GREEK SCHOOLCHILDREN VISIT AUSCHWITZ MEMORIAL MUSEUM IN PILOT EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMME
9 – 11 MAY 2013
In 2013 a pilot programme arranged by the Jewish Museum of Greece was taken up by the General Secretariat of the Ministry of Education and the first educational visit to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum ent for 1st and 2nd year senior high school pupils became a reality. The programme was placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and took place with the support of the Institute for Youth and Lifelong Learning.
This significant endeavour began with a series of meetings with senior high school teachers from six schools in Athens and Thessaloniki who had been selected by the JMG to take part in the preliminary stage of the programme. The JMG preparation for the programme was based on its collaboration with foreign organisations and official bodies such as the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) in London, the relevant department of the Yad Vashem Foundation in Jerusalem and, of course, Auschwitz Museum, all of which have many years of experience in organising such educational visits.
During the first meeting (10 April 2013) participating teachers were given selected publications produced by the JMG and other organisations in digital or printed formats. There followed a discussion of these publications, suggestions on how they could be utilised and how useful they would be in preparing the schoolchildren for their visit. The teachers were also given CD-ROMs of historical, educational and other relevant data. The aim of the programme was discussed in detail, as well as criteria to be employed in selecting which pupils should participate, when and how they should be prepared, and what role the JMG would play in the whole process. The work done with the teachers began on a very positive, productive and constructive note and proved a vital factor in the overall success of the programme.
The second meeting was on 23 April 2013. Its purpose was to provide updates on what had been taking place at the schools and to co-ordinate the three-hour, preparatory seminar for participating pupils which the JMG had already made arrangements for. The itinerary for the trip was announced and more minor issues were discussed.
On Sunday 28 April 2013, a representative of the General Secretariat of Religious Affairs, the participating pupils, teachers and some of the pupils’ parents congregated at the JMG to take part in the preparatory seminar. Following an introduction which dealt with practicalities of the trip, especially the necessary travel documents, declarations and certificates, a lengthy discussion helped the children reach an understanding of who the Greek Jews were, where they came from and when, where they settled, how many of them there were and where they had lived prior to the Second World War. Then they were taken on a tour of the Museum exhibits, with the focus kept on the people who had made the objects on display, the story of their progress through Greece, how they lived, their customs, mores and religious rituals. This helped the children form a well-rounded picture of the life of Jews in Greece before the war. The JMG museum tour paused for a while in the space dedicated to the Holocaust, where we talked about those specific historical facts; about perpetrators, victims and mere bystanders. We also talked about rescuers; the qualities, character and moral stance of those who chose to help the persecuted. The discussion continued around the Museum’s periodic exhibition entitled ‘Synagonistes [Compatriots in Arms] Greek Jews in the National Resistance’ where we talked about reactions, resistance, individual and social responsibility, about personal choice issues and to what extent actions, albeit the actions of one individual, can influence the final outcome of far-reaching historical events.
The scheduled pilot visit of 17 senior high school pupils and 6 teachers to Auschwitz concentration camp as part of their three-day educational visit to Poland took place on 10 May 2013. The tour of the site lasted eight hours in all and took in the installations of the main camp, Auschwitz Ι, and Birkenau camp, Auschwitz ΙΙ.
The ‘follow-up’ meeting with the teachers and pupils who had been on the trip took place at the JMG on 23 May 2013. Once general comments and impressions had been voiced, there followed a round-the-group reading of passages the children had written (given below) freely expressing their impressions, opinions and conclusions drawn from their experiences on this trip. Then came discussion and comments on what they had written, and on the strongest impressions that remained after their visit to the death camp.
Finally, there was a discussion of how, after the powerful, harshly meaningful experience they had had, they could, if they so desired, become ‘young ambassadors’ bearing wake-up calls to wider and wider social circles such as family, school, neighbourhood and the society that surrounds them, alerting everyone to issues of social awareness and inequality. They could do this by exploiting existing opportunities, but also by creating suitable circumstances and events.
This pilot scheme was as exceptionally fruitful and successful in this country as in other countries where it has been conducted. Its significance and usefulness became apparent in the passages written by the participating pupils and teachers. The Jewish Museum of Greece would like to thank the Ministry of Education for its initiative and for its impeccable co-operation with the JMG on the organisation and execution of the programme. The JMG whole-heartedly recommends that it be established as a regular, annual event.
IMPRESSIONS THE VISIT TO AUSCHWITZ MUSEUM LEFT ON TEACHERS AND PUPILS
A venomous trauma of the soul those photographs were, both then and now. The process of choosing the people; most of whom would so soon be gone. And we stood on that very same platform alongside the empty railway carriage; a silent witness. In front of the chambers that visitors photographed, the photographs of naked women going towards their ordeal; expressions vacant. Who knows what thoughts went through their minds? These were the same women, men and children who smiled from the photographs in Birkenau Exhibition, exuding happiness. Weddings, feast days, outings, snippets of carefree lives. Simple, ordinary people, our neighbours, friends and relations, our very selves. Then suddenly, upheaval, great calamity, humiliation and the never-expected end; death.
People from all over the world, speaking scores of different languages, were there with us at Auschwitz-Birkenau; there to pay tribute to men, women and children, horribly murdered without cause seventy years ago. These people are the power that guarantees nothing like that can ever happen again. The realisation of the scope of the tragedy jolted each and every one, irrespective of race or religion, into sudden maturity.
In coming to such a site of suffering, the visitor declares acceptance of the responsibility to keep the memory of what happened in that place alive, to pay tribute to those who were murdered, to condemn racism and prejudice in any form whatsoever, to comprehend what acts human beings are capable of when they cease to be human. It will always remain an unsolved mystery to me that people can commit such atrocious acts. ‘Ὡςχαρίενἄνθρωπος, ὅτανἄνθρωποςᾖ.’What a beautiful thing is a human being when he is human!
A.S .(School teacher)
Enduring an emotion-filled eight-hour stay in this monument is a shattering experience that is beyond the capacity of the written word to describe. Having this programme repeated in the future would be a good thing indeed. The fact that it would give schoolchildren the opportunity to visit this monument and then become instruments that pass the experience on to others in the school community, would increase their ability to make connections between national, European and global history, making them feel more like citizens of the world and awaken them to the need to confound acts that are motivated by racial prejudice.
M.F. .(School teacher)
What is one to say to these youngsters in whose view history consists of passages to be leant by heart or, at best, an exercise in answering true/false questions? What can one say to those who have trained themselves to translate their lives into text messages and numbers that will determine their own tomorrow’s worth? What can one say to those who frequently confuse reality with virtual reality? What is there to say to those who thirst for something truly genuine, something that really will speak to their young souls? Yes, this trip told them that ‘a spade is a spade, a wolf is a wolf and the darkness is dark,’ or rather, it showed them. Showed them with the breath of those who died still surviving in the relics. That breath took us by the hand and showed us the horror they endured; showed us the despair in which their lives ended; showed us the dreams that suffocated with them as they themselves suffocated in the gas chambers. So what is there to say then?
And then there are the bystanders. All those who could have done something but did nothing. They merely stood and watched. Quite often they turned their gaze elsewhere. This revealed another aspect of human nature to me; indifference. ‘But’, you might ask, as I did, ‘how is it possible to be indifferent when you see all that going on around you?’ Andyet, itispossible. It might be through fear. It might be through insensitivity, however terrible that may sound. Personally, I think it was mainly fear that did it. It is pretty obvious that, in any war, if you are to defeat your enemy, you need to make him afraid, insecure, defeatist. TheNaziscertainlydidthat.
Anyway, after the visit I realised that indifference never solves anything; it was the indifference of many that cost so many lives. Now I know that we can and should fight to save ourselves or, failing that, those who come after us. Even when times are hard, we should never give up or shut our eyes and turn our backs on our neighbours.