The importance of revisiting Auschwitz

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TWENTY-FOUR hours may not be a long stretch of time, even for school pupils.

But when these hours are spent travelling to Auschwitz and back, seeing the infamous Nazi death camp with their own eyes, trying to take in the absolute horror that happened there little more than 60 years ago, that one day can be life-changing.

Now in its 12th year, the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, has transported 12,000 post-16 pupils and teachers, as well as MPs, MSPs and other guests to the camp in Poland, and for some, to a new way of thinking.

And last week, Angela Constance MSP, minister for skills and lifelong learning, announced that the Scottish Government will continue to fund the project for the next two years.

This was welcomed by Hawick teacher Willie McKay, who says the project has been invaluable.

He told TheSouthern: “That really is fantastic news.

“The two pupils we sent in 2009, Ross Elliot and Emma Elliot-Walker, gave speeches to full assemblies for every year of the school, as well as giving lessons to the younger pupils, speaking to community groups such as the archeological society and writing for TheSouthern.

“It is now part of the curriculum for excellence at the school, which now marks Holocaust Day.

“It is cross-curricular, with religion and moral education linking in with the history department.

“Also, our MSYP, Liam Beattie, spoke before the Scottish Parliament in favour of the project.

“It is so important that what happened in Auschwitz and other camps is remembered and this is a fantastic way of ensuring this.”

In four parts, the scheme begins with an orientation seminar, in which the chosen pupils, normally two from each participating school, hear from an Auschwitz survivor and are able to ask them their own questions.

While this gets them thinking ahead of the actual visit, nothing can really prepare them for the feelings the displays and remaining buildings engender. Instead of answering questions, the visit raises new ones for the pupils.

Once back in Scotland, there is a follow-up seminar, in which the participants air their own thoughts of their experience and begin to formulate ideas they can incorporate into the fourth part, imparting their experience to others.

They become ambassadors of the project, helping to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, both in school and beyond.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “We are dedicated to educating young people about the Holocaust and its contemporary significance.

“The Student Ambassadors should be proud of what they have achieved and we are confident that they will continue to educate members of their local community so that racism and hatred do not go unchecked.

“We are delighted that the Scottish Government has committed to continued funding of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project.

“Thousands of students from across Scotland have already benefitted from participating in the scheme and thanks to this commitment many more students will be able to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, giving them an extraordinary insight into what can happen when racism and prejudice gain legitimacy.”

Schools can apply in the summer to send two pupils, while there are also four-day courses specifically for teachers, based in Berlin.

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WHY WE CAN’T AFFORD TO FORGET

When I joined pupils on a trip to Poland in October, 2009, we all became part of this amazing project.

I know that the visit to Auschwitz and Auschwitz- Birkenau will stay in my memory, as it will in the memories of the Borders students who were in the group – Emma and Ross, mentioned left, from Hawick, Megan Mabon and Danni Turnbull from Jedburgh, and Sarah Douglas and Lauren Henderson from Selkirk.

All these pupils have worked hard to relate their experience to others – and that is what the Lessons From Auschwitz scheme is all about, educating a few, who then go on to get others thinking.

However, one sad counter-effect of all this has hit home and shown me just how important this is.

Within a couple of days of my original story going online – one which detailed former Auschwitz detainee Kitty Hart Moxon’s tale of desperate survival – it was picked up by several strongly anti-semitic sites, trying to pick holes in her testimony, calling it a holo-hoax tale.

And when I posted videos of the visit itself on YouTube, I was, incredibly, accused of having a hidden agenda because I did not show the parts of the camp which made life enjoyable for the prisoners.

The people who refuse to believe what happened – or worse, believe it was right – are perhaps in the minority, but are incredibly vocal.

This, in my opinion, is why we must keep this project alive and why the Scottish Parliament is to be commended for doing so.

Kevin Janiak