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UK Faith leaders join students on visit to former Nazi death camp in Poland

Posted on: November 13, 2008 2:40 PM
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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams with the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, invited representatives from all the religious communities to join the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project tomorrow on their one day visit to the former Nazi camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

The visit by the UK’s faith leaders demonstrated their solidarity in standing against the extremes of hostility and genocide which Auschwitz – Birkenau represents and which are represented in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda in modern times. The Holocaust Educational Trust is taking 200 students on the visit and over the past twelve months alone has taken over 2000 students on the Project which explores the universal lessons of the Holocaust.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said: “Auschwitz, as many have said, reduces us to silence. But to say this and no more is to shy away from the challenge it poses. If we are truly committed to hearing and learning, we have no choice but to seek to grow in our ability to identify where these are present today. Our hope is that in making this journey together we also travel towards the God who binds us together in protest and grief at this profanation.”

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, commented: “The Holocaust did not happen far away, in some distant time and in another kind of civilization. It happened in the heart of enlightened Europe in a country that prided itself on its art, its culture, its philosophy and ethics. However painful it is, we must learn what happened, that it may never happen again to anyone, whatever their colour, culture or creed. We cannot change the past, but by remembering the past, we can change the future.”

Now in its tenth year, the Lessons from Auschwitz Project is based on the premise that “hearing is not like seeing”. The participants visited Osweicim, the town where the Auschwitz death and concentration camps were located and where before the war, 58% of the population was Jewish. They went onto visit Auschwitz I seeing the former camp’s barracks and crematoria, and witnessing the piles of belongings that were seized by the Nazis. Finally they spent time at the main killing centre of Birkenau where the day concluded with a candle lighting ceremony and reflective readings by the students, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, to remember all who died as a result of the Holocaust. 

Following the visit, the students will use the experience to commemorate and educate others about the Holocaust in their schools and local communities.

Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “The Lessons from Auschwitz Project is an integral part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s work as it gives participants the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the dangers and potential effects of prejudice and racism today. We are pleased that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, together with representatives from the UK’s major faiths, joined us on this visit to demonstrate the importance of Holocaust remembrance and of joining together to stand up against discrimination in whatever form it may materialise.”


Notes to editors:

This one day visit was the first time the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Auschwitz-Birkenau together with the Chief Rabbi, and the first time a group of UK faith leaders had undertaken such a visit together.

List of faith leaders who attended:

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, United Hebrew Congregations
The Hon Barnabas Leith, Principal Representative, Diplomatic Relations Baha'i Community of the United Kingdom
Ven Bogoda Seelawimala, Chief incumbent of the London Buddhist Vihara
The Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester
Mr Sanjay Jagatia, General Secretary, National Council of Hindu Temples
Mr Ramesh Pattni, The Hindu Forum of Britain
Dr Narayan Rao, The Hindu Council UK
Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield Chief Executive, Movement for Reform Judaism
Mr Natubhai Shah, Chairman, Jain Samaj Europe
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Chair, Inter Faith Committee, Muslim Council of Britain
Moulana M Shahid Raza, The Muslim College and Executive Director of the Imams and Mosques Council
Sayeed Nadeem Kazmi, Shia community and adviser on international affairs to the Al Khoei Foundation
Mr Rajinder Singh Bhasin, Vice Chair, Network of Sikh Organisations
Mr Malcolm Deboo, Vice President, Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe
Dr Harriet Crabtree Director, Inter Faith Network for the UK

Participants on the Lessons from Auschwitz Project visit will be joined by Rabbi Barry Marcus of Central Synagogue in London who accompanies students on all of the Lessons from Auschwitz Projects and who was responsible for first spearheading one day visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau from the UK in 1998.

The Holocaust Educational Trust

The Holocaust Educational Trust was established in 1988 to educate young people from every ethnic background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today. HET works in schools, universities and in the community to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust, providing teacher training, an outreach programme for schools, teaching aids and resource materials. HET regard one of their earliest achievements as ensuring the Holocaust formed part of the National Curriculum for History. HET continues to play a leading role in training teachers on how best to teach the Holocaust and last year, the Treasury pledged a three-year commitment to enable HET to administer a broad programme of teacher training.

Lessons from Auschwitz Project

The Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project for post-16 students and teachers is now in its tenth year and has taken over 5000 students and teachers from across the UK to Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as many MPs and other guests. The four-part course incorporates a one-day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The visits, combined with orientation and follow-up seminars, leave an unforgettable emotional and educational mark on participants. The Project aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’ and to signal what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable. For the final stage of the course, participants design and carry out follow-up work focusing on the contemporary lessons of the Holocaust in their schools and local communities.

In November 2005, the Government announced funding of £1.5 million for HET to support its Lessons from Auschwitz Project. The funding has enabled HET to facilitate visits to Auschwitz for 2 students from every school in the UK. Earlier this year, the Department for Children, Schools & Families announced renewed funding for English schools. 

Orientation seminar – Part 1

Participants are given the opportunity to hear a Survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau share their testimony at the Orientation seminar. During the seminar participants are divided into small groups which are facilitated by a HET educator or by a member of staff. The participants remain in these groups throughout the Project. Each group discusses their reasons for taking part in the Project, their expectations, preconceptions and the potential impact that the visit may have on them. It also provides a useful opportunity for participants to get to know each other before they share what for many is a very moving and important life experience.

Visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau – Part 2

During the visit itself, students are first taken to Osweicim, the town where the Auschwitz death and concentration camps were located and where the local Jewish community lived prior to the start of the Second World War. The groups are then shown several barracks at Auschwitz I – registration documents of inmates, piles of hair, shoes, clothes and other items seized from the prisoners as they entered the camps. Participants are then taken the short distance to Birkenau. This is the site that most people associate with the word “Auschwitz” and where the vast majority of victims were murdered. The remnants of barracks, crematoria and gas chambers are in stark contrast to Auschwitz I and many people feel this has a greater impact on them. The tour of Birkenau culminates in a memorable ceremony held next to the destroyed crematoria II. The ceremony includes readings, a moment of reflection and ends with all participants lighting memorial candles and placing them around the remains of the crematoria.

Follow up seminar – Part 3

At the Follow-Up seminar participants discuss the visit, their personal responses and the impact it had on them. The seminar is very important for participants, as often visitors to Auschwitz have a delayed reaction to the experience and many find it difficult to speak to those who have not been there. Participants also discuss the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust and how they might go about passing the lessons on to others in their school or community.

‘Next steps’ – Part 4

All student participants are required to disseminate what they have learned to their school and wider community. In undertaking this, past participants have led assemblies, created public exhibitions and memorials, taught lessons to younger students, organised day-long anti-racism conferences and written articles which were published in local papers. As a result of participating in the Project, students become ambassadors in their own communities, raising awareness of the past and challenging prejudice and racism today.