International education conference "Remembrance has not matured in us yet...”
How do we teach about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in a time we are losing the last eyewitnesses to the history? Are we dealing exclusively with the transfer of historical information or should educators also look for references to problems and challenges of the contemporary world? Of what relevance today, are spoken and material evidence? These are just some of the questions posed during the international education conference "Remembrance has not matured in us yet...” which was held at the Auschwitz Memorial on 26-29 October.
Representatives of institutions involved in the education of the Holocaust and organization of visits of young people at Memorial Sites, historians and educators from Europe, Israel and the United States, as well as employees of several Memorials came to Oświęcim at the invitation of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Among the special guests of the event, were former prisoners of the Auschwitz camp. The meeting was an opportunity to reflect on the significance of education about the Holocaust in the contemporary world and on key areas for further action in the context of the changing reality.
Regarding the challenges facing educators, the director of the Museum Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński emphasized at the opening of the conference that the major challenge for education is how to find ways to connect the authenticity of the accounts of witnesses and the authenticity of the former camp space.
'Somewhere between words that we have in our hands: words written, spoken, recorded, illustrated or clad in poetry - all the accounts of witnesses gathered, and the authenticity of the place and passage through this place in which history took place, lies an area of exploration for us all. For these words sound different when confronted with the authenticity of the place, and this place looks different, if all these words resonate in its background,' he said.
'We must all consider how to make our message not only a factual knowledge, but also for the awareness of the significance of these events to cause more people to reflect on their current responsibility,' emphasised director Cywiński.
The conference began with a discussion panel, which was attended by former prisoners of Auschwitz: Batsheva Dagan, Zofia Posmysz, Marian Turski, Yehuda Widawski and David Wiśnia. They spoke among others, on how the camp experience affected their post-war lives.
'With my number on the forearm, I was a source of questions. At the beginning of my professional career I was a nursery school teacher and the kids often asked me, why I have a number. I searched for answers - at first in prose, then in poetry, because children love poems, and I sometimes write poems myself. Therefore, I wrote my first children’s book dedicated to the education about the Holocaust. I knew I had to give them answers in such a way as not to deprive them of their faith in humans. Therefore, my stories have the so-called happy end because all of survivors are a happy end. We are alive, in spite of all we are alive,' said Batszewa Dagan.
'Education is not just pedagogy in the sense of “how to convince” and “how to teach.” It is most of all philosophy. Therefore, if I may say something to educators: whatever you teach, whatever you say, remember that values in hell and that in normal life are different. One cannot assess events in hell on the principles of a normal moral code,' underlined Marian Turski.
Zofia Posmysz spoke of values she sees in her meetings with young people over the years: 'It is something that fills the evenings of my life and gives it meaning. When I see the interest and real commitment of young people, then I say to myself, it is worth it. Maybe this way, the memory of people who were destroyed, gassed, and murdered will be forever remembered. Perhaps this way, by telling my experience, I will pass down a little of this memory to future generations. It is extremely important.'
For David Wiśnia the meeting, which took place in the building of the former main sauna at Birkenau, was of particular importance. 'As a prisoner of the camp, I worked exactly in this room for one and a half year. When we moved from the old sauna, I worked here until the evacuation. Of course, it did not look like this then. Somewhere at the back was an office, where I worked. I have been here a few times after the war, but never exactly entered this area. I could not bear it and today I started crying. I cried for the first time in 70 years. Such was the impression it made on me,' said David Wiśnia.
During the discussion panel, the participants spoke among others of model solutions of youth visit programs to the Auschwitz Memorial, about the similarities and differences between education about the Holocaust and education about human rights. They also contemplated on how education about the Holocaust should look in times, when on the one hand we are gradually losing the last of witnesses; former prisoners of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps, and on the other hand, a growing number of the new generation visitors to the Memorial, for whom the events of the II world war are a distant history.
They also discussed what the historical narrative of the exhibitions should focus on, how the changing methods of public communication affects education, as well as the role of education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in times of increasing populist ideology, anti-Semitism, dangers of terrorism and armed conflicts.
During the conference, a workshop was held devoted to educational work with various kinds of evidence: written, spoken, works of art and material evidence. The program also included presentations by the participants of the latest research results and examples of best practices in educational work.
The conference ended with a discussion titled; "What will be the significance of Auschwitz in the future", which was attended by Prof. Irena Lipowicz, Prof. Marek Kucia, Prof. Steven Katz and Dr. Piotr Trojański.
'We must continue to change the method of speaking about the history of Auschwitz, in order to reach out to next generations. I think that in the future it will be important to transfer the experience of Auschwitz to elites: political leaders, parliamentarians, judges, doctors etc. In this place we see indeed the results of limiting human dignity. I strongly believe that this place will be important for future of a democratic society and community of values. This place is of great importance to the family of democratic nations;' said Prof. Irena Lipowicz.
Prof. Marek Kucia underlined that a significant role in preserving the memory of Auschwitz will be played by institutions of remembrance. 'By them I mean the Museum, which exists in the authentic space of the former camp, the role of main exhibitions that visitors see, as well as the importance of the work of tour guides. The second institution is the education system. Of course, we have no influence on how much space is devoted to the history of Auschwitz in different educational systems. However, by training of teachers and students we can emphasize and focus on the most relevant and selected aspects of the past. The third important institution is the media and most of all reports of commemorating events. Thanks to media coverage, the public can come in contact with the message from this place. Let us therefore hope that the Museum, education, the media and political elite will work to preserve the memory of Auschwitz,' said Marek Kucia.
'Thinking about the future, I would not only speak about the image of Auschwitz, but also about the challenges that lie ahead – both in terms of the role of the Museum and work in the authentic Memorial, as well as education about the Holocaust in general. It thus seem that the effectiveness of teaching about Auschwitz and the Holocaust is probably not, what we expect as shown by some of the conference presentations. I therefore, think that we should do more to change the education about the Holocaust and reflect on the goals we set for ourselves when we speak about Auschwitz,' said Dr. Piotr Trojański.
'The symbol of Auschwitz will continue to play a primary role. When people read or discuss about the topic of evil or morality, they finally refer to Auschwitz. Research shows that almost every debate on the issue of morality ends with the use of Auschwitz as an image, symbol or evidence. Of course, there are cases of simplification and manipulation, but the fact remains that Auschwitz is an extremely strong symbol of evil' said Prof. Steven Katz.
During the conference, the Museum signed two agreements on international cooperation in education: on the realization of a three-year educational project with the Dutch Anne Frank House, as well as cooperation with the French Museum - Camp des Milles.