We recently marked our 150th visit to Auschwitz through our Lessons from Auschwitz Project. Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Hannah Johnson joined us on the Project in November 2009. Here, she reflects on the long-term impact that her involvement has had on her career and life.
Most people don’t know what they want to do with their lives when they are 18. But two months after my 18th birthday, I took part in an experience that would shape my career and my future.
In November 2009, I joined 200 other young people to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau – the site where during the Second World War over one million people were murdered – on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project. I reflected on the Project just last week when I learnt that the Trust had marked its 150th visit to Auschwitz. The Project changed my life and I thought of the thousands of others who too have been, and forever will be, changed because of it.
I now teach 11-16 year olds, and my visit, when I wasn’t much older than them, inspired me to change the way I think about the world. I want to make sure that my students understand the Holocaust; what it was, how it happened, and the individuals at the centre of it.
The core component of the Project is the one-day visit to Auschwitz. Before visiting the camp itself, we travelled to Oświęcim, a small Polish town renamed ‘Auschwitz’ by the Nazis. For hundreds of years the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Oświęcim had lived peacefully, side by side. And then, in the space of just a few short months, everyone left, and this community changed forever. Before the war, 58% of this town’s population were Jewish. Now, not a single Jew remains. At the time I could not comprehend how this could happen – and now, years on, I still cannot.
When I walked through the town, I couldn’t help but think about the Jewish families who, 71 years earlier, might have been at school, at work, sitting down to dinner together, talking about their day. By the time of our follow-up seminar 12 days later, we had passed the anniversary of Kristallnacht and I thought again about those same families and how on 9th-10th November 1938 everything changed for them.
In the six years since I visited Auschwitz, my strongest memory is of the memorial at Birkenau where I saw the photos and faces of the individuals who were murdered in the camp. Looking at those photos I saw the people they had been and was confronted with the lives they were forced to leave behind. I felt that I had a responsibility to make sure that people always knew what had happened there, and it is that sense of duty that has led me to become a teacher.
As a teacher, I wanted my students to feel the same connection to the past that I did. Years after my participation in the Project, I invited Harry Bibring to come in to my school through the Trust’s Outreach Programme. Harry was 12 years old when his family’s shop was looted during Kristallnacht, and his father was arrested that same night. The family knew it wasn’t safe, and they made the decision to send Harry to England to protect him. He arrived on the Kindertransport in 1939 and never saw his parents again. Listening to Harry speak took me back to my visit to Auschwitz. I reminded my students of how lucky they were to have met Harry and to have heard his story first-hand as Holocaust survivors will not be able to share their stories, and the stories of their families, forever.
This is why Lessons from Auschwitz is so vital. Whilst nothing will ever compare to hearing a survivor’s testimony first-hand, this Project provides a connection to the past that can continue long after the last eye-witness has passed away. During last week’s visit, over 200 students and teachers from the North East embarked on the same journey that I went on 6 years ago. I am certain that the experience will shape their futures in the way that it has shaped my future and the 27,000 other students and teachers who have also taken part in the Project.