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A Level History students share experience of visiting Auschwitz for Holocaust Memorial Day

A Level History students Ben Stanley and Anastasia Burlakova from City and Islington College (CANDI) were given the chance to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and hear from a survivor of the former Nazi concentration camp to mark Holocaust Memorial Day last month. They shared their experience in the article below for the Sixth Form College’s student online newspaper The Toast and podcast The Jam with student Sean Voitov who went on the trip last year.

A Level History students share experience of visiting Auschwitz for Holocaust Memorial Day

Lessons from Auschwitz by Ben Stanley and Anastasia Burlakova

Over 75 years have passed since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other Nazi concentration camps. Approximately six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, 1.5 million of whom were children. We must never forget those who were persecuted during the Holocaust and should understand its meanings for us today. It is imperative that the Holocaust remains a period of history that is forever talked about, and that it is appropriately taught to young people.

The Holocaust Educational Trust is a British charity that shares these values, aiming to educate the youth about the Holocaust, and ensuring that it is taught within the national curriculum. We enrolled in the charity’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project, where we heard testimony from a Holocaust survivor, visited Auschwitz, and completed our Next Steps project, which involved us passing on the lessons we learnt from our visit, and sharing it with the local community.

Prior to our visit to Auschwitz, we attended an orientation seminar, which provided us with many case studies showcasing pre – war Jewish life. This highlighted the fact that those who were killed were human beings with aspirations and livelihoods, so much more than just a statistic.  Additionally, we were taught about the persecution of Jewish people throughout history, this informed us of the dangers of historic Jewish discrimination, and drew our attention to modern day antisemitism.

Hear the podcast History, Memory and the Holocaust with Ben Stanley, Anastasia Burlakova and Sean Voitov, here.

We then undertook a day trip to Auschwitz itself, arriving in Krakow and visiting the city of Oswiecim. We learnt that Oswiecim was a city rich in Jewish culture before the outbreak of the Second World War. Tragically, a lot of the history was lost to Nazi occupation, such as the ‘Great Synagogue’, a symbolic and grand synagogue within the city, which was burnt down by German soldiers. Visiting Oswieicm gave us an insight into pre-war Jewish life and history, and reminded us of just how swiftly and callously it was taken away by the Nazis.

Following the visit to Oswiecim, we attended a guided tour of Auschwitz I. Upon arrival, we underwent rigorous security checks, these were introduced following inappropriate behaviour at the camp, showcasing how antisemitism remains rife in modern day society. Having gotten through security, we encountered the ‘arbeit macht frei’ sign, a cruel expression used by the Nazis declaring ‘work sets you free’. Once inside Auschwitz I, we witnessed some incredibly challenging sights, most notably the gas chambers, human hair, possessions belonging to the victims, and footage of some of the prisoners living out their ordinary lives before the war. In addition to these artefacts, we came across the ‘book of names’, which presented over 4.2 million Jewish lives that had been taken by the Nazi regime. The ‘book of names’ really showcased the magnitude of just how many people had been killed, simultaneously enabling visitors to humanise those who had lost their lives, with each victim presented with their full name and date of birth.

We then went to Auschwitz Birkenau. We saw the freight cars, often used to carry cattle, used by the Nazis to transport their prisoners into the camp, presenting how the Nazis would dehumanise their victims before killing them. Also, we visited the housing that the prisoners were subject to, which were not dissimilar to stables, with overcrowding, starvation and disease all rampant, further outlying the brutality of the Nazi regime. Furthermore, we witnessed the crematoria, another former gas chamber, capable of killing up to 3,000 people imminently.

By the evening, we listened to an engaging talk by a rabbi associated with the Trust, who emphasised the importance of virtues such as respect and tolerance in order to overcome modern day antisemitism. Our final act was to lay candles by the memorials of those who had lost their lives. This part of our day encompassed why one should visit Auschwitz Birkenau, to reflect and pay respects to those who died there.

Following our trip to Poland, we heard a testimony from Janine Webber, who articulately reflected on her experiences of the Holocaust. Janine had suffered immensely in her early life, losing almost all of her immediate family and grandmother to the nazis. Janine only narrowly survived herself, having to change identity and move location on many occasions. In 1956 Janine moved to the UK, where she met her husband and had two children and grandchildren.

Listening to the stories of those who were detained at concentration camps is more important than ever, as many of those who had been persecuted during the Holocaust are no longer with us. Hearing accounts by survivors enables conversation regarding the Holocaust to continue into the 21st century, educating many, and honouring those who were killed.

A Level History students share experience of visiting Auschwitz for Holocaust Memorial Day

Holocaust education is mandatory under UK law, however there is no guidance by the government on how it should be taught, leading to inadequate and superficial teaching of one of the most important aspects of history. This was one of many reasons why we chose to enrol as ambassadors of the Trust, broadening our knowledge of the Holocaust amongst thousands of other students in the UK, and relaying on what we had learnt through the Lessons from Auschwitz programme.

Bigotry towards Jewish people remains at an alarmingly high rate in the present day; 2,255 incidents of antisemitism were reported in 2021 alone, the highest figure ever recorded in a calendar year. Education is fundamental in overcoming discriminatory views, and by informing the youth of tomorrow regarding the history of the Holocaust and the ramifications of antisemitism, perhaps a more tolerant future is on the horizon.

Antisemitism is unfortunately a global issue, fuelled by those on the radical left and right of the political spectrum. However, reinforcing teaching the Holocaust within the curriculum and educating oneself and others about the history and present day ramifications of antisemitism and bigotry can help in overcoming Jewish hate.

The Holocaust was the murder of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War. The Holocaust Educational Trust provides students with a deep understanding with the events that took place, whilst also informing them of important inferences that are not always considered, such as that of the humanisation of those involved within the Holocaust, including the perpetrators.

Antisemitism is rampant in modern day Britain and across the world, making it increasingly important for charities such as the Holocaust Educational Trust to inform the youth of the dangers of bigotry and hate.  It is vital that the worst atrocity committed in human history is remembered, no such event can take place ever again.

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