Journey into the darkness and out the other side

20th May 2016 at 00:00

Today I taught one of those lessons where you stumble to convey your subject appropriately: the life and death of Maximilian Kolbe. His story is endlessly fascinating. He was a Polish Franciscan friar imprisoned in Auschwitz. In 1941, when several prisoners escaped, the Nazis retaliated by sentencing 10 others to death by starvation. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of them. After two weeks locked together in a tiny cell, most of the prisoners had died, and Kolbe was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid. Even the guards marvelled at his piety, his compassion and his endurance.

Told like that, in under a hundred words, the story barely does the man justice. Trying to shoehorn that into a lesson about something so fathomlessly brutal and dismal as the Holocaust feels like a travesty; there is the sense of something important being summarised and drawn in outline only. Trying to convey even the smallest sense of how appalling Auschwitz must have been to endure adds to the offence.

I’ve been to Auschwitz twice, and both times the experience left me bruised, appalled and heartbroken for what we have done to ourselves. I call it the anti-life – the horrifying absence of all love, warmth and hope that is embodied by the shattered gas chambers and the lonely ponds of Birkenau, into which the cremated remains of thousands of men and women were poured.

As you are led through by a guide, the place hums with the ghosts in your head. In a gallery of misery, some things stand out: for me, it was the piles of spectacles and pince-nez robbed from captives; the room filled to waist height with artificial legs and other prosthetics; and, of course, the room entirely full of human hair, bleached by time to a common grey. Each strand from the scalp of someone who was once held tenderly as a child by a mother, a father.

In Birkenau, the prisoners huddled for warmth in cattle sheds with no windows amid the Polish Winter; ablutions had to be performed in troughs in a matter of seconds; the dead lay with the living. A survivor I met once clarified something that the movies often get wrong: “There were no children in the camps,” they said. “If they were too small to work, they were gassed immediately on arrival.”

The camp commander lived with his family, five minutes’ walk from both the iron “Arbeit macht frei” gates and the cell in which Kolbe lived and died. Horror after horror after horror. Kolbe’s cell is a pilgrimage site now – a shrine. He was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1971, in a ceremony that defied the grisly past.

Once, I went to Auschwitz with a group of Jewish students, and a rabbi blew the shofar as the sun set on the infamous train tracks. Today I can barely describe how this made me feel. And that’s coming from a secular gentile born in the year of Kolbe’s canonisation; my only link to the Shoah membership of the human race. I cannot imagine how people closer to the event could bear it, let alone those present at the slow massacre. My wife’s grandparents hid Jews from the Nazis in their farmhouse as they fled the country. They remember in their own way.

But how do you begin to build a bridge between now and then, between people so distant in time, place and culture? How can our students learn about such things? And how can we teach it without trivialising it? I ask myself the same question every year. And every year I try the impossible anyway, and hope that we’ve given them enough to find their own way towards – and away from – the darkness.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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