out the anti-semitism that still exists today. Horrified pupils learned of the current trend among young neo Nazis of wearing the illegal insignia, but partially covering it up with a hood to avoid breaking the law.

Barbara says the children returned to England feeling much more European.

"They came back saying things like 'everyone must have a trip like this', and while many of them went with the view that Prince Harry was just an idiot for wearing the Nazi uniform to that party, they came back understanding why it's banned in Germany. They were very impressed with Germany generally, and they loved the idea of recycling being so widespread."

Pupils from Alec Hunter High School in Braintree, Essex, entered the competition via the IWM's website and won a l7-day trip to Singapore and New Zealand. Their entry included a proposal to nominate "remembrance ambassadors" to help the whole school learn about the war in South-east Asia. Head of humanities Hamish Birley says: "The children will be living exhibits, in a way, when we have our school remembrance event in the summer. They'll be explaining all the photographs and the testimonies they heard."

At key stage 3 most of the children who went had studied the Second World War, but their knowledge of the Japanese invasion of Singapore in l942 was limited to what could be learned in one lesson. "What stuck me is how easy it was for them to learn when we were there," says Hamish. "And they really picked up on the idea of hidden history - that we get fed a particular line on what happened."

When the children visited the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore, where thousands of British and commonwealth casualties are buried, they were encouraged to walk around alone to absorb the powerful atmosphere of the place and reflect.

A visit to the Changi Prisoner of War Camp, now a museum, had a tremendous impact, as did Bukit Chandu, where a l,400- strong Malay regiment stood up against l3,000 Japanese and fought to the death. Children were very shocked to see photographs exhibited of Chinese people hanged from trees by the Japanese.

To assess their level of engagement, the children were asked to make presentations during the trip, during which there was a receptive silence unlike anything the school's teachers had ever experienced. "You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife" say Hamish. "The poetry they wrote was of a really high standard. It was amazing for them to be travelling in such exciting places, but demanding, too - physically and mentally. These are ordinary children who have led sheltered lives, so interacting with academics, museum curators and war historians was challenging. They felt special and honoured."

The highlight of the New Zealand leg of the trip was learning about the Maori battalion and meeting two of the l00 surviving veterans. "The Maoris felt that if they could prove themselves in war they would be able to achieve in New Zealand society," explains Hamish. "They have a culture of being warlike, and have big ideas on revenge, bravery and honour. The children were absolutely fascinated by this ethnic aspect of war."

* Their Past Your Future

www.theirpastyourfuture.org.uk

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