A new generation is bearing witness
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A new generation is bearing witness

What was once unthinkable — returning to the areas of mass slaughter — has become an accepted part of Jewish lives. We look at how it helps young people learn about the Shoah

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Nate Liepciger speaks to students at Auschwitz Birkenau
Nate Liepciger speaks to students at Auschwitz Birkenau

Hundreds of people in the UK and beyond have extended their knowledge of the Holocaust by visiting some of the sites in eastern Europe.

What was once unthinkable – returning to the areas of mass slaughter — has become an accepted part of Jewish lives, as those who did not suffer try hard, sometimes with the participation of a survivor, to learn about the attempted Nazi annihilation of the Jews.

One of the most vulnerable groups in respect of Holocaust education is the students, where the imperative to get it right and deliver meaningful information has an impact far outside the campuses. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS)has a dedicated staff member every year who is responsible for Holocaust education, providing students with commemoration information and material on how the Holocaust is reflected in present-day campus antisemitism.

UJS director Arieh Miller said that where possible, survivors visited campuses to speak about their own experiences. “Last year, no survivor was available, so we held an event where there were second generation descendants of both a survivor and a camp guard – it was a very powerful presentation.”

Last year, UJS’s Holocaust programming reached an estimated 6,000 students, only half of whom were Jewish. The union provides resource material for individual Jewish societies and works closely with the National Union of Students (NUS) to promote Holocaust education and counter antisemitism.

This year’s UJS sabbatical officer, Lauren Lethbridge, has created NUS’ Holocaust education site, and requests for material have been “flowing in” to UJS offices.

Miller, like others involved in Holocaust education, stressed that “it cannot be done in isolation”.

He added: “It must be put in context and, for us, show the impact the Holocaust has on today’s students in terms of antisemitism and, for example, comparisons of Israel with the Nazis.”

If UJS had its way, it would take every student to the death camps: the organisation works with the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) to take students on HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz programme. Many students do, however, go on the annual March of the Living (MOTL) programme, a six-day intensive educational experience in Poland with, this year, an additional day added to visit Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

Cassie Matus, MOTL’s co-ordinator, said its focus was “not political or religious”. Participants come from every part of the Jewish community – this year there are 330 delegates on 10 buses, with a waiting list.

“We start by looking at 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland before the Holocaust,” she said. “It’s really important for people to understand Jewish life before. So we begin in Warsaw, looking at key figures in the Jewish community, before we move on to the death camps, the labour camps, and the forests. And we don’t stop at 1945: we also look at the revival of Jewish life in modern Poland.”

Although most of the MOTL participants are Jewish, there are sometimes non-Jews and there is a special bus for multi-faith leaders.

MOTL usually has survivors on its annual visit, as does JRoots, the organisation that is almost certainly the largest provider of educational trips to Poland. Its mission is to take people on “Jewish journeys” to places of interest around the world but, as Rabbi Naftali Schiff noted, last year, out of 95 JRoots trips, 75 were to Poland, mostly of between three and seven days in length.

“Our mantra,” said Schiff, who is executive director of Jewish Futures, the umbrella body of which JRoots is a part, “is ‘visit the past, reflect on the present, ensure the future.’”

For Schiff, “the most potent educational tool” of all is a survivor, explaining their Holocaust experience in the places where it happened.

But, like other organisations dealing with Holocaust education, JRoots is aware there will soon come the time when there are no more first-hand accounts. “We have been making films with testimony and we are working on new technology that will allow people to converse with holograms of survivors, as if they were there.”

For Schiff, the importance of Holocaust education is that it should not be glib. “If the messages are superficial, trundling out slogans such as ‘never again’, it doesn’t work. Young people are more sophisticated and [what we tell people] needs to be profound, deeper and more nuanced. The legacy of the survivors is not just that they are there, but of their values, too, values that allowed them to survive, flourish, rebuild their lives and their families.”

Sharron Krieger is the British values and outreach lead at JFS and is responsible for oversight of much of the school’s Holocaust education. She said: “Holocaust education here pervades all year groups. It is taught from Year 9 upwards within the formal curriculum, within Jewish Studies, through to the sixth form.”

In Year 12, JFS students have the opportunity to visit the sites of many of the atrocities in Poland; some have visited the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottingham. Krieger said the uptake for these trips shows students are still keen to learn about the Holocaust, adding that both Jewish and non-Jewish staff who go with the pupils are affected by the trip.

JFS hosts the annual Brent Holocaust Memorial Day seminar, for which seven schools in Brent send some of their Year 10 students to join JFS students to learn about the Holocaust. They hear from a survivor  and attend workshops about the role of bystanders, moral dilemmas raised by the Holocaust and Holocaust trivialisation and denial.

As time has gone on, Krieger said, “very few students have family members affected by the Holocaust and are far more removed from it”.

But, she added: “The challenge for us is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and stress its importance to our students. With a rise in Holocaust denial, equipping our students with knowledge is vital.”

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