Lessons from Auschwitz
‘The Lessons From Auschwitz Project’ is a government-backed scheme that sends a few thousand sixth-form and college students each year to learn about the Holocaust by going to Auschwitz. Jack Nicholls participated in the project and tells us about his experience.
For roughly ten years now I have had an interest in the Holocaust; what went on, and why this genocide happened, arrested my attention to a great extent throughout my time at school. I have recently been fortunate to work alongside some very special people in developing my own understanding of this dark period in history, as well as hopefully having a positive impact on Holocaust education.
I first came into contact with learning about the Holocaust when I watched Lawrence Rees’ Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’ nearly a decade ago. Perhaps I was too young to learn such explicit details of the death camps at the age of ten. But I wasn’t affected by it, as far as I can tell!
Indeed, I found the TV series fascinating. The silent, still shots of the remains of Auschwitz lying in the winter snow, accompanied by the fantastic voice of Sam West, brought the events of the past to life for me. It was undoubtedly the moment at which I developed a great passion for studying the Holocaust.
Unfortunately my knowledge was not further enhanced at secondary school. In what seems to be a prevalent problem throughout our education system, one which I will touch upon in greater detail later, little is taught on the Holocaust at Key Stage 3, GCSE or A-Level.
However, in year 12, I participated in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, a government-backed scheme that sends a few thousand sixth-form and college students to Auschwitz each year, with the aim of both developing their understanding and improving their education with regards to the Holocaust. My friend Angelina and I both had the privilege of accompanying the ‘Holocaust Educational Trust’ on this project.
The thing which undoubtedly attracted me the most to this project was the chance to visit the death camp Auschwitz. I had only seen glimpses of it in Rees’ aforementioned documentary. Now, however, I was going to see it for myself.
Auschwitz was the largest death camp of the Holocaust; the scene of over a million deaths. It was made up of a number of sites, the largest of which were Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz Birkenau. Auschwitz 1 were pre-war Polish Army barracks, and was primarily utilised by the Nazis as a labour camp. Birkenau, meanwhile, was a purpose-built death camp. Notorious Doctor Joseph Mengele worked at the latter, experimenting on multitudes of innocents.
As the travel groups walked around the camp, I recognised places I had first seen almost a decade earlier on television. We passed the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work sets you free’) sign at the entrance to Auschwitz 1; visited the site where SS Commandant Rudolf Hoess was executed after the war; approached the foreboding entrance to Auschwitz Birkenau; walked along the train tracks which witnessed the last ride of over a million people; entered the barracks where prisoners yearned to clean the toilets just so they could socialise; saw Kanada 1, where the Nazis looted their victims of all possessions, even hair; and looked upon the ruined gas chambers and crematoria, where prisoners – the Sonderkommando – had been forced to strip the dead of anything valuable, before burning their remains.
Learning about such places and events had not been accessible at school, unfortunately. The Holocaust is in the curriculum, but only in patches, in subjects such as History and Religious Education. In my case, only when I studied History at GCSE and A-Level did I receive more detailed lessons on Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and in particular the treatment of and attitudes towards Jews.
On Monday 25th January this year I was fortunate to be able to attend a House of Commons’ committee reading on the Government’s latest inquiry into the state of Holocaust Education. My afternoon was spent discussing the recommendations that had been made to the Department for Education.
Hopefully the importance of these changes will manifest in the years to come, and the Holocaust becomes a firm fixture in the National Curriculum.