Letters to the Editor

The Shoah in Budapest: What was it? Where was it?

A 5-day summer course with field trips for students 14-18
at the Holocaust Memorial Center, Budapest

Are average students of our days interested in the holocaust at all?
Are they willing to sacrifice some of their summer vacation and free time
to learn more about the Shoah? Are they open to examine and fathom
the dilemmas and possible choices of the once involved, either as victims,
perpetrators, rescuers or bystanders? Or is it merely a tiny group of the
obsessed who endeavor to continuously shower students with all the
information and stories of the holocaust? All of us who teach about the Shoah
at any level and in any form (be it elementary school, secondary school,
higher education, a museum or a memorial center) tend to ask these questions
from ourselves at one time or another. And we need to find answers as well.

In the following article we would like to share our experience gained at the
2005 Shoah Summer Course organized at the Holocaust Memorial Center in
Budapest. Our aim is to present the initial idea of the program, its
basic concept, method of advertisement and way of realization. Last but
not least, we also hope to both find and give an answer for the above
imposed questions.

The idea
In school year 2004/2005 we regularly guided and gave thematic, interactive
history lessons to different school classes in the Holocaust Memorial
Center, Budapest. We worked with about one hundred groups of students.
What kind of schools did they arrive from? It was not the Jewish
institutions of education, neither the most elite secondary schools
that brought their students to the holocaust center (with very few
exceptions.) These were mainly the average elementary and
secondary schools (of all the different types; grammar, vocational,
etc.) both from the capital and the country, some of which sent each and
every class of the school to the center. A couple of groups came from
higher education. Following the lessons we always asked students to fill
in a questionnaire. Received answers showed us that although students were
basically familiar with the most well-known events of the Shoah, they would
gladly learn more about the events, personal stories, historical and moral
questions of the period. These responses inspired us to launch a week-long
program in summer, aimed at exploring how and where exactly the holocaust
took place in our hometown, Budapest. Consequently, we intended to invite
students with this special interest from schools in the capital.

The basic concept and advertisement
Our plan was to hold different lessons and activities for students through five
days (Monday-Friday) in the mornings, with the complementary field trips in
the city taking part in the afternoons. Programs would last from 10 to 16
every day. Aim of the course was to examine events of the Shoah in Hungary,
with a special focus on Budapest. Each day would have a central topic, around
which presentations, activities and the chosen spots and sights can be
organized. Thus, we had the following agenda for the week:
Day 1: Coexistence and persecution
Situation of the Jewry in Hungary prior to the anti-Jewish legislation, the
anti-Jewish laws and their effect on the Jewish communities
(visited places: the synagogues in the Jewish quarter, Mai Mano House, the
Houses of Parliament)
Day 2: Forced labor service
The background of this special institution, circumstances of work, the fate of
people in the MUSZ (munkaszolgalat)
(visited places: brick factory in Becsi street, the National Riding Arena, that
is places where these people were rounded up)
Day 3: Deportation
The tragedy of Jews in the country, the order and methods of transportation,
deportations from Budapest)
(visited places: the Jozsefvaros railway station, the East railway station,
where the first and last wagons were launched from in the spring and
fall of 1944)
Day 4: The Budapest ghetto
The history of the Budapest Jews in 1944/45. The questions of rescuing and
(visited places: the ghetto areas in Pest, Klauzal square: the central place of
the ghetto, the memorial of Swiss consul Carl Lutz and the memorials on the
bank of Danube)
Day 5: Resistance
A longer walk in the city focusing on places of interest of the Zionist
resistance and rescue in Budapest
(visited places: Bethlen Gabor street, the Glasshouse and the memorial of
Zionist resistance)

The morning sessions were irregular history lessons with interactive classroom
activities; we used power point presentations, video films, memoirs,
documentaries, as well as pieces of literature, art and music. Here
we always made students actively take part in the discussions, pair and
group works, even role plays and creative work, trying to involve them as
much as possible when seeking answers together for the questions raised.
Following lunch we set out to the chosen sights of the day. Why these
field trips? As we have experienced, students can be deeply touched when
taken to the very spots where the studied events took place. Actually, a
great number of books on the holocaust are available by now, both in
Hungarian and in other languages as well. Anyone interested in the topic
can learn from all these books, not to mention the related websites on the
net. And we, as teachers, are responsible for guiding and helping our
students in finding their way among all the information at disposal, it
is we who should assist them to absorb what they have found out. However, we
are in a "privileged" position in the sense that many of the studied events
physically took place in our country and our hometown, Budapest.
Consequently we deem it more than important that students living
here should not learn about the happenings of the Shoah restricted to their
study books (and classrooms) only, but they should face the reality of the
events right on the very spots of the same. This way they will get a much better
understanding of all what happened, and all the dilemmas and possible
choices of the people in the midst of a cruel struggle for either power or
survival. Their situation, questions and decisions will become more
relevant, once witnessed to their circumstances. Finally, one of our
most important aims with all this is to make students realize, the very
streets and places where they are passing day after day are quite rich
in history, which is worth to explore and maybe remember when next passing
by. Discussing and understanding what a certain place meant for the
refugees, rescuers, perpetrators, bystanders, etc. will create a
meaning for us as well, linking us to the unforgettable reality of the
Now it is easy to understand why we invited students living in Budapest to the
course. (Accommodation for outsiders could not be provided at this time,
which was another obstacle in attracting a wider group.) Advertisement,
however, was not without difficulties. Though the program was ready much
earlier, it was only two weeks before the end of the term that the Memorial
Center could finally inform schools in an email. Letters were never sent out
to them. Electronic advertisement was placed on a few more websites, such as
the Association of Teachers of History, or that of a marketing company, Open
Gates Hungary. Due to the delay and insufficient share of information it was
finally with seven students that the summer camp was started. Who were these
students? Four girls and two boys from the most varying background and age
group, the youngest from grade 7, the oldest ones being a student of law
and a graduate from the teacher trainer collage, majoring in history and
literature. Consequently, the biggest challenge for us was to conduct the
course in a way that would not be too academic for primary students, but,
at the same time, not childish and boring for those from higher education.
In this respect, we must say, the course was a success. At times we could
give different tasks in the same subject to the different pier groups, and
even when working together, participants showed much consideration towards
each other. They were honestly interested in the opinion of a different
age group and particularly enjoyed the family like atmosphere in which
work was going on. We must admit, we, too, were inspired by the spirit of
this unique group.

In the following we would like to share how exactly, by what methods and with
what results the program was carried out in July, 2005.
First of all it is important to emphasize that it is not only the facts and
figures of history that we convey to our students when teaching. Such a
complicated and complex theme as the holocaust itself certainly requires an
interdisciplinary approach from the part of the teacher(s). We always use
materials of other fields apart from history, such as literature, fine
arts, music, or theology. Regarding methods of presentation, we
intentionally depart from the traditional method applied in most
schools, which is based on the passive presence of listeners only, while
the educator does all the speaking, informing. At this point, let us go
into details on how exactly we built up each session and how we worked
them through with our students at the memorial center.