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Britain to Send Students to Auschwitz to Learn About Holocaust

The British government will sponsor student trips to the Auschwitz concentration camp in an effort to keep the Holocaust relevant for younger generations. It's an issue that Germany is all too familiar with.

Two students view an exhibition on the Auschwitz concentration camp in Berlin in 2004

How do you get teenagers to connect with events that took place more than 60 years ago?

Underscoring the need to ensure that the lessons of the Nazi genocide live on with a new generation, the British government extended a 2006 pilot program that funds day trips for two students from every secondary school in England to the death camp in present-day Poland.

Britain's Schools Minister, Jim Knight said the scheme will now be made permanent with 1.5 million pounds (2 million euros) of government money a year until 2011, and the possibility of more funding after that. The idea behind the visit is for teenagers to educate their classmates on their return.

Historians estimate 1.1 million people died at the hands of Poland's German occupiers at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945, either from asphyxiation with Zyklon B gas in the notorious gas chambers or from starvation, disease or exhaustion. They included Jews, Roma, Sinti, gays, disabled and blacks.

Turning the educated into the educators

"The Holocaust was one of the most significant events in world history," Knight told The Times. "What strikes me is the sheer scale of it and how industrialized and mechanized the process of killing people became at Auschwitz."

"It was not hot-blooded brutality, it happened in a very planned way, with some people designing the process of death and others carrying it out," Knight said. "Every young person should have an understanding of this."

A group of children at the Auschwitz camp in a photo taken in Jan. 1945

It's hoped that students who visit Auschwitz will educate their classmates about the Holocaust

The sixth-form students, who are typically between 16 and 18 years old, will meet with an Auschwitz survivor, be shown around the camp's barracks and gas chambers, see the piles of hair, shoes, clothes and other items seized by the Nazis and hear first-hand accounts of life and death in the concentration camp. They are to fly to Poland and back in a day.

The government will shoulder the main financial cost of each student's trip -- 200 pounds per trip over the next three years while their schools must raise the remaining 100 pounds.

Britain's Holocaust Education Trust, an influential group responsible for making the Holocaust an integral part of the country's National Curriculum for History in 1991, is to administer the program.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust, told The Times the project aimed to turn the educated into educators.

"We are very aware that there's going to be a time where there aren't any survivors left to go into schools," Pollock said.

"The young people on these visits themselves become eye witnesses. For a lot of them, it's life-changing. They suddenly realize what they value and they see it as important to challenge prejudice today."

Pollock added that some students who had visited Auschwitz within the framework of the program were inspired to distribute leaflets protesting against the far-right British National Party candidates standing in their local council elections.

Educating young Germans a challenge

Sensitizing current and coming generations about the Holocaust at a time when a generation of survivors is passing away presents a challenge to educators everywhere.

But nowhere is the problem more deeply felt than in Germany, where the Nazi genocide is usually dealt with intensively in secondary schools and visits to the many concentration camps and Holocaust memorials across the country often form an integral part of history lessons.

Students in a classroom in Germany

Critics say German students are exhausted by the surfeit of teaching on the Holocaust

Yet several studies in recent years show that Germans born after reunification in 1990 know appallingly little about the Holocaust. A recent survey showed that while Hitler is recognized by all, only one in three was aware of the meaning of the word, "Holocaust." Less than one in ten students could identify Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

Many say that one of the most difficult challenges lies in educating young Germans about 20th century history in a way that doesn't alienate them or blame them in any way for the country's dark past.

"The disinterest in history among today's students is largely a psychological reflex because many feel the need to want to positively identify with Germany," Henning Küppers, a history teacher at a secondary school in Stuttgart, told DW-WORLD.DE.

A comic book to teach the Holocaust

Efforts are already underway to replace the traditional teaching of the Holocaust, which many critics say is often strenuously moralistic and ends up exhausting students, with more modern tools.

The Berlin-based Anne Frank Center said last week it planned to introduce a comic book covering key events of the Nazi era in high schools in two German states as a way to educate young students about the past in a way they could relate to.

An excerpt from the comic book, The Search on Hitler's speeches to the German masses

An excerpt from the book on Hitler's speeches to the German masses

"It's important to find new approaches to telling the story of the Holocaust in a way that connects with young people," said Thomas Heppener, director of the center.

Many Holocaust memorials in recent years too have begun accommodating school groups by offering them a chance to stay overnight near the former camps or providing interactive aids to replace traditional tours in large groups. Most have recorded exhaustive interviews with Holocaust survivors documenting daily life in the camps and created digital archives.

Updating teaching methods

Horst Seferens, press spokesman of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, which receives visits from school groups each day, said they had modernized their efforts to reach an entire generation of students who are no longer getting their information about the Holocaust within their families who have few links to the event.

About four years ago, the camp put together a CD-ROM featuring profiles of 20 prisoners at the camp and their lives before, during and after imprisonment.

One of the souvenirs that Buchenwald created some years ago

One of the souvenirs that Buchenwald created some years ago

"Getting to know the biographies of former inmates remains the most effective way of getting students to empathize and understand what really happened during the Holocaust," Seferens told DW-WORLD.DE. "It leaves a lasting impression."

Some years ago, the Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar, embarked on a unique project, cooperating with design students at the local Bauhaus University to come up with souvenirs that visitors could take with them.

Others say it's time to view concentration camps and Holocaust memorials in a broader light, one that reflects present-day realities.

"We shouldn't see these camps only in terms of guilt complexes and the dark past but also symbolic of the persecution of minorities and the brutalities that exist in parts of the world today," said Peter Lautzas of the Association of German History Teachers.

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