This year two sixth form students from Ilkley Grammar School got the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, one of the most infamous concentration camps set up by the Nazi party during the Second World War, where it is said as many as six million jews were killed. Here RICHARD BURN, 17, who is studying A-levels in Philosophy & Ethics, English, History and French, tells of his experience
Back in February, my friend Georgina Vaughan, 16, and I went on a one-day trip to Krakow. Thanks to Ilkley Grammar School and the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), this opportunity was made possible to two sixth form students, one of which I was fortunate enough to be.
The Trust has been carrying out excellent work across Britain for several years and it was truly an honour to be part of their annual Yorkshire & Humberside ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project.
A fortnight before the trip itself, we were summoned to Leeds to meet Lesley Kleinmann, a Romanian survivor of Auschwitz who has lived all over Europe.
Lesley was a stellar example of a human.
Although some of the experiences he described were those which could cause lifelong trauma, he makes it his duty to educate others so that in the future people might not face what he faced all those years ago.
He possesses no sense of hatred at what happened. He lives in Southend with his German wife. Lesley’s talk inspired us to go to Krakow on February 12 with a view to conceive one of the worst acts in world history.
So at 4am we set off to board a plane full of children of our age from across the county and fly to Krakow. Despite the day heralding some of the worst weather in years, the plane successfully landed at midday and we boarded a coach to Auschwitz.
The holocaust is never a simple topic to address. From GCSE syllabi to Dorling Kindersley books, the torrid events which went on across Europe are often branded as harrowing and any further discussion is avoided. However, one of the major aims of the HET is to re-humanise this genocide. In other words, the emphasis for the learner is placed on seeing the holocaust as not simply six million deaths but one death six million times.
Seeing the figures, the conscience within us reacts by way of shock, immediately seeing it as inhumane and wrong.
There is no denying this to be a correct view of the holocaust, but to truly exercise one’s sense of moral judgement it is important to imagine the family, history and lifetime of a victim and then multiply this by the obscene figures amassed.
Even though genocide still happens, it is through education and not astonishment that we can help to make a difference. To the peaceful and tolerant society we live in these terrors feel worlds away, but we are just as much citizens of Planet Earth as we are of the Wharfe Valley.
For me, the most touching part of the trip was not the gas chamber or the stone cold wooden huts, but it was another group of tourists. Walking through the long, cold paths of Birkenau in almost total silence, the place around us could only ascribe a sense of absence and death. In the distance however, we were able to make out a rather astonishing sound: music. Who should it be walking past but a group of Israeli children our age, waving the Star of David proudly and singing in Hebrew?
I must confess, this made me shed a tear I had expected to part with in much different circumstances. It also encouraged the view that I feel is not shared widely enough: do not mourn death, but celebrate life. All who lost their lives did so tragically and unjustly, but this does not mean they should be remembered for the way in which they died as opposed to the fact that they lived.
This view was shared by Rabbi Marcus. Marcus is a member of a Synagogue in London who goes on roughly 17 one-day trips per year. Despite having no personal affiliation with Judaism whatsoever, I was able to understand, even if not empathise with, his powerful prayer and song which commemorated the people whose pictures were placed extensively over a wall behind us. We walked back through the camp attempting to share in Marcus’ brave, honourable attitude.
Having been stuck in Krakow airport for five hours we finally arrived back in Ilkley at 4am – exactly 24 hours after leaving. I felt truly educated in history, morality and humanity. The work of the HET should continue for a long time; it is causes like theirs which allow mankind to evolve in the most important way: ethically.