Rethinking School Trips to AuschwitzLaura Fontana
A Case Study of Italian Memorial Trains: Deterioration of Holocaust Pedagogy?
*CEO of the Education and Memory Project, Rimini, Italy
(in “The Holocaust Ethos in the 21st Century: Dilemmas and Challenges”, Ariel University of Samaria, 2011)
Unlike France, Germany and many other European countries, in Italy the Holocaust is not a compulsory component of the school curriculum. However, the genocide of the Jews is widely taught in history class in two levels, at ages 13 and 18.
The teaching of the Holocaust has undergone many changes since the end of World War Two. It took Italy many decades to recognize the specific nature of the genocide of the European Jews and for a long time the history of Italian deported Jews was not a subject of public debate. However, the last two decades have seen an increasing centrality of the Holocaust in memory culture but have also witnessed the establishment of a paradigm that relativises other fascist crimes and levels the differences between Fascism and antifascism.
In 2001 Italy enacted a law declaring an official Holocaust Remembrance Day. Until that time, there had been informal attempts at preserving the memory of the Holocaust in Italy. These included attempts by local municipalities, as well as public and private organizations, museums and memorials, but particularly by the network of over 60 Institutes for the history of the Resistance that organized the first Holocaust workshops for teachers and funded student trips to concentration camps, death camps, and labor camps in Italy and Europe. The official government proclamation prescribing current commemoration of historical events significantly transformed the Italian Holocaust education because it helped raise awareness about such an awkward issue as the Shoah. But especially it transformed the nature of the school trips to the concentration camps: the number of Italians visiting the camps doubled, focusing mainly on Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition to the increase in quantity, other populations joined school trips as these became acknowledged as a celebration of citizenship – young students and citizens of all social spheres of life headed for what emerged as a symbol of the Holocaust and of the essence of evil. Instead of the buses previously utilized, the new mode of transport selected was slow train rides, and the route received a new meaning – a long exhausting two-day journey, arriving at the camp on the original day of liberation in 1945 – a symbolic linking of end and beginning, of past and present.
Each memorial train carries 500 or even 700 students to Poland.
The trips depart with much fanfare but their actual effect is uncertain. The organizers believe that visiting an authentic Holocaust site has a uniquely transformative educational impact on students. In this sense, the trip to Auschwitz is seen as an unforgettable experience and Holocaust education as a medium for developing notions of responsibility and critical citizenship among students. Taking part in this project means taking the opportunity to participate in both an educational journey and a self-reflective journey of enquiry and critical thinking.
Thus the sensory experience, arrival at the camp, the sights – are the goals of the trip, in the hope of achieving some spiritual transformation amongst young participants. This approach is like a shot in the darkness – it has no specific target and creates a sense of wishful thinking. The Italian trips in their current form involve many hazards, among other things due to the lack of an adequate knowledge base and poor pedagogy. The rising number of people currently participating in these trips result in the risk that quality may ultimately be sacrificed for quantity, the outcome being banalization and popularization of the process of remembrance and omitting the ultimate purpose of Holocaust instruction – namely, reaching an understanding of the past in order to prevent its recurrence in the present or future.
In 1922, at the time the Fascists came to power, the Italian Jewish community, one of the oldest in the world, numbered about 47.000. By 1930, Jewish assimilation was almost complete. Initially many Jews supported the Italian ruler Benito Mussolini and the Fascism, even participating in the March on Rome. However, in 1929, Mussolini passed the Falco Laws which banned freedom of religion. In 1936, he formed a military alliance with Nazi Germany, guaranteeing that Italy would stand by Germany in time of war (the “Rome-Berlin Axis”). Italian Fascism, focusing on the sanctification of nationalism, grew to resemble the ideology of the Nazi regime, and included by definition all Italian citizens considered worthy Fascists (Hametz, 2002). In 1938 Mussolini produced his Manifesto of Italian Racism and declared the Italians to be part of the “pure race” along with the Aryans. Jews were expelled from all public services, such as the army and also public schools. In part under pressure from Nazi Germany and in part fearing that their “revolution” was not perceived as “real” in the Italian population, the Fascist regime passed antisemitic legislation beginning in 1938.
Racial laws led among other things to the deportation of all foreign Jews residing in the country and imposed a list of personal, social, and economic restrictions on Jewish citizens of Italy (Thus, for example, Jews were dispossessed of their jobs and property and were forbidden to attend Italian educational institutions.).
In the summer of 1940, as Italy entered the war, immigration became more difficult as the fascists proceeded to intern all foreign Jews either in camps or in small villages under custody of the local police. Entire families were thrown into prison, with no trial and at times under harsh conditions. On 4 September, 1940, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the establishment of a 43 km. long detention area for subjects of enemy countries and Italians suspected of subversive activity. Thousands of Jews with foreign citizenship, or no citizenship at all, were also imprisoned in these camps, as well as some 200 Italian Jews known for their resistance to the Fascist regime (Information Center, Yad Vashem).
The discrimination and persecution perpetrated by the Fascists upon Italian Jews were further aggravated following the Nazi occupation and establishment of the Italian Social Republic (Zuccotti & Colombo, 1987) in Northern Italy in 1943 – a puppet state of Nazi Germany. Hitler demanded that Italian Jews be subjected to the same process as all other European Jews – deportation and elimination. Mussolini, who had previously avoided deporting Jewish citizens, was required to fulfill his part in the “final solution”. Under Nazi rule, Italian prisons were transformed into concentration camps, where Italian Jews were kept for weeks and months before being sent to the death camps. Some of the camps on Italian soil as for example Fossoli near Modena and Bolzano Trieste – was either a transit camp for Jews to Auschwitz and a death camp for political prisoners were transit camps for Jews to Auschwitz, other were internment or labor camps, and one – the Risiera di San Sabba in with an operating crematorium (ibid.). During the Nazi occupation, 8,564 Jews from Italy, Italian-occupied France, and the islands of Rhodes and Kos were deported, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 1,009 returned.
Upon the conclusion of World War II and the demise of both Nazi and Fascist regimes, Italy underwent a similar process to that of other European countries in regard to the Holocaust, perceived as a single event. At the end of a long process that lasted decades, this event was structured as part of the national, collective, historiographic, and iconographic memory, with reference to national identity and the social and political context of the period (Gordon, 2006). In Italy as in Israel (see for example: Knoch, 2008; Resnik, 2003), initial efforts were aimed at rehabilitating the devastation wreaked by World War II and coping with present circumstances; only in the 1960s was attention given to the issue of preserving memories, albeit still unofficially. In fact, it would be 56 years before commemoration would be officially manifested in Italian policy – by declaring the National Holocaust Remembrance Day – Il Giorno della Memoria. Although there was no official discourse on the topic of commemorating the Holocaust prior to the 21st century, initial signs first emerged in the 1960s when Holocaust survivor organizations gradually began organizing collective high school trips aimed at keeping memories of the past alive. The story of the development of Italian youth trips is indicative on the one hand of the attempt at commemoration while also revealing the complexity of teaching the Holocaust – a historical event on a gigantic scale with implications for the entire human race.
The beginning of Italian “Memorial Trains”
The Italian town of Rimini was the first to conceive of sending young citizens to visit the Nazi concentration camps, as early as 1964. The initiators called the project “Memory Trips”, with Mauthausen, Gusen, Ebensee and Dachau as the camps of preference. The idea was innovative, but Rimini was not financially independent and had difficulty raising donations to continue supporting the project. At the time, the city was involved in a process of tourist development, and municipal officials did not see this revisiting of the past as part of current needs. Only over a decade later did a public organization express willingness to act in favor of perpetuating the Holocaust. In 1975 the Piedmont Regional Council published a tender for school trips to the death camps. The project enjoyed the support of universities, research centers, and Jewish communities. The idea, first conceived in Rimini, spread to other districts as well, and a large number of schools began organizing visits to the camps.
Nevertheless, although the visits were held as part of school activities, they were not a pedagogic project per se. Despite the many delegations, most public entities expressed very little interest in the initiative. For example, the City of Rome only organized its first school trip as late as 1998. Initially, the trips had many optional designations, but by the 1990s Auschwitz had become the exclusive destination. Aside from the geographical significance, this shift in route and destination versus the 1970s and 1980s symbolized a new concept of Auschwitz as the essence and synonym of the Holocaust. Auschwitz as the essence of worst evil that can be perpetrated by humans indicates the educators’ changed perception of how to teach the Holocaust and maybe even their own comprehension of it.
From the Memorial Trains to the Trains to Auschwitz
At the end of the 1990s, these trips were transformed by Italian educators into an essential pedagogic tool for teaching the Holocaust. In most cases, without forming a part of a structured educational process which is integrated in the historical curriculum.
The enactment of an official Holocaust Remembrance Day brought the expansion of the trips to a new height: in 2002 the number of participants in the “Trains to Auschwitz” doubled. As of 2010, Italians are ranked third in the world among those visiting the camp (Jaroslaw Mensfelt, 2011). The rising numbers reflect a transition in the collective outlook. Trips are guided by several premises, beginning from the basic premise that commemoration of the Holocaust is a moral obligation. This premise has gained wide support. The second premise is that memory is generated by collective exposure to trauma sites (see Eric Ghozlan, ‘Remember, the obligation to remember versus commemoration endeavors’). This premise is worthy of examination. Italian trips have reached large proportions compared to other European countries. The difference is not only numerical, rather it is also reflected in the composition of delegations: Schools have opened their trips to different population groups who wish to join: worker committees, survivor organizations, young employees, Jewish communities, representatives of public entities, mayors, assistant mayors, assistant school principals, as well as musicians, actors, historians, and journalists, whose presence receive wide press coverage. The combination of school students and adults from the Italian community is based on a perception of the trip as part of civic studies – and therefore relevant for all other citizens as well. Throughout the two-day trip, many participants express their personal talents, combining formal and informal activities: listening to instrumental music, dancing, songs, card games – all these are part of the informal activities integrated in the trip, which serve to turn the trip into an unforgettable experience for young participants even before reaching the camp.
Both the demographic and numerical changes have transformed the event into one worthy of media attention. Public organizations previously uninterested in involvement began awarding sponsorships and investing resources in the project. The trips, originally utilizing buses, progressed to traveling by train. Even regional councils (which in the past had remained unconvinced of the idea’s urgency) began contributing funds to the trips. (The first train to Auschwitz was organized in 2002 in the Tuscany area. In 2005, Milan and Turin organized train trips as well). Expanding the circle of participants changed the nature of the trip and its focus – from a large-scale school trip to an opportunity for a strong unforgettable common emotional experience: “slowly traveling across Europe, as though we were almost obligated to retrace the victims’ route”. (From a description of the Milan trip goals). Laura Pasquini, an organizer of “Trains to Auschwitz”, explains that the train trip integrates the project’s two goals: “On one hand the trip [to Auschwitz], and on the other – participation.” [Interview, 2009]. We believe that the project goals and their implementation reveal a process of pedagogic deterioration and arouse doubts regarding the basic premise of these commemorative trips – whereby the sensory experience is expected to facilitate remembrance of the Holocaust.
Trains with no locomotive – about Trains to Auschwitz and the role of pedagogy
Trip organizers perceive the trip to Auschwitz as a goal in and of itself – traveling by train towards the symbol of the Holocaust. The slow pace of travel, the duration of the trip, the fatigue, discomfort, cold, snow – all these are an attempt to prepare travelers mentally for the unique experience. All memorial trains leave Italy on 25 January and reach Auschwitz on the 27th – the day the camp was liberated, forming a symbolic link between the past, liberation of the camp at the end of the Holocaust, and the present – the arrival of young visitors who promise not to forget the history of the tragic event and to serve as “ambassadors of memory”. The idea is to create a symbolic connotation, based on the assumption that “we live in a world where symbolic action takes the place of thought” (Ghozlan, ND).
However, despite the wish to create a symbolic link between present and past, trips do not leave from the same platforms at which Jews were originally deported from Italy. The only exceptions are trips arranged in cooperation with the Lombardy Region ( In the Lombardy Region, the memorial trains set off from the central station in Milan on the historic track 21, on which on the 6th of December 1943 the first group of 250 Jews were sent to Auschwitz.) and the Fossoli organization, which as of 2006 began sending trains to Auschwitz directly from the Carpi train station, several kilometers from the old Fossoli camp – the point of departure of a third of all Jewish transports from Italy. This creates a clear symbolic link. These trips not only take a different route but also include specific training of teachers accompanying the classes “in the belief that the teacher has a central role in the study process that should follow from the trip” [Interview with Marzia Luppi, Director of the Fossoli Foundation,15 March, 2010].
Public organizations unearth large budgets for the purpose of operating memorial trains to Auschwitz (renting a train can cost 130-150,000 Euro per train, in addition to the cost of participation, 60-250 Euro). But the same organizations are reluctant to make an effort and they display much less enthusiasm when required to find funds for teacher seminars. The lack of teacher training is manifested not only during the trip itself but also in preliminary activities in the classroom and in students’ prior knowledge. This question is critically important because the training (or the lack of training) will affect directly the way this event is presented to the students.
It would be wrong to make generalizations about all teachers and all school trips to Auschwitz (Memorial trains organized by Tuscany and by Fossoli are particularly well prepared as teachers and pupils study the Holocaust in depth before leaving for Poland). However, it can be noted that very often preparations for the trip overlooks entire chapters in the history of the Holocaust. Most students know nothing about life in the ghettos and prisoners’ experiences before their arrival at Birkenau, nor are they aware of the resulting mental and physical toll on the deportees. Italian students arriving in Auschwitz know nothing about the history of the Jews and even less about the history of Italian Jews and their deportation. They photograph the “Juden ramp” and think that Primo Levi had been there and saw the crematorium. They confuse between Buna/Monowitz and Birkenau – concentration and death camps – as stated, due to insufficient basic knowledge.
The second purpose of the trip, after students have completed the two-day journey, is arriving at the place where everything happened. Achievement of this goal is compromised by the passivity of trip participants. The tour of the camp, part of a collective trip encompassing over 500 people, is quite inflexible. Participants are required to follow the guide and adhere to the itinerary, as well as predetermined visit conditions and time for speaking. Similar to the students, the teachers too, as attested by organizers of the Memorial Trains, tend to be passive, to leave the right of speech to the guides, escorts, and witnesses.
All participants find themselves doing the same things at the same time (listening, visiting, looking), acting by predetermined visit patterns (dividing up into groups, each with its own guide, its own bus, its own flag, its own hotel, its own meals) – making it difficult to participate on a personal and rational level. The one-day visit takes place quite quickly even if young visitors may require more time to absorb its contents.
For example, a journalist who took part in one of the trips described the experience as follows:
“The visit to Auschwitz 1, at the museum, began early in the morning. The Italian-speaking guide had difficulty doing his job and explaining to us, in the midst of the many groups constantly entering and exiting. The walk between the prison huts was well organized but very quick, with a glum efficiency. Here is the cell where Father Kolbe died, sacrificing his life for that of another prisoner. Remain on the left please. Over there you see the jails where the prisoners were held, where they were forced to remain standing, look at the cross they drew with their fingernails before dying. Don’t stop too long please. Sirs, misses, please follow me to the wall of execution by firing squad” [Auschwitz, the necessary suffering, Da Silvia Truzzi, at “Il Fatto Quotidiano”, 30 January, 2010.].
These descriptions reflect the passivity required by a project of this extent. However, the goals of the trip set themselves no greater aim than “to get there and to be there”. Assuming that these declared goals are indeed realized, the question is what does it leave our students? The memory of the event is undoubtedly significant and present in Italian school teaching, but what is the effect on Italy as a society? What is the effect on one as an individual? What is the orientation of this complex logistic project and what have we achieved by it?
A shot in the darkness
Accounts of the Italian Memorial Trains present in brief form the story of the Italian attempt at teaching the Holocaust, endeavoring to utilize a historical event in order to eventually create better citizens, a better society, where remembrance per se is not the ultimate goal, rather a step towards reaching moral and ethical conclusions. Judging from the current state of affairs in Italy, no lofty goals are declared; rather organizers make do with bringing students to the field, without giving them the necessary tools to study it – a shot in the darkness in the hope of hitting something.
Due to the lack of sufficient historical knowledge young participants are incapable of understanding the historical and political processes that concluded with the Holocaust. Instead, the event is explained as a product of Nazi politics: a black era in the history of cultured Europe, and not a final stage in a long process of modern anti-Semitism, unconnected to politics, to the Great War, and to colonialism. Thus, young participants learn nothing about Italian political responsibility under Fascism and the occupation, about the direct responsibility, often at the initiative of the Italian police, for the arrest and capture of Italian Jewish families. Neither in the classroom nor during preparation for the trips is any light shed on the historical reality of Fascist Italy, its racial politics and anti-Semitism, the rapid emergence of inequality, deportations, and torture of Jewish families. When visiting Auschwitz, Italian students are expected to reach an understanding of events through the sights encountered, although the sights, despite their horror, are only the culmination of a lengthy historical process.
In Auschwitz you do not see Jews, you see victims or bodies. We should be careful to point out that the photos we see in Auschwitz-Birkenau reflect how the Nazis saw the Jews. In the eyes of anti-Semites, Jews are depicted as poor and suffering people. When the SS took them in photos, they had already become victims.
How can the Holocaust be taught without teaching something of pre-war Jewish life? We should not ignore the importance of the Jewish cultural and creative life before the Holocaust.
Undeniably, standing before the displays at the Auschwitz Museum visitors encounter brutal sights of horror and destruction. But who were these people, women, and children? We have to help our students re-humanise the Jews as human beings. How can visitors understand what was lost with the destruction of European Jewish communities if they know nothing of the diverse cultural, spiritual, artistic wealth of these communities, in Poland, Italy, or elsewhere?
Italy sees itself as a country capable of fighting and displaying unity and solidarity when faced with occupiers and dictators. Italy is currently a democratic republic, founded on the concept of anti-Fascism, creating and enhancing the myth of the “brave Italian”. How many students or teachers know of the hundreds of detention camps that existed previously on Italian soil, many of them designated for Jews? Or that the camps were assembled much earlier than 8 September, 1943, the date of the German occupation, i.e. under Italian rule? Indeed, Ferramonti di Tarsia near Cosenza in southern Italy, and other places of detention intended for Italian Jews, were not the equivalent of the Warsaw Ghetto, but there too they suffered hunger, cold, restricted freedom, and often families were separated. Therefore we must ask whether teaching the Holocaust should target only the ultimate destination, the gas chambers and the crematorium at Birkenau. Obviously, if Auschwitz is the focus of our programs, everything else seems less grave and interesting. The creation of an extensive system of internment camps is perceived as an insignificant event. It is necessary to think about the power of seeing and about the need to identify with the victims when visiting Auschwitz. People say that visiting the camps, seeing for yourself the barbed wire, the guard towers, standing on the ground previously occupied by thousands of prisoners, helps one comprehend the horrors of the crime, so much more so when students record their impressions in travel diaries and describe their visit. Everyone is certain that the visit to Auschwitz truly teaches them about the Holocaust. Many even say that the visual experience helps them understand much more than just reading books or attending history lessons.
Why must we see in order to understand? Why do most visitors remain almost insensitive when encountering the ruins of Birkenau – often feeling guilty that they don’t feel what they should in a place of death, strong internal sensations – crying or anger, total shock, although declaring that they are stunned by their visit to the museum?
How much horror is necessary for us to comprehend that an event really happened? What we see at Auschwitz is residual objects, not people. Shoes with no feet, clothes with no body, hair with no head, a metonymical shape of the victim’s body that makes identification impossible and arouses feelings of horror, revulsion, disgust – and tears. Even when seeing photographs displayed, viewers see the Jews as victims and not as human beings. Our gaze assumes the perspective of the hangman, as in these photos the prisoners are demeaned, dirty, ugly, sick, and thin, they represent the destruction.
Students visiting Auschwitz as part of a school group must confront their feelings of shock and cope with them, promptly grasp the giant complex site, difficult to decipher and explain, as the place is currently completely transformed. Visits organized by the Memorial Trains are lightning visits, as are most school trips. Only several hours are devoted to Auschwitz, the museum, and Birkenau. Thus, young visitors must absorb what they are shown in the form dictated. They must follow a guide and a teacher to avoid being lost. They are not in control of themselves and of their time. Moreover, what they see is not what they thought they would see [or not what they would like to see, as confirmation of what they thought they knew of the Holocaust]. Most young participants think they know everything about the Jewish massacres and the camps, but the visit to Auschwitz leaves them completely powerless. Not only is imagination often informed by movies, rather their entire knowledge is based on a visual culture, part of a perceptual model whereby only what you see is real. Thus when reading papers written by students about the Holocaust, Dachau and Auschwitz are often portrayed as identical places. All prisoners experienced the same things, were doomed to the same fate, selections upon arrival, a number tattooed, and death in the gas chambers.
All teachers must devote more time and effort to shattering students’ clichés, and to working on and attending to differences between their expectations and the realistic impression created by the site, which is almost indecipherable and incomprehensible, due to the destruction wreaked upon it. What is Birkenau today? If you know nothing, you see nothing. “There is nothing to see at Auschwitz Birkenau if you don’t know what to see, and often there is nothing to feel…” (Annette Wievorka, Auschwitz, 60 ans après, Editions Robert Laffont, Hachette Literature, p. 17). Students must use their imagination when guides refer to the family camp, the hospital, the gypsies’ camp. Auschwitz Birkenau is an empty space, and our role as teachers is to fill this space, to let the ruins speak, to create a historical view and perception. This means, among other things, preparing the ground for creating distancing and avoiding the danger of sentimentality created by identification with the victims. Since we can no longer see Auschwitz as seen by the prisoners, we cannot feel what they felt, even if we visit in the winter so that it will “seem more real in the cold and snow”. Students are shocked by their lack of sentimentality when they discover the site, and often only when visiting the blocks in the museum do they let themselves cry. We must teach them that not crying at Birkenau is not a sign of heartlessness, and that it is not enough to see in order to understand the Holocaust. It is necessary to read, learn, analyze, think, and ask questions, in order to position events on a significant continuum.
Another issue connected to sight is – to see or to know how to see! Before they arrive in Poland, students generally don’t’ have a clear idea of what they are going to see in Auschwitz. It is necessary to teach participants to place the site of the former camp in an existential context and space. This does not refer only to the role of this place in Nazi politics, rather also how Auschwitz is positioned in Polish and European political geography. Students should be encouraged to focus less on photography and more on opening their eyes and thinking: Where are we in relation to the city of Oswiecim? Cracow? What is the distance from the camp to people’s houses? Does nature have an effect on our concept of the place? Is it preferable to visit Auschwitz in the winter, in the snow, to better understand what the prisoners had to endure, or in the spring, when it is possible to walk through the camp and see the scene in its entirety?
Another matter worthy of attention is the degeneration of the media covering the trips. Since we appeal to a young population, and since this is a collective project extensively covered in the media, there is a tendency to use advertising language, although inappropriate for such a topic, which is worthy of more respect and accuracy. For example, the photo chosen to advertise the 2009 Memorial Train project in Lombardy was of a young man stretching out his arm, with a clenched fist and tattooed arm, reminiscent of that of many young people. The tattoo is a serial number, like the tattooed number born by Jews at Birkenau, and the photo carries the caption “This is a trip that will leave you with a lifelong impression and leave its mark on you”. This is also true of the slogan devised in that region to raise funds for the Memorial Train “Give a gift of a ticket to Auschwitz”! Moreover – one of the project organizers advertised the logo “Train to Auschwitz” so that other organizations would not use the same name, as though the trip is a commercial product and as though one can claim exclusive use of the name Auschwitz. A final example are the distressing aspects of this pedagogy, based more on emotions that on actual history. Due to the large number of memorial trains – from late January to early February 2011, 8 trains departed from 15 Italian regions with over 5000 participants, mostly 17-18-year olds – a proposal was made for the various organizers to coordinate the schedules of the trains so that they would not arrive in Poland at the same time. Someone suggested “forming a national function to coordinate the time trains reach Auschwitz”, or an inter-regional function responsible for logistically organizing the memorial trains, as well as “to convene a national committee at the Ministry of Education to decide what model of pedagogic and historical training should be applied to all school trips to Poland.”
These examples are not only evidence of the degradation caused by the mass trips; rather they indicate a more general question: What is the teachers’ attitude to the topic taught? The issue should be: Why did Italian teachers not protest against the dogmatic and hierarchical concept of Holocaust instruction, portrayed more as a subject of civics studies than one of history and knowledge? How is it possible to distinguish between instruction and imparting the memory, and particularly to coordinate teaching the Holocaust with the obligation to travel and see Auschwitz? What is the risk of completely missing out on the historical contents, of minimizing history as a study discipline? Can the lessons of Auschwitz be restricted to simple moral lessons of history or to defending the good?
The feeling is that the lack of response within Italian educational circles actually conceals intellectual laziness. If all teachers and educators claim that it is difficult to teach the Holocaust in the classroom, joining a collective project such as the memorial trains creates a feeling of confidence and seems like the best model to use. Instead of each teacher taking part individually and utilizing his/her abilities and knowledge to build a lesson plan based on students’ needs and curriculum, teachers enthusiastically register for the trip project. ‘Together is better and less risky’, is a potential slogan in favor of this joint course of action.
Enthusiasm prevents the significant capacity to distance oneself even if deciding to participate, and it verges on hallucination and mysticism. For example, a teacher who took part in one of the memorial trains told journalist Stefania Consenti: “I swore never to leave my students indifferent to my attempts to sensitize them to the topic of the Holocaust. As a result I decided to give my students a gift, together with a colleague […] the best possible gift: a trip to Auschwitz in order to see and understand, to go to the place where man was capable of exuding the worst of himself, in order to teach them that in life compassion should always receive priority over our calculations and interests, that living together is enriching, each and his/her uniqueness. A world with no freedom is a world with no heart and will eventually burn out” [Stefania Consenti, Binario 21, Un treno per Auschwitz, Poland, 2010, pp. 148-149]. On the other hand, one painful point concerning the memorial train is that the technical effort necessary in order to execute such a project, based on transporting and organizing a visit of such a large heterogeneous group, is so enormous that form is in danger of overwhelming the contents. The problems inherent in such a trip [contacting all necessary bodies, receiving permits and confirmation from school authorities, selecting candidates for the trip, preparing the program etc.] are disproportional to the pedagogic problems and concerns faced by the teachers. The wish to flood participants with a maximum of “facts” has undoubtedly supplanted the concern for the quality of contents, i.e. the quality of history instruction.
Finally, under the distinct formula of standing together, the memorial trains are rapidly being transformed into a political cause, and the transmitting of memory is turning into an immutable institutionalized model. For the organizations and government representatives, logos or personal investment are crucial – their presence is very important. The obligation to remember, stressed by public organizations, is aimed at arousing a feeling of belonging to the international community. This is the sense imbued when reading the national press covering collective trips to Poland, particularly from the time many political elements decided to begin participating. The article headings are convincing, as they always emphasize the large number of participants: “600 students to Auschwitz in the Memorial Train” in the newspaper Corriere della Sera; “Train to Auschwitz with 600 students”, in Il Giorno; “2010 Memory Voyage leaves: 1200 students from Regio Emilia on a visit to Auschwitz”, in Corriere Fiorentino; “The Memorial Train and 800 students to Auschwitz”, in Toscana Oggi; “Parma-Auschwitz, 100 youngsters on the Memorial Train” in the Republica.
The trip obviously carries strong symbolic meaning, based on the adage: “To remember and never forget, and to prevent another Holocaust”. In other words, traveling to Auschwitz on the Memorial Train is a clear sign of association with this civic message, of aligning oneself with the good, with those who stand for remembrance and act against the return of Fascism and barbarity, and it does not matter if young Italians arrive in Poland with no knowledge of the specific fate of Italian Jews and of the racist and anti-Semitic politics of Mussolini’s regime.
Obviously, the students do not bear exclusive responsibility for their ignorance of history, as even in the new textbooks Auschwitz is portrayed as an alien place removed from the time and geographical borders of cultured Europe, with no real connection to Italian politics of the Fascist era. So it is not surprising that students returning from the trip to Poland write very emotional texts but always portray Auschwitz as a place that is not a place. It is “there”, far from Italy, far from civilization, in a scary place with no spatial details, not recorded in any precise political and cultural context. In addition, the use of the third person plural in descriptions written by students continues to indicate their perception that the perpetrators were Nazis, Fascists, while ignoring the satisfaction and total indifference displayed by many Italians. Finally, there is the risk of using the Holocaust and the visit to Auschwitz as justification for dealing with other topics, banalization of history and the uniqueness of the crime. Some Memorial Train projects use this trip in order to construct an educational project based on the relationship between inherently distinct events. For example, a train trip organized by the organization Terra del Fuoco suggested that young participants returning from the trip think about the trade in narcotic drugs, linking the struggle against the mafia with the memory of the Holocaust, with the aim of associating historical knowledge of Nazi crimes with civic issues and creating personal involvement in society. The danger of such a combination can only be condemned and warned against, while distancing ourselves from such imprecise methods (Alberto Cavaglione, in Il Bollettino di Cleo, March 2010, no. 29].
Although the Memorial Trains are particularly successful, dozens of other trips to memorial sites in Italy, Germany, and Austria continue to take place, and Dachau, Mauthausen, and La Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste continue to serve as the preferred destinations of many schools, but no one speaks of these trips with the same level of interest, although schools must overcome enormous financial hurdles in order to execute such programs.
There is insufficient research assessing the effect of such trips to Auschwitz on young visitors. But the CDEC, the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center in Milan, has been organizing a work and study group documenting school trips to Auschwitz and assessing certain issues, such as: preparation, responses, papers submitted.
In summary, we must ask to what degree are these trips to Auschwitz indeed involved in teaching the history of the Holocaust? In Italian schools this is undoubtedly often more a civics assignment than a historical issue (even if the students proceed to produce excellent papers on the Holocaust). Young people are shown Auschwitz to teach them a moral lesson and to see whether they return completely “shocked”, different, and ready to become ambassadors of memory and more involved in politics and society. So what are the real goals of teaching the Holocaust in Italy, torn as it is between politics and pedagogy? Even if we agree that the memory of the Holocaust can lead to immunization against the return of evil, how may we link knowledge and recognition of the crime to civics? We cannot continue to naively declare that simple knowing and seeing translates automatically into deep comprehension of evil. The evil of Auschwitz, the Holocaust, is not evil in the metaphorical or religious sense, meaning the opposite of good: this evil is the outcome of a deterioration of the German and European politics of the 1930s, based on a biological concept of individual human beings as mere bodies who are therefore to be categorized only as valued or redundant, productive or unproductive, healthy or sick. Does not the decline of Holocaust pedagogy stem from the fact that civic studies mentioned more and more often in Italian curricula, under government pressure, will marginalize history amongst other teaching priorities?
Conclusions and Summary
In summary, the “Education and Memory” project emphasizes the significance of educational cooperation between educators and teachers. Project operation reveals several issues encountered when teaching the Holocaust:
Lack of time – Teaching the Holocaust is an incredible challenge. There are few events in recent history, if any, that have had such an impact or implications for human society. But when time is very limited, as in this case, the challenge seems more significant. Accordingly, lack of time is our first problem.
Selecting the students – Selecting students for involvement in the project. What would be the best status for this project?
Students’ prior knowledge – What do our students know about the Holocaust? Almost 20 years ago most young people knew very little about the subject and were not interested in learning more about persecution of the Jews, concentration camps, ghettos, and the Holocaust. Today they show more interest and they have slightly more information about this event. However our students still lack sufficient basic historical information. Moreover, they think that the Holocaust happened in the past, the past does not appeal to them, and history is boring.
Tools for knowledge – The truth is that there is an abundance of material on the Holocaust and it is much easier to find material than to decide what to choose. The internet is full of information on the Holocaust, historical materials made available by museums and organizations dealing with the Holocaust as well as by Holocaust deniers. Our challenge is to teach students to distinguish. Learning how to analyze photos and critical documents, how to collect information, is an important skill. On the other hand, when we ask students where they learned about the subject, we see that their main source of information is the media, and particularly the cinema.
Most students have seen popular films such as “Schindler’s List”, “The Pianist”, or “Life is Beautiful”. Some have also watched documentaries about the Holocaust, and particularly about the liberation of the camps. This inevitably leads to distortion of the Holocaust. Students tend to repeat words, stories, from the media, and they lack rational responses and questions about the Holocaust. Educators must make an effort to not only teach factual history but to correct mistaken information and distortions, which arouse students’ imagination and are accepted as authentic.
Choosing topics – Since time is limited, we must choose several major historical issues that we see as relevant to the project. Although in Italy the Holocaust is taught in history lessons as an important part of the history of World War II, it would be helpful to provide students with basic information on the history of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, so that they can better understand that the murder of Jews by the Nazis was not a single case of barbaric regression. Hatred of the Jews has ancient sources, for example Christian European society practiced discrimination and created certain perceptions and Anti-Semitism did not stem from the Nazi ideology. On the other hand, we should avoid the risk to teach the Holocaust as the result of only one factor, the Anti-Semitism. Other factors played a major role in allowing the Holocaust to happen as for exemple the development of social darwinism and of eugenics as well as the impacts of WW1 and the effects of colonialism (Bensoussan, 2006).
The following are suggestions for focal points: Nazi racial ideology; in regard to the rise of Adolf Hitler – education in Nazi Germany, indoctrination of German youth, Nazism as a very attractive option, particularly for those who felt inferior; Fascist Italy and the Italian Jews; concentration camps; the technique of mass murder by shooting – the Auschwitz Birkenau camp; the death camps of Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka.
Methodologies – If we assume that the murder of the Jews is an outcome of history, we must teach it as a consequence of history. Teaching the history of the Holocaust is a difficult subject demanding strict awareness of its complexity. Survivors are not historians. They can but tell their personal story. Our role as teachers is to link individual stories to the story of the Holocaust, to give students a historical survey of the era, in order to place the survivor’s testimony in a wider context. We know that personal stories can help students experience an era, a topic, beyond mere statistics – making historical Holocaust events more personal. Steven Spielberg reminds us that survivors’ testimonies reveal “that the destructive events of the Holocaust are not faceless, they actually occurred… men and women and children with names and faces and families and dreams. Just people like us”.
At the same time, we must teach history, and we know that survivors can tell their personal story but not the story of the entire Nazi period or of the Holocaust. One single story can’t replace formal instruction of the Holocaust. Therefore the context of the private story is very important. Teaching the Holocaust helps students beware of over-generalizing. In addition, we must carefully consider how students cope with the subject. For example, the discussion of the Nazi occupation of Poland, and particularly the cruel German attitude towards Poland and the Polish. The Nazis were determined to turn Poland into a giant reserve of forced labor, ready for use by the German war industry. This leads us to a discussion of other groups persecuted by the Nazis, including Rome, the disabled, homosexuals, Christians, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents.
Conclusion: The challenges of teaching the Holocaust – Even the best educational journey to Auschwitz is no substitute for school-based Holocaust teaching.
Moreover teaching the Holocaust should avoid focusing only on gas chambers and the destruction of Jewish life during the Holocaust. Teaching the Holocaust also means showing how the Jews were gradually isolated, banned from public places, humiliated, forced to wear a yellow star, imprisoned in the ghettos, shot and killed in different ways. It also means pointing out that the majority in Europe remained indifferent.
Finally, we should stress that the Holocaust was not inevitable as many students often believe.
The genocide took place because individuals, groups, and nations made decisions to act or not to act. By focusing on those decisions, we gain insight into history and human nature, and we can better help our students become critical thinkers. The phenomenon of rescue, for example, shows that, even in a dark period, people had the ability to make choices.
The most significant issue when learning the Holocaust is the danger of apathy. Therefore we must discuss the personal choices of criminals, bystanders, and rescuers. How do people respond in irregular circumstances and in a specific political context?
The challenge is very complex. We must help young people develop critical thinking and moral behavior but teaching the Holocaust should not be transformed, as often happens in Italy, into a pretext to give a generic (and useless) moral lesson about human rights. Citizenship education and Holocaust teaching are not the same task. In any case, careful attention should be paid to how to combine the universal meaning of this event with the specific fact that the Holocaust was the genocide of one groupe (and not of all victims who were targeted by the Nazism): the Jews. Because of who they were, six million human beings were killed by a variety of means.
The lessons of the Holocaust have remained relevant today and for the next generations. Learning what happened, how and why it happened, helps us to identify signs of danger in the present. When students cope with this historical era they reveal to what degree prejudice might encourage racism and anti-Semitism. Students create important links between history and the moral choices that they make in life and learn that even small decisions can have enormous implications.
When teaching the Holocaust, we can’t save the world, and regretfully we can’t find solutions at present to all the ills of humanity, but we hope to be able to advance one small step towards a slightly better world for the next generation.
We are aware that investigation of Holocaust raises a lot of painful questions. Even if we don’t have an answer for any of these questions, we can try to help our student to ask good questions in order to inspire critical thought and personal growth.
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