When bodies become people

11th April 1997 at 01:00
British teachers went to Poland to find out how best to tackle the Holocaust. Reva Klein reports

Giving up the half-term holiday to trudge in freezing cold and unremitting rain through one-time Nazi killing fields was not something to look forward to. But the10 British teachers who spent an autumn week in Poland were glad that they went. And, as an observer, so was I.

The trip was specially organised for history and religious education teachers by Beth Shalom, Britain's first Holocaust museum. Led by Auschwitz survivor Kitty Hart Moxon and Stephen Smith, Holocaust expert and founder of Beth Shalom, it was an experience full of images, thoughts and sensations that will last - whether we like it or not - a lifetime.

The aim of the trip was to offer teachers a rich frame of reference from which to launch into the teaching of the near total annihilation of European Jewry by the Nazi regime. In this, the European Year of Anti Racism, these and other teachers are looking to the Holocaust as a paradigm for the worst excesses of race hatred. They want to make the Holocaust as comprehensible an event as the systematic, industrialised murder of many millions can be. And they will try to relate it to racism, nationalism and xenophobia today without detracting from its uniqueness. By focusing the Beth Shalom trip on both the pre-war Jewish communities of Poland and some of the key sites of the Holocaust, we were able to see a much broader picture than teachers usually get and learned about how to apply that understanding to classroom approaches.

Kitty, who was the lens through which we saw history, gave us vivid running commentaries of her hometown as we visited Bielsko Biala, situated near the Czech border. We went to her old home and her old convent school around the corner. She pointed out where the numerous Jewish businesses had been, where the synagogue had stood (now a bar), where her friends lived, the mountains on which she went skiing with her family every winter weekend.

Over a few hours, Bielsko Biala became for us a town of people who had disappeared literally in a black puff of smoke. But rather than as faceless victims, we now knew of them as the daredevil friend, the sweet shop owner, the man who ran the hardware store. Through Kitty, we were able to imagine them not as martyrs or cowards anymore than we are. They were ordinary men and women, boys and girls.

The next morning at seven, we set off for AuschwitzBirkenau. The hotel had seen us off with packed breakfasts. Our tension left them untouched. The day was steely grey, bitterly cold, wet and foggy. It seemed appropriate. Stephen arranged for us to go first to Birkenau (known as Auschwitz II), which was the main extermination camp for the huge Auschwitz complex. It is here where the train tracks very efficiently ended, just a few yards from the crematoria. And it is here where at least two million European Jews and many thousands of homosexuals and Gypsies were mechanistically killed.

Stephen's decision to start at Birkenau was an astute one. While the main camp of Auschwitz is a busy museum, with exhibits housed in the sturdy brick buildings that were barracks for the mainly Polish and Russian slave labourers, Birkenau was the death camp. There are no exhibits there.

We were the only visitors in this unbelievably vast and desolate tract of land on which sit a few remaining wooden barracks and the remains of the crematoria, some of which were destroyed by prisoners and others by the Germans trying to cover their tracks as the Allies advanced. Elie Wiesel has called it the most godforsaken place on earth. Feeling and hearing the echoes of this man-made hell in my very bones, I understood why.

Kitty's detailed commentary on camp life was at times unbearably vivid. She showed us how the women prisoners slept, where they had to stand in the freezing cold for roll calls at all hours of the day and night wearing just one light layer of clothes, how they literally had to fight for space in the "toilet block," a vast concrete slab with holes in it suspended over a pit, which sat about 100 women at a time with a two-minute time limit.

We trekked across to the site where Kitty was put to work sorting the possessions of the newly gassed, next door to the crematoria. Some of her fellow workers went mad watching the endless stream of victims disappearing into the building; one of them threw herself on to the electrified fence after seeing her father in the queue.

At the main camp is the museum. Financed by the Polish government and protected as a site of national heritage, Auschwitz had 600,000 visitors passing through its infamous gates last year, most of them Polish and many of those school groups. After the Poles, the Germans are the largest group to visit Auschwitz.

The education director has a major task in "trying to make school visits more meaningful. Polish groups are usually unprepared and teachers are not briefed. Coming here without preparation can make things worse". I saw at least 30 Polish schoolchildren, primary and secondary, running, shouting and joking their way through the barracks. Their teachers did not attempt to communicate with them.

To help schools, the education department has produced two sample lesson plans to fit into the Polish national curriculum for upper secondary aged children. They are also beginning to provide in-service training for teachers who request it. It is their view that children under the age of 14 or 15 should not be brought to Auschwitz. Before that age, "they can learn about prejudice, stereotyping and scapegoating in the classroom". In addition to materials in Polish, the education department will customise visits for foreign school groups.

After our draining day at Auschwitz, our remaining time was spent in and around Cracow, which helped to further fill in the background of pre-war Polish Jewry. We explored the ancient Jewish ghetto of Kazimierz, full of derelict and vandalised synagogues and two lovingly restored ones, thanks to American contributions. We also visited the site of Plaszow, the concentration camp where Oskar Schindler's "Jews" lived. From its position overlooking Cracow, nearby townspeople had to have heard the machine guns, rifle shots and screams.

Debriefing as we went along, the teachers were thoughtful, if shocked. In six days, they had taken in the most horrific details of the Holocaust and, by their own admission, needed time to process it all. Said Damian Lane, a religious education teacher from Cwmbran, south Wales: "At the moment, it's muddied the waters for me. But as time goes by, I know this trip will help me to develop a different approach to teaching the Holocaust. I'll be using less video and imagery and I'll be much more selective in my resources: no more pictures of bodies, but more pictures of individuals. I've learned in this last week that you've got to get the students to connect emotionally and make it an empathetic exercise. Otherwise it will remain just another event in history. "

Beth Shalom runs two or three trips to Poland every year for teachers. More information Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre, Laxton, Newark, Notts NG22 0PA. Tel: 01623 836 627

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