1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Auschwitz visit expands students' Holocaust understanding

January 27, 2024

Almost 80 years have passed since the Holocaust and the crimes of National Socialism. There are increasingly fewer survivors and witnesses left to tell their stories. How can their memories live on?

Polen | Schüler aus Kerpen in der Gedenkstätte Auschwitz-Birkenau (hell)
Image: Privat

"I really wanted to go on this trip," says Cara, a 17-year-old student from Kerpen, a town near Cologne, Germany. Together with peers from school, she traveled to Oswiecim, Poland, to the memorial site of the former German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

"Walking through the camp," Cara says thoughtfully and calmly, "I then realized that 80 years ago the people who were imprisoned here and who were treated so horribly were standing on the same spot."

The students from the Willy Brandt School in Kerpen shared their experiences with DW. Since 1967, the town of 67,000 inhabitants has been partnered with the Polish town of Oswiecim, west of Krakow. On the outskirts of Oswiecim is the memorial to the largest concentration camp of the Nazi era. In the years leading up to 1945, the Germans murdered more than 1 million people there, the vast majority of them Jews. 

Entrance to the Auschwitz death camp and the train tracks leading up to it
German students are encouraged to visit Auschwitz and other Nazi death camp to learn about the HolocaustImage: Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture alliance

Many teenage German students visit the scene of such crimes against humanity: Since last autumn, 12th-graders Cara and Elias, along with Tamara and Esther, have been preparing for their weeklong stay at the Oswiecim/Auschwitz International Youth Meeting Center together with around 20 of their classmates.

"Participation is voluntary. Students apply for this project, and sometimes there even has to be a selection process," explains Katrin Kuznik, a teacher from Kerpen who has organized such trips several times. It is a challenge for the teachers, she says, but the children demonstrate great commitment to "exposing themselves to the place" and are able to process the experience quite well, also through group discussions. "Accompanying them," Kuznik says, "is an enormous responsibility. But so far it has always worked quite well."

Germany, right-wing extremism, and remembrance

The specter of German history, the crimes of National Socialism, the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, the persecution and killing of Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, political dissidents and members of the church — are all part of contemporary discourse. Barely 80 years after the end of the Nazi era, the country is currently in a state of unease as far-right groups and the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) gain strength.

Many wonder: can the country keep the memory alive? What will come of the persistent warnings once the witnesses and remaining survivors pass on? How do we foster responsibility over and above official speeches on official days of remembrance?

The Jewish Claims Conference has now published a report showing that 245,000 victims of the Holocaust are still alive worldwide, and 14,200 of them in Germany. Most of them are very old and often in need of care. Few of them are still able to appear in public. Despite being 101 years old, Margot Friedländer still does. Her public appearances are always a powerfully moving moment — because of her strength, her testimony, and her words of warning.

Holocaust remembrance vital as antisemitism rises in Europe

Christoph Heubner from Berlin, who was involved in the construction and conceptualization of the International Youth Meeting Center in Oswiecim in the 1980s, has long been Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee (IAC). Few people know as many Holocaust survivors in Germany as he does. When he describes his impressions of the witnesses' appearances at schools and commemorative events — appearances that can also be deeply affecting for the elderly speakers themselves — he uses a word that is used too seldom today: "generous." 

"There is a part of their inner life that we cannot access, where they are all alone," he says. "The loss of their whole family, their little sister, their parents…  By sharing their pain, they show great generosity towards the people who are alive today."

'Guiding principle for the protection of democracy'

Heubner finds it "sad, of course, now to be losing so many people." In recent years, it has been especially clear how important it is for many people in Germany, especially young people, to speak to the survivors in person — also as a warning and "guiding principle for the protection and preservation of democracy."

But in his interview with DW, Heubner's outlook was not pessimistic. He said that he is "not really concerned about the lasting impact of all this work" because every generation and every age group really finds its own way of engaging with this topic, of being shaken by it "in a very positive sense, as an emotional and intellectual response." This could be an artistic approach, watching a movie, or reading a book, or visiting a memorial site. Every new generation will find its own way to immerse itself in the stories of people and humanity, Heubner believes.

In Auschwitz, Manfred Deselaers is one of the people the young visitors can speak to. The Catholic priest from Aachen, Germany, has been living in Oswiecim for over 30 years. His book, "Touching the Wound of Auschwitz — A German Priest's Story," translated from Polish by Piotr Zylka, is due to be published soon.

Manfred Deselaers
Manfred Deselaers, a Catholic priest from Aachen, has lived in Oswiecim for over 30 yearsImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

For Deselaers, who has been honored and recognized for his work in both Poland and Germany, visiting the memorial today is "not just about gaining knowledge, but about finding our calling: how should we live so that we can look the survivors in the eye with a clear conscience?" He believes that all young people who come to Auschwitz, whether from Germany, Poland or Israel, including young people from immigrant families, will understand "that it's not just about mourning past suffering and honoring the dead, but about a call to take responsibility for our shared world." Remembrance also means: "This happened. It was possible then, so it is still possible today, could still happen again — Auschwitz illustrates the dimension of our responsibility," Deselaers explains.

'A much deeper understanding'

How did the four students from Kerpen experience Auschwitz, this dark place of remembrance? There is the tour through the barracks, where piles of human hair and eyeglasses reach up over visitors' heads. Mute testimonies to horror. Elias (18) astutely points out that Auschwitz is not a museum, which to him is a place to see things, to walk around and observe. "Auschwitz," he says, "is something you experience in a completely different way. You develop a much deeper understanding." Experiencing Auschwitz first-hand and preparing for the trip "makes it possible to deal with something that is obviously very difficult and makes it somehow an enriching experience," Elias explains.

Fellow student Tamara (18) says it is "definitely important" to give students the opportunity to visit such a place. It doesn't necessarily have to be Auschwitz, she says, but definitely a memorial site, a former camp. That is "something completely different" from just a history lesson.

The murky myths behind antisemitism

Schools in Germany do not require students to visit a memorial site from the Nazi era. Politicians have occasionally called for such requirements, but experts are hesitant. The number of schools that are organizing such trips is nevertheless increasing. In 2014, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK), representing the education ministers of all 16 German states, presented "Recommendations for a culture of remembrance to form an object of historical and political education in schools," in which visits to memorial sites are explicitly included. The following year a survey was conducted: there was virtually no mention of a compulsory visit in any of the states.

In early December 2023, two months after the attack on Israel by Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the EU, and other countries, the KMK issued a comprehensive statement on combating antisemitism and hostility toward Israel. It also called for a greater awareness of Jewish life and Jewish perspectives — and for the systematic integration of knowledge about antisemitism, Jewish history, and present-day Jewish life.

The students from Kerpen returned home shaped by their experiences. Teacher Kuznik says it is important "that the parents also understand how important this trip is, just like the students." Maybe the current political situation has made them realize "that a visit to the memorial has become even more important than it was a few years ago," she adds.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society every Tuesday. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C