Why every young person should visit Auschwitz as part of their secondary school education.

Last updated: Mar 5th, 2024


For me, venturing over to Poland for the first time with 40 students from Stockport Grammar School, joining them for their History School Trip, was a life changing experience full of reflection, that has certainly shifted my outlook on life and firmly shaped my opinions on the positive impact that being here will have on young people.

 

It’s a story that deserves to be told…

I have returned home with a deep-rooted desire to document and share why I believe every student, regardless of what they are studying should experience visiting Kraków and specifically Auschwitz as part of their secondary school education.

It’s about opening young eyes wide and broadening their minds, in terms of understanding the catastrophic, cruel and quite frankly unfathomable events of Krakow’s past. There is no doubt that the big takeaway from an experience like this is that it cannot and must not be repeated.

Our overall tour was planned to tell Kraków’s history in the order in which events occurred. How Jews were normal families, living their daily lives in a happy and healthy community. ‘Normality’ – a word that would not remain for them once 1939 hit and the cruel and barbaric decisions that were set to be made by the Nazis. On speaking to Jamie, party leader at Stockport Grammar, he elaborates…

 


One of the great things about the trip is that there’s a real narrative arc. Beginning with the history of Krakow itself, exploring how the Jews ended up in Krakow, and how they went on to flourish here. They fully embraced their families, their town and their culture. Through tours we give students a real insight into the normality of how families lived here – we visit the synagogues, they dine in a Jewish restaurant, enjoy Jewish music and soak up stories of the joy and normality of life here. They get to see the pictures of Jewish families, just being families and living as normal families do.

And then, of course, 1939, the Nazis arrive and then we start to see how they’re persecuted and isolated and put into the ghetto, and then ultimately sent to the death camps.

They get that real sense of how it unfolded and the process that went into that and the sheer scale of loss of lives. Hopefully they’ll be able to recognize the signs of genocide, and where this might still be occurring in the world. It’s really important for them understand and see that in context. A massive life lesson

 

Mr. J Swann
Stockport Grammar School

 


Auschwitz – the focal point of any trip…

This was all leading up to the day that we were well aware would define our tour and pivot so many life lessons for us all.

You could sense the anticipation in the hours and days leading up to our Auschwitz – Birkenhau guided tour. Students often interspersing conversations with questions around what they would see? What will it be like? How come they’ve not burned them down? They just put 1000s in a chamber at once and gassed them? I don’t believe it…

As a woman I shared those same questions and thoughts – regardless of age, gender or background the questions you ask yourself prior to visiting Auschwitz remain the same. Until you visit, it really is the unknown.

 

 

What would they see?

A unique and preserved site that presents the remaining Jewish Community to re-tell the stories of their past. No textbook, school lesson, book or internet research would provide them with the context of being here in person, seeing it with their own eyes and touching it with their own hands. They understand the scale of the camps, not fitting for the sheer number of prisoners housed here. They see the human hair gathered from the scene, they see pictures of children their own age, naked before being led to their own death. They see a monumental life lesson unfolding before their own eyes.

 


When I first entered the camp, I was really surprised to see the sheer scale of it, I started to realize why was it why was significant to try to preserve this piece of this piece of history and why we should remind and teach others about it.

Student at Stockport Grammar School

 


 

 

The difference between going and seeing it in real life and seeing a picture, the size of it while being there on the site really hits you!”

On entering the gates of Auschwitz with the powerful words above the gates “Arbeit macht frei,” translated to “Work Sets You Free,” on reflection now, was the most undignified welcome to the 1000’s of people that were forced to enter these gates. It was a veil that would swallow up so many innocent lives.

Looking around the group as we entered the gates, I became very aware that silence was now dominating the group. Students were acutely aware of the fact that they were treading in the footsteps of the thousands of people that had been so cruelly deceived to travel here with high and optimistic hopes of a better life, to then be worked to the bone, starved, tortured and ultimately led to theirs and their family’s death.

This picture built at pace, as we learned of the starvation and humiliation experienced by Jews, Romany people and others. But at the centre of it all was the mass extermination of Jews. An innocent religion and community ruthlessly plucked out by the Germans –mass extermination was the end goal.

All at the cruel hands of the Nazis.

Squalid living conditions…

We explored the squalid conditions people faced, the disgusting and in humane medical testing of innocent people, how disabilities made you an early target, and the unfathomable and un- comprehendible decisions that had been taken to make these death camps a reality. We looked at the pictures and in the eyes of thousands of men and women whose lives had ended so cruelly, on a snowy cold day the sadness of the clothing they were given to wear was a consuming thought for all.

Quite frankly, what we all learned in that one day visiting Auschwitz left us reeling. Shock a tangible emotion for all.

 

Tour guide with a school group at Auschwitz I Memorial

 

So how come they’ve not burned them down? A good question…

It’s with a fierce commitment to preservation that these buildings and their sites remain today. It’s a lesson that future generations need to be able to understand. It will help shape them as a person, their future, and help influence their future actions and decisions positively.

And this is why I believe every child should visit Auschwitz as part of their secondary school education…it happened, it’s real, and these young people will now play an important role in better shaping our future. Cruel lessons learned from our past will equip them better to shape future behaviour and attitudes.

 

Authors Note 

Following my visit in December 2023 I chose to return in February 2024 with my own teenage children aged 18 and 15. In the absence of any international school trips taking place post COVID in their own school, I knew this would be my intention and plan. The city, the people and the history they experienced did not disappoint as they followed my earlier journey. I am glad I experienced this with them. They asked the right questions, and they took away all the life lessons I had hoped for. Krakow now has a firm place in our families’ hearts.  

Reflection of the students…

What our customers say

I’d encourage students to come on a trip like this because when you’re in the class and you’re learning about these things you can’t really connect with them until you’re actually here and you see them in person. Then you actually develop a connection, and you see what’s actually happened. It’s very powerful once you experience it.

Student, Stockport Grammar School

“My highlight probably has to be Auschwitz. I know it’s a sad experience, but I think it’s one of the things you must do in your life.”

Student, Stockport Grammar School

Author Bio

Nicky Astle

Nicky has headed up the marketing department at Rayburn Tours, since 2006. She brings an invaluable insight and understanding of Rayburn’s voice and the experiences we offer.

Her passion is without a doubt infectious when it comes to sharing her enthusiasm for encouraging teachers to take children outside the classroom to experience the world as part of their secondary school education. She and her team regularly travel out on tour with groups, immersing themselves in new environments and documenting the students’ experiences in words and on film. For her it’s all about bringing these learning experiences to life and sharing the benefits of doing so with others.

Discussion points for teachers:

 

  • Auschwitz – Never to be repeated. Elaborate…
  • Deceit like no other – why?
  • Decision makers – unthinkable power in their hands. Too much power?
  • Death camps – how could that be?
School group pose for a photo in front of a Christmas Tree in Krakow market square.

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