BRIEF NOTE

ON THE EDUCATIONAL TRIP BY GREEK PUPILS
TO THE AUSCHWITZ MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM
(22-24 June & 27-29 June 2016)

INTRODUCTION

In 2013, at the initiative of the General Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education and its Secretary General, Mr. Giorgos Kalantzis, the Jewish Museum of Greece (JMG) began a pilot programme that resulted in the first educational visit by Greek lyceum (upper high school) pupils to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The programme was under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and was supported by the Foundation for Youth and Lifelong Learning (INEDIVIM). The pupils’ visit, which constituted the first educational trip from Greece to the biggest Holocaust memorial site and one of the most emblematic sites of memory for humanity, took place on 10th May 2013. Due to the encouraging results and the response of students and their teachers, the programme continued in subsequent years. In 2014, pupils from Ioannina – thanks to the generous sponsorship of JMG Chairman Mr. Samuel Matsas – and from Athens visited the memorial, separately on 1st and 6th May. In 2015, following a school competition where pupils were asked to produce a video on the Holocaust of the Greek Jews, 51 pupils from schools in Athens, Thessaloniki, Serres and Kilkis were awarded with the educational trip.

This year (2016), the programme was organized as an annual, established educational activity and was again conducted under the auspices and with the financial support of the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs. At the same time, at its initiative, the JMG sought private sponsors to allow greater number of pupils to participate this year. Three private institutions responded to the JMG call, supporting this effort with donations: The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (Athens), the Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Fund of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation (Geneva, Switzerland) and Ms. Anne Germanacos, a private citizen. The JMG would like to thank them for their trust in and support of this important program.

SCHOOL COMPETITION

As was the case last year, the trip was organized on the basis of a student competition, within the framework of systemising the programme. The competition required participating students to form groups to create a film on Nazism, the Holocaust and the history of Greek Jews during the Second World War. The projects were evaluated by a special committee, which was formed in late March, by the Directorate of Religious Education of the Ministry of Education. The committee’s members were: Ms. Zanet Battinou (JMG director), Ms. Eleni Beze (historian and JMG special researcher), Mr. Konstantinos Avgeris (film director), Mr. Antonis Triantafyllou (journalist), Mr. Nikolaos Papathanassopoulos (head of the Department of Religious Freedom and Interreligious Relations of the Ministry of Education) and Ms. Ourania Polymenakou (an educator seconded to the Department of Religious Freedom and Interreligious Relations). Based on the results of the competition, the committee selected a total of 80 students, from public and private schools in Larissa, Patras and Athens, for the 2016 trip.

PREPARATORY SEMINARS

The successful students attended a special preparatory seminar, organised by the JMG and held at the Cervantes Institute in Athens, on Friday 17th June. The JMG preparation for this seminar was based on the long and extensive experience in organising similar events of model institutions abroad, including the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) in London, the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and, especially, the Auschwitz Museum. The presenters for the preparatory seminar were JMG researchers Ms. Anastasia Loudarou (archaeologist) and Ms. Eleni Beze (historian). Through the JMG’s digital application “The World War II and the Holocaust of the Greek Jews (1941-1944)” (an interactive DVD), Ms. Loudarou presented the students with a short overview of the Jewish presence in Greece from antiquity to modern times, while Ms. Beze covered the history of the Holocaust of the Greek Jews. At the same meeting, pupils and educators had the opportunity to watch “What is the Holocaust?”, an educational film produced by Yad Vashem, and to meet a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Isaak Mizan, who narrated his personal experience of the Auschwitz extermination camp and talked with his audience. It was clear that the encounter with the survivor was an essential experience for all present. At the end of the seminar, pupils and educators were presented with the following special teaching materials in digital form: the JMG “The World War II and the Holocaust of the Greek Jews (1941-1944)” and “Excursion to the Past: Teaching for the Future”, published by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, which was translated into Greek by the JMG, and “European Pack for Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum: Guidelines for Teachers and Educators”, published by the Polish Ministry of Education, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the Council of Europe and also translated into Greek by the JMG. In addition to the above material, the teachers were given the documentary “Epestrefe” (Return), directed by Kostas Vaxevanis, and “May Your Memory Be Love”, produced by the Yad Vashem Foundation.

EDUCATIONAL VISIT

The 80 pupils, along with the ten educators who accompanied them, subsequently visited in two different groups (consisting of 39 and 41 students), the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on 22nd and 27th June, respectively. Both groups followed an extensive study tour programme conducted in English by special tour guides from the Auschwitz Museum and were accompanied by JMG associates Mr. Jason Chandrinos and Ms. Eleni Beze. The starting point of the tour was Auschwitz I camp, where participants had the opportunity to inspect some of the museum’s permanent collections. Sufficient time was set aside for groups to tour Block 4, where photographic and other material relevant to the individual stages of the extermination process are displayed, and Block 5, where special cases display material found when the camp was liberated. This material includes such as glasses, artificial limbs, suitcases, shoes and other personal items which belonged to the murdered and provide shocking evidence of the Holocaust. The pupils and educators showed remarkable interest and emotion in these areas. The pupils also expressed particular interest in the Israeli national exhibition, a contemporary audio-visual exhibition which offers information about life before, during and after the Holocaust in an easy to understand way. Upon completing the tour of Auschwitz I camp, the visitors were transported by private coach to Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, where they had the opportunity to see up close the remains of the buildings, such as the crematoria, the scene of one of the greatest crimes in human history. In this area, the tour also featured an open discussion, where the guides and the JMG historians fielded questions from the pupils that demonstrated both their interest in learning about life in the camp and particularly significant events, such as the revolt in Crematorium IV, which took place in October 1944 with the participation of Greek Jews. The pupils’ questions also demonstrated their awareness, fostered by their visit in this area, of the perennial problem of antisemitism.

FOLLOW-UP (DE-BRIEFING) MEETING

This year, the follow-up meeting, which always concludes this important educational process, took place in an auditorium in the Ministry of Education on July 1st. The meeting was attended and addressed by the Minister for Education Mr. Nikos Filis and the Secretary General for Religious Affairs Mr. George Kalantzis. Both speakers emphasized the need for the acceptance of the different. Addressing the pupils specifically, Mr. Filis ended his speech by encouraging them to become “ambassadors of love”. The following lively and emotional debate that lasted nearly three hours, which was moderated by JMG Director Ms. Zanet Battinou, highlighted the importance and need for educational trips to Auschwitz concentration camp and to similar sites of memory. The pupils agreed that, while their trip offered them the opportunity to delve into issues that they had already studied to some extent, only through their physical presence at the camp location was it possible to connect the scattered images and information as a whole. As one pupil noted characteristically, the trip can be described as the definition of “experiential learning”. Thus, it may be concluded that a visit to Auschwitz camp is, in every respect, a key life experience of great educational importance, which deserves to become an established feature and expanded in terms of the number of students and participating schools. The words of the teenagers, which were expressed in texts and videos created for the occasion, revealed that the visit not only boosted their knowledge and feelings, but also created powerful antibodies against indifference towards the denial of or relativisation of the Holocaust. It also afforded a valuable opportunity to those who were lucky enough to participate in the tour of memory to gain interpretive keys for today and become bearers of responsibility and knowledge in an era plagued by widespread insensitivity to the problems of racism, intolerance and xenophobia.

Zanet Battinou, Director, Jewish Museum of Greece
© Jewish Museum of Greece, Athens, June 2016