Diplomats to the valley of the shadow of death
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'It’s not just about what happened, but about what we can do from it'

Diplomats to the valley of the shadow of death

An innovative program sends two non-Jewish students annually from each British high school to Auschwitz, and forms a cadre of peer ambassadors

At this week's Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Conference. (photo credit: Yakir Zur)
At this week's Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Conference. (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

LONDON – Returning from a one-day trip to Auschwitz, James Nickels was determined to talk about the Holocaust. At his high school in Newcastle, a city in northeast England, he often brought it up in conversation with friends, sometimes puzzling his teachers. Doing work experience in another school, he helped design a six-week course about the Shoah for nine- and 10-year olds.

“At first, all their questions were about Hitler,” says Nickels, who before his trip had never met a Jew. “By the end, it was all about how Jewish people were just like us. I tried to stress how [the students] would have coped in that situation. Considering how young they were, their understanding was incredible.”

Nickels, who is now studying history at Newcastle University, has just been appointed one of 25 Regional Ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and will spend this year working to increase awareness of the Shoah in the north of England. The brand-new program was launched in London on Monday with a conference for 500 non-Jewish teenagers and young adults, most of whom participated, like Nickels, in HET’s Lessons From Auschwitz (LFA) project. Supported by a grant from the British government, they are funded to take two high school students from every British school each year to visit the concentration camp.

Since the program’s launch in 1998, more than 20,000 have taken part, leaving HET with a cadre of interested, aware young Britons, says chief executive Karen Pollock.

“We had to think about what we were going to do next with them,” she says. “The idea is for the regional ambassadors to pass on what they have learned to their peers. When they have visited Auschwitz and got an idea of the scale of the Holocaust, its industrious nature and the human side of the story, it raises more questions. We are trying to spark their curiosity even further.”

British non-Jewish high schoolers on a trip to Auschwitz. (photo credit: courtesy)
British non-Jewish high schoolers on a trip to Auschwitz. (photo credit: courtesy)

The London conference, which the new regional ambassadors helped plan, was designed both to leave participants with a more detailed historical knowledge of the Holocaust and to provide practical advice on how to share this information with friends. Speakers included Yehuda Bauer, professor emeritus of history and Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson and Sir Andrew Burns, the British government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues.

The 25 regional ambassadors were also due at the House of Lords the following day, to discuss how to communicate the relevance of the Holocaust to modern British society with a steering panel headed by Lord Browne of Madingley, former chief executive of petroleum giant BP, whose mother survived a year at Auschwitz.

At one workshop on how German society reacted to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, audience members represented a real cross-section of British society, with teenagers from a variety of ethnic origins earnestly taking notes. Several Muslim head coverings were also visible.

Capturing a moment to remember. (photo credit: Blake Ezra photography)
Capturing a moment to remember. (photo credit: Blake Ezra photography)

The questions were of high calibre, with one male student asking session leader Martin Winstone, author of “The Holocaust Sites of Europe,” why there was not more significant resistance in sophisticated Berlin, and a young woman asking about Jewish-German relations in Germany today.

Arani Arunan and Karishna Deepak Jobanputra were sent on the Auschwitz trip from Heathfield School for Girls in Harrow, north-west London, after winning an essay competition about whether the world had learned from the Holocaust. There was high interest, they say, because they had already learned about the Shoah in Year 9 as part of their history lessons, “and as we’re an all-girls school we are quite politically aware,” says Arunan.

Like Jewish students who visit Auschwitz, she says that she related more easily to the Holocaust after the trip. She was particularly affected by seeing the homes of the Nazis in the camp and the museum with hair and shoes of the victims, as well as the rabbi who accompanied them singing kaddish and lighting a yahrzeit candle against a darkening sky.

‘I’m Sri Lankan, where there has just been a civil war, so I’m interested in genocide… People don’t realize it’s current’

But the Holocaust, for her, has contemporary relevance.

“I’m Sri Lankan, where there has just been a civil war, so I’m interested in genocide,” says Arunan,

Her friends at school, she adds, “are quite a diverse group of people and are interested in how genocide is still going on. People don’t realize it’s current.”

As a result, she says there is enthusiastic participation in bi-weekly sessions the pair started running for their classmates since they participated in LFA, covering issues related to the Holocaust such as the culpability of the German people. They also reported on their Auschwitz experience to the whole school at Assembly, and created a pamphlet which is in the school library and which they are trying to get into the local library as well.

“In university, we’ll join a society [relating to the Holocaust], or create one if it doesn’t exist,” Arunan says. “It’s not just about what happened but about what we can do from it. It’s not a dormant issue.”

Walking next to the tracks in February. (photo credit: Yakir Zur)
Walking next to the tracks in February. (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

Just how representative are these young women? Clearly, the majority of British youth are not spending their break times discussing the Holocaust, and surveys have shown that there are gaps in teenagers’ general knowledge of World War II. But Pollock notes that the Holocaust does appear on the GCSE history exams taken at age 16 (despite a false internet rumor several years ago that British schools had banned Holocaust studies) and that many of the students on LFA studied history.

“If we’re taking 3,000 young people every year to Auschwitz, the idea of the Holocaust being something young Britons don’t know about is wrong. There is awareness and interest,” she says.

For many students, it connects to contemporary ideals such as standing up for justice, and several graduates of the program have either devoted their careers to Holocaust education or to human rights work and humanitarian aid. She notes that many of the conference’s participants this week traveled from as far as Scotland, getting on buses at 3 a.m.

‘People often talk about youth with their iPods, having a giggle, but when you see the dignified manner in which they carry themselves at Auschwitz, it sends a clear message to people who have doubts about the future’

“They genuinely want to be here,” she says. “People often talk about youth with their iPods, having a giggle, but when you see the dignified manner in which they carry themselves at Auschwitz, it sends a clear message to people who have doubts about the future. These are capable, thoughtful young people.”

Sara Costa, a history teacher who heads seventh grade at Enfield County School in north London, concurs.

“A few weeks ago I went to a talk about the Holocaust at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, and an elderly gentleman made derogatory comments about youth,” she says. “One of our staff members got up and said that there were 20 students there from Enfield.”

Her school, which sent 18 students to the HET conference this week, takes the Holocaust particularly seriously, trying to integrate it into general studies. For example, when soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by terrorists on a London street in May, and his killers were confronted by bystanders in the street, they ran a session on the behavior of the general public in 1930s Germany.

“We’re trying to make it real,” she says.

To Costa’s knowledge, the school has only had two Jewish students in recent years. It regularly brings in survivors and second-generation survivors to talk to students, and has significantly rewritten its own Holocaust curriculum using HET’s resources.

Much of the effort is driven by the teachers themselves, many of whom have been on HET programs, including trips to Berlin and to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Costa, who first became interested when she met a survivor, says that students respond positively to their enthusiasm, and also find their own, sometimes surprising ways of connecting to the material.

‘Children who have had bereavement particularly identify with the Holocaust survivors we bring in’

“Children who have had bereavement particularly identify with the Holocaust survivors we bring in,” she notes.

They also feel empowered by learning about the Holocaust, she says, because the school emphasizes the ability of each individual to make a difference.

A 2007 report by the department of education revealed that one school in the north of the country had avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE’s because it was afraid that Muslim students would have anti-Semitic reactions. Costa says that only once has a student ever brought up Israel, in a negative way, when learning about the Holocaust.

Students from London in Auschwitz. (photo credit: courtesy)
Students from London in Auschwitz. (photo credit: courtesy)

“We said that it’s separate and that the state of Israel wasn’t in answer to the Holocaust,” she says. “I’ve heard that in other schools it’s an issue. For me it’s not, because of the ethos in our school – we don’t have racism. Other schools may suffer. One colleague [from another school] said they could never have a survivor in, which is horrific. But Enfield schools have all had survivors in. We might be doing the most, but we are not the only ones.”

Meanwhile, the 500 teenagers and young adults at the conference could not be more enthusiastic, sitting through a session with Shami Chakrabarti, the well-known director of civil liberties charity Liberty, on how to use social media, campaigning tools and other creative outlets to be “change-makers for the good.”

Nickels already has grand plans: he’s going to work on a blog, try to get HET involved in a staging of an Anne Frank play and persuade his university to hold a public lecture on the Holocaust.

“I have no close links to the Holocaust, but we’re the only ones who can make the change,” he says. “We’re the ambassadors with a responsibility to spread the message. The survivors won’t be here forever.”

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