One amongst six million: An exploration of young people’s identity formation within the contested space of the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum.
The Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum is a physical representation of a historic past. As the
single largest site of mass murder during the Holocaust, the museum space now represents
a number of (sometimes conflicting) pasts within a single geographic boundary. It is at once,
a sacred site, a memorial site, a cemetery, an archaeological site, an international symbol, a
World Heritage site, and a tourist attraction.
This paper builds on a project undertaken over the last few years, in cooperation with the
Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), exploring the experiences of young visitors to the
museum. The Trust takes two students from every Sixth Form in the UK on a one-day visit to
the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum, as part of a four-part programme that includes the
opportunity to hear from a Holocaust survivor prior to their visit. Although the organisers of
this programme work closely with the museum staff in the development of their
pedagogical programme and approach, as with any visitors very often the participants’
motivations remain unknown, as does the impact the visit has on their developing identities.
This project has specifically attempted to better understand young participants’ emotional
engagement with the site and the impact it has on them as young people and their
developing identity. The intention has been to explore how we (as teachers) can support
young people through this journey in a way that enables them towards a better
understanding of the events, without it becoming traumatic or damaging. This paper will
present initial findings with specific reference to educational contexts (particularly History
and Religious Studies lessons, and school visits more widely). It will challenge educators and
academics to rethink the ways in which we organise educational visits to sites of difficult
histories, from the point of view of young people’s potential emotional needs and identity
This research project has the goal of producing resources for teachers to use in schools to
support pupils before and after such visits (to Holocaust sites, battlefields, etc.) and as such,
could be presented as a workshop with teachers and academics if appropriate.