A Teacher Evaluates the HGP

By Kathy Skidmore
Broadford Secondary College, Australia

What can an Australian contribute to a Holocaust project? I have no relatives who suffered; my ancestors were all English. I was born in a country which is far removed from many of the world's problem areas. My only point of reference is some reading of text books, seeing a few films, and, from time to time, looking at a photo of Auschwitz survivors and thinking "how awful" but promptly letting my images drift away.

Fence in Kazimierz, Poland
Fence in Kazimierz, Poland

I've always thought of myself as somewhat of a "socially aware" type. You know, someone who is outraged by inequalities, who is determined to try at least to act ethically, and who donates a little money here and there to "causes." Doing these things sort of makes you feel OK; you're doing your bit. Yes, I'm always ready to hop into a discussion about how governments have created wars, then sent the ordinary people off to fight them, and of course, these terrible things that happen to the victims must be stopped! I thought I really believed this.

Travelling to Poland and Israel on the Holocaust/Genocide Project study mission has thrown those old cozy thoughts of mine into disarray. I've discovered that I really didn't know much at all. How easy it is to rant and rave about horror in the Holocaust and in the rest of the world, but not ever really to know anything except in the intellectual sense. How hollow most of my understanding was -- and still is, to a large extent. What an essential lesson for a teacher to learn!

At times in Poland I had to consciously force my brain to stop switching off, such was the volume of images, feelings, and thoughts running through it. I could not create a mental picture of many of the events I was forced to acknowledge -- such was the utter insanity of them. I can look back now at my diary, and the places and pictures and sounds, and the cold and the emotion and voices and conversations, and thoughts all come back to me. But I can't tell anyone. It frustrates me intensely that I just don't have the words. I'm an English teacher and I don't have an adequate vocabulary! I've never really experienced this before.

I've been asked so many times -- "How was your trip?" So, I tell them either about the extermination camps or the gas chambers, Jerusalem, or the "good fence" at the Lebanon-Israel border. Everyone seems to go away satisfied and saying, "What an amazing trip! You must have had a great time!" But I know I've only given them what I could put into words, and they, sadly, can't do the job.

So, what can this Australian contribute to the HGP? I can tell the rest of the world that there are some things which transcend language and which demand to be remembered by experience alone. I would never presume to comprehend truly what a Holocaust survivor has seen, but I know now that a person can't even begin a journey towards such knowledge without something planted inside them which is beyond words. Perhaps this is why a movie like Schindler's List leaves the audience eerily quiet at the end.

I'm sure that my memories of the trip will fade, and some of the scenes in my mind have already turned into snapshots rather than feeling like reality. I have, however, gained a much clearer picture of what horror must be, and I don't think I'll ever be quite as smug again about what I think I know. Seeing the remains of a bizarre era in history has taught me just how much I need to learn.

What's appalling is that this bizarre era is always happening again and again because we can't get the message across. Words aren't enough to stop Rwanda or Bosnia. People have to feel. This is what our mission must be.

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