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Primary Education News
News First it's a visit to Auschwitz, then an organised bar crawl | Catherine Bennett
We are in grave danger of trivialising history, which is why it is vital that the young are taught it properly
Consternation, a few years back, when it emerged that stag party organisers were featuring Auschwitz-Birkenau as a lads' must-see, has done little to stop indomitable British weekenders booking trips to the extermination camp – "this eerie tour is a must," one tour operator says. In fact, to judge by the number of stag specialists now offering the excursion, widespread revulsion and accusations of insensitivity may only have confirmed Auschwitz as a top bonding experience, up there with running with bulls and oil wrestling; the latter, says another Krakow specialist, features "unbelievably attractive women, clothed only in lubricant".
"Quad Biking in the Morning then Visit one of the world's most haunting museums Auschwitz," proposes the same operator . "A standing tribute to one of the biggest travesties of the 20th century on Saturday followed by VIP guided bar crawl with English speaking guides." There is little evidence that hungover customers struggle, taste-wise, with what one provider calls the Auschwitz Stag Do Package, which could be attributable to amnesia, or to that fact that, as with lap dancing and medieval banquets, what happens at Birkenau stays at Birkenau.
To be fair to lads who find themselves just a bus ride from Auschwitz, a visit to the camp is now considered by many tourists to be a Holocaust "bucket list item", up there with the Anne Frank museum, where Justin Beiber recently delivered this compliment: "Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber." Accounts on TripAdvisor repeatedly stress that an Auschwitz visit is the only way to begin to comprehend the Holocaust, visitor behaviour permitting.
Kilts are banned, but the atmosphere does not deter all visitors from drinking, eating, bringing young children, snapping hilarious group shots, filming the Harlem Shake. One student recently saw Tory MP Aidan Burley, slumbering and texting during an Auschwitz educational trip (itself undertaken to atone for his earlier participation in a Nazi-themed stag party, at which guests toasted the Third Reich).
One US student journalist however, wonders why the prospect of genocide should not be incompatible with coffee, cigarettes and a tasty snack. A guide rebukes him for being disrespectful: "I eat the sandwich anyway, almost defiantly, making sure that I savor every last crumb. I rationalize that any Pole, Jew or Gypsy who died here would literally kill for a bite of this sandwich." It is well known that prisoner accounts of Auschwitz, such as Primo Levi's, bear witness to acts of astonishing altruism in the camp and a refusal by inmates to be reduced to their instincts. "It might be surprising," Levi writes in Moments of Reprieve, "that in the Camps one of the most frequent states of mind was curiosity. And yet, besides being frightened, humiliated and desperate, we were curious: hungry for bread and also to understand. The world around us was upside down and so somebody must have turned it upside down ..."
For the Holocaust Educational Trust, with its mission of "bringing understanding to a new generation", it remains a token of faith that, in addition to school Holocaust teaching and its own impressive programme of survivors' talks, films and seminars, visits to the extermination camp are especially worthwhile. There are other ways of fighting ignorance and forgetting: the Imperial War Museum, for instance, has a superb Holocaust exhibition (not recommended for children under 14) that, with survivor testimony, helps visitors' understanding of genocide as individual family tragedies. The trust's Lessons of Auschwitz premise is that "hearing is not like seeing".
Labour's decision to contribute funds to the trust's visits programme, for two students from every school – memorably referred to as "a gimmick" by David Cameron – has continued under the coalition, with the aim of creating a new generation of witnesses.
Impossible as it is to know how effectively these adolescents are able to share their experiences with others, the first research into the impact of these "Shoah" trips indicates that they may, individually, be deeply affected. A new study, co-authored by Israeli and Australian academics, has found that, for some children, the experience could even be a "major stressor", triggering mental health problems. But according to Professor Garry Walter, with support, "a trip like this could make young people even more connected, more aware of their identity, more aware of adversity that's affected their family members or other Jewish people". When reactions might be anything from acute distress to sniggers, those who want Auschwitz to educate new generations face a continual struggle with visitor behaviour: not too bathetic, or fanciful, yet not too remote, either. Even Angela Merkel, after making her solemn, historic visit to Dachau, still managed to offend by going straight to a beer tent .
David Cameron has so far moved on, since his "gimmick" days, to extend the "hearing is not like seeing" principle to commemoration of the Great War. Mentioning that his favourite book is Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, he said a major part of the Great War centenary will be a project for pupils (two from every state-funded secondary) to – "crucially" – tour First World War battlefields.
Judicious candidate selection will, presumably, ensure that these trips are not the round of selfies, random surname-spotting and chocolate-buying that sometimes, you hear, passes for First World War enlightenment. As with Auschwitz and Anne Frank's house, some battlefield tourists have found the level of idiocy and disrespect among the most painful aspects of their trip. But the body contracted to deliver the tours promises to develop in pupils "a personal connection to the First World War, through interacting with the battlefield sites, recording, reflecting and sharing their own experiences".
Aside from the relevance, value, and Beiber-style risks, of children's personal experience as a way of honouring the war – or Holocaust – dead, it would be interesting if the DfE explained how the advantages of seeing over hearing (or reading) are such as to justify sending selected students to see war graves, as opposed to funding more inclusive experiences.
Films and museum trips might even convey a more authentic picture of events at Loos than reports from a reconstructed trench, minus the faeces, gas and other horrors survived by Graves. "After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank," he wrote. "I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would drift across."
One authority on Auschwitz, Robert Jan van Pelt, has argued for Birkenau to be allowed to disintegrate when there are no longer survivors wishing to return. Nothing, he says, can convey the suffering: "Seal it up. Don't give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there."
With all the differences between Auschwitz and the graves of the Western Front, maybe that principle of restraint applies to both. • This article will be opened for comments on Sunday morning