ON THE STUDY TOUR OF GREEK PUPILS TO
AUSCHWITZ STATE MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL
(23-25 & 25-27 April 2018)
In 2013, at the initiative of the General Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education and its secretary general, Giorgos Kalantzis, the Jewish Museum of Greece (JMG) began a pilot programme that resulted in the first study tour by Greek lyceum (upper high school) pupils to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The programme was conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs. The pupils’ visit, which constituted the first organized study tour from Greece to the biggest Holocaust memorial site and one of the most emblematic sites of memory for humanity, took place on 10 May 2013. Due to the encouraging results and the response of pupils and their teachers, the programme continued in subsequent years. In 2014, pupils from Ioannina – thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Chairman of the Board of the JMG, Samouil Matsas – and from Athens visited the memorial, separately on 1 and 6 May. Since 2015, a pupil competition to produce a video on the Holocaust of Greek Jews has been held in specific educational regions of the country. In 2015, 51 pupils from schools in Athens, Thessaloniki, Serres and Kilkis visited the concentration camp. In 2016, 80 pupils from Athens, Larissa and Patras participated in the tour, followed in 2017 by 83 pupils from across Attica, Thessaloniki, Hania and Agrinio.
This year (2018), the programme was organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, with the financial support the Foundation for Youth and Lifelong Learning (INEDIVIM), and was addressed to secondary school districts of Attica (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Athens; Eastern and Western Attica and Piraeus), Eastern and Western Thessaloniki, Xanthi, Rodopi, Evros, Kavala, Drama, Viotia, Arcadia and Hania. At the same time, at its initiative, as it has done since 2015, the JMG sought private sponsors to allow this number of pupils to participate this year. Three private institutions responded to the JMG’s call, supporting this effort with donations – the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (Athens), the Twinkle Foundation and the Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Fund of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation (Geneva, Switzerland) – as did Anne Germanacos, a private citizen. The JMG would like to thank them for their trust in and support of this important programme.
As part of the programme, the pupils who participated in the trip were selected on the basis of the school competition. In total, 100 entries, involving more than 250 pupils, were received. The competition required participating pupils to form groups (of up to three) to create a six-minute film on the theme of “The Holocaust and the Greek Jews”. The projects were evaluated by a special committee, which was formed in mid-February. Based on the results of the competition, the committee selected a total of 82 pupils, from public and private schools in Athens, Thessaloniki, Kavala and Hania.
The successful pupils attended a special preparatory seminar, organised by and held at the JMG on Thursday 19 April for the pupils from Athens and Hania. The JMG’s preparation for this seminar was based on the long and extensive experience in organising similar events of foreign model institutions abroad, including the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) in London, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and, especially, the Auschwitz Museum. The pupils were divided into two groups and were first taken on a tour of the Museum by its director, Zanet Battinou, with the aim to familiarise them with the Greek-Jewish communities, their traditions and history up to the Second World War. The pupils then attended a brief presentation on the Holocaust by historian and special researcher at the JMG Alexandra Patrikiou, which was followed by an in-depth discussion. In this context, the pupils watched extracts from an interview with an Auschwitz survivor, Isaak Mizan, and read extracts from the book by Errikos Sevillias, Athens, Auschwitz. These personal testimonies, which sparked the interest of the pupils, were followed a very lively discussion with very interesting questions and standpoints on their part. The pupils from Thessaloniki and Kavala were guided through the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki on Wednesday 18 April by Lucy Nahmia. They encountered the terms “Jew”, “Israelite” and “Israeli” and learned about the history of the Jews of Thessaloniki from the foundation of the city to the present day. At the end of the tour, the pupils asked questions and were provided with practical instructions for their trip.
The 82 pupils, along with the ten teachers who guided them, subsequently visited in two different groups (comprising 43 and 39 pupils), the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on 24 and 26 April, respectively. Both groups followed an extensive (six and eight hours, respectively) study tour programme conducted in English by special tour guides from the museum and were accompanied by JMG associates Alexandra Patrikiou and Eleni Kouki. 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 showcases display materials found when the camp was liberated that provide shocking evidence of the Holocaust, such as glasses, artificial limbs, suitcases, shoes and other personal items that belonged to the murdered. The pupils and teachers showed remarkable interest and emotion in these areas. 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, but also of lesser-known buildings, such as the stone huts where the children of non-Jewish Polish prisoners were kept. 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, in particular, incidents involving Greeks and other prisoners. The visit was completed with meaningful conversations about the inherent contradictions between the atrocities that took place at the camp and the beautiful nature surrounding it, the limits of human behaviour and the incomprehensible nature of the crime.
As in the past two years, the follow-up meeting, which always concludes this important educational process, took place in an auditorium in the Ministry of Education on 11 May. The pupils from schools in Attica, the Thessaloniki region, Kavala and Hania who excelled in the competition were awarded by the General Secretary for Lifelong Learning and Youth, Pausanias Papageorgiou. The pupils who received awards in the competition shared experiences of their visit to the Auschwitz Museum. The head of the Directorate for Religious Education and Interfaith Relations, reverend Fr Stavros Bozos, during his opening speech, stressed the importance of consolidating the institution of the pupil competition to promote respect for human rights and its value as an experience. The Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, Zanet Battinou, started and then coordinated a discussion. The aim of the meeting was also to complete the educational process that had started at the beginning of the academic year with the announcement of the competition. It gave pupils the opportunity to reflect on what they had been studying from another perspective. Thus, the pupils engaged in an in-depth discussion on the experience of visiting the emblematic site of martyrdom. The discussion was as substantial as it was emotional. The pupils spoke about the contradiction between the beauty of the nature of the place with the horror of crimes that took place there, the limit of human perversion, and the incomprehensible nature of the crimes committed. Those that wished to do so also presented original artwork they created after the visit. An enthusiastic Mr. Papageorgiou then handed the awards to the pupils, praising their efforts. It was an unforgettable, inspiring experience.
It is clear, thus, that a visit to Auschwitz is, in every respect, a key experience of great educational importance. The words of the teenagers, which were expressed in texts and photographs created for the occasion, revealed that the visit not only boosted their knowledge and feelings but also created powerful antibodies against indifference towards or the denial 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 acquire the key interpretive keys for today and become bearers of responsibility and knowledge in an era plagued by problems such as racism, intolerance and xenophobia.
Zanet Battinou, Director, Jewish Museum of Greece
© Jewish Museum of Greece, Athens, May 2018
The awarded films of the school competition: