Site-Seeing: Reflections on Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum with Teenagers

Published: 
2019

Source: Holocaust Studies

 

This paper considers how the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum is experienced by teenage visitors on organized visits with the Holocaust Educational Trust (UK). The findings presented are based on semi-structured interviews with twelve 17 year olds, exploring their emotional engagement with the sites and how they perceive and understand this emotional interaction. The findings suggest that young people experience their visit in a variety of ways, and that this is an incomplete and ongoing process in their learning. The paper raises a number of considerations for educators taking educational visits to the museum, to support pupils in their learning.

Introduction

The Holocaust Educational Trust was established in 1988 by two prominent parliamentarians, in response to the draft proposals for a new National Curriculum (and the debate surrounding the inclusion, or not, of the Holocaust as a topic within the documentation). The Trust’s flagship program is the Lessons from Auschwitz project open to all 17–18 year-olds in state schools and funded by the devolved governments in the UK’s component countries. Each project consists of four parts:

  • An Orientation Seminar 
     
  • A one-day visit to Poland 
     
  • A Follow Up Seminar 
     
  • A ‘Next Steps’ project

Each pair of participants from a school or college works in a group of around 20 young people led by an experienced Holocaust Educational Trust Educator, possibly joined by a handful of teachers or other guests (such as local newspaper reporters or politicians). Each project takes around 220 people (‘participants’) on a chartered flight to Poland and there are around 15–17 such flights each year. Since its inception in 1998, the Lessons from Auschwitz project has taken over 37,000 young people to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The British were the second largest national group of visitors to the museum in 2017,21 and the Lessons from Auschwitz project is the largest of its kind in the country.

Method

This small study involved twelve 17-year-old students on a Lessons from Auschwitz project day visit to Poland, from the north of England. They represent a small, purposive sample from whom voluntary, informed consent was sought prior to the day of travel.24 During the visit I accompanied their group as a participant observer, as I was not their group’s Educator (although I clearly self-identified to the students as both a researcher and Educator from the outset, in the interests of avoiding deception).The students were interviewed using a semi-structured instrument, aimed at exploring their thoughts, feelings and reactions to the site as the day visit progressed. Interviews were conducted at opportune moments during the day, when they were not actively engaged in educational activities. I also felt it was inappropriate to conduct interviews whilst on site at the museum, out of respect both for the site and the students’ privacy during what can be a very challenging encounter with the place. Preliminary findings are presented here within the context of a wider discussion around the purposes of the project. Finally, implications for practice are considered, alongside implications for the next stage of this research.


Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum with Teenagers – Implications for Practice and Research

This paper has considered Lessons from Auschwitz as an example of good practice. It has not sought to be critical of the project, but to consider it as contextualizing of some preliminary research findings which have led to, and continue to inform, a larger ongoing research project. It has hoped to offer considerations for those visiting with young people from across Europe and beyond. It can never be possible to meet every young visitor at these sites exactly ‘where they are.’ However, based on this small-scale research, I would urge educators taking young people to sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to reflect on the following when planning the pedagogical goals and logistics of their visit:

  • Young people’s motivations for visiting an authentic site such as the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum, the personal histories they bring with them, and the influence both might have on their learning experiences. 
     
  • The extent to which young people are aware of the site as a post-event space. It is not the site as was, but the site as is and this is an important distinction to make clear to them as they visit. 
     
  • The role of the survivor in individualizing the whole, and how young people can be enabled to connect with the individual narrative within the wider event through their engagement with testimony. 
     
  • Young people’s connections with sites as mediated spaces (through guides, displays, objects, etc.), and how young people understand, interpret and contextualize these mediations within their developing world view. 
     
  • The emotional needs and responses of young people within site spaces, and the role that emotion plays in their understandings and interactions with the sites.


There can never be a perfect way to visit a place as imperfect as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Historians view the Holocaust as ‘a complex process’; one that teachers also evidently find difficult to define in the classroom. Extensive research has been undertaken in the UK in the last ten years to try to better understand teaching and learning about the Holocaust in schools, but this is an inevitably incomplete task and tends to focus on education with pupils younger than those on Lessons from Auschwitz projects. This paper suggests the need for further investigation and understanding – moving away from the ‘top-down’ approach (of what should be taught to them and how) to focus instead on young people’s learning and their lived experiences of their encounters with the historical events.

This is a considerable challenge for teachers and educators as they help to shape future memory with the generations of ‘postmemory,’ particularly in volatile global political times. The next stage of this research project aims to continue to address these issues and more, with a wider audience of students, Educators, other participants, museum staff and survivors. It is hoped that this will help us as educators towards a better understanding of how young people encounter and interpret these sites. One of the students acknowledged that ‘you’ll never fully understand everything that went on’ there, but perhaps we can empower them with the tools needed to help them move towards a better (if necessarily imperfect) understanding of the place.
 

Updated: Jul. 11, 2019
Print
Comment

Share:

Facebook comments:

Add comment: