One cold, overcast February morning this year, two hundred 16 and 17-year-olds rose very early to board a flight to Krakow from where they would travel to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
They were the first Brighton College cohort to travel to this extraordinary, haunting place since I announced that the school intended to send the entire lower sixth every year to Poland, at no cost to their families, to deepen and contextualise their understanding of the Holocaust.
We have arranged trips within the history department in previous years but I wanted to make sure that every boy and girl, whether they were studying history A-level or not, had the experience of walking beneath that notorious slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ and truly comprehending what one human being is capable of doing to another.
At a time when there is so much political uncertainty, with worrying signs of rising intolerance across the world, we would all benefit from coming face-to-face with the terrible consequences of intolerance and hatred. This trip represented an important opportunity for the pupils to reflect on what really matters in life and how vital it is for them (and all of us) to stand up always against prejudice in all its forms.
We advised the pupils to prepare for the sights they were to see – the film Schindler’s List is a good introduction as are two important books But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens and If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. Neither is easy but both are curiously inspiring calls to action.
But I am quite sure nothing could truly prepare them for their day at Auschwitz. Certainly, when I visited for the first time many years ago, it was life-changing.
The sheer scale of the camp took me by surprise, stretching further than the eye could see. And then there were the piles of children’s shoes, toys and teddy bears, of suitcases and human hair.
But the biggest impact of all for me came from the words of the rabbi accompanying us. He looked around at that vast place where his own grandparents had died and he said: “Don’t blame God for what happened here. Because God didn’t do this. Humanity did this. Men and women did this to other men and women.”
It’s a powerful reminder to all of us to be vigilant – particularly at a time when it once more seems acceptable to speak of building walls between people, when it seems acceptable to denigrate women, stigmatise foreigners and to inflict suffering on others because they disapprove of our way of life.
I think it is also a reminder to us all that we should try as far as possible to extend the values we share at Brighton College to more people.
On our return, I asked pupils of their impressions, which I share here:
Olivia Austin said, “At school we learn about and discuss the events of the Holocaust but I feel like this trip gave us the opportunity to truly understand the extent of the terror – something it is difficult to fully comprehend from inside the classroom. It is an experience we will never forget and it is amazing that we all have the chance to see first-hand something so important in our history.”
Isobel Loubser added, “Despite feeling trepidation about the experience, I also feel grateful to be in the privileged position of having had the opportunity to go to Auschwitz. It is so important for everybody to have a chance to see at close quarters the stark reality of a concentration camp, to see the individual human stories behind the horrifying statistics. Only by seeing up close the persecution that took place during the Holocaust can we begin to understand the personal anguish of these times and strive to ensure that history never repeats itself.”
For more on Brighton College, go to brightoncollege.org.uk