Secondary school students in Leeds are set to pioneer a groundbreaking educational initiative, delving into the impactful history of the Holocaust through an innovative online program. As the first in Britain to experience this unique opportunity, they will embark on a live-guided virtual tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in Poland, the notorious former concentration and extermination camp.

Dubbed the “Auschwitz in Front of Your Eyes” tour, the initiative is facilitated by the Warsaw-based Auschwitz Birkenau Foundation and the Auschwitz Memorial. Leveraging an online platform, memorial educators connect with audiences globally, offering a comprehensive two-hour virtual exploration of the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau sites. This immersive experience aims to deepen students’ understanding of the complex’s history and its profound impact.

Participants can engage in real-time interactions with their guides, posing questions while multimedia content, including testimonies from Holocaust survivors, supplements the educational journey. Auschwitz, considered the epicentre of the Holocaust, witnessed the loss of over 1.1 million lives during its nearly five years of operation, encompassing not only Jewish victims but also individuals from various backgrounds.

Deputy Leader of Leeds City Council and executive member for economy, culture and education Councillor Jonathan Pryor, said: “Leeds is a city built on tolerance, understanding, and learning. As a society, we must never forget the horrific actions that humans are capable of to ensure that this is never repeated. I’m proud that young people in Leeds will become some of the first participants in the Auschwitz-Birkenau virtual tour.

“This an incredible opportunity for people around the world to further their understanding of genocide by seeing the scale of the camps, and contemporary accounts of what took place.

“Sadly, the world is still blighted by hate. Education is the best weapon in fighting the threat of future atrocities and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial acts as a powerful warning from history. The virtual tour will become an invaluable tool in anti-discrimination education here in Leeds, nationally and internationally.”

One fully funded tour will be offered to each of the 44 secondary schools in Leeds and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation puts no limits on the number of attendees in each session. The tours are aimed at the 14–15-year-old age group and will be in line with the year 9 and 10 curriculum, but it will be left to individual schools to govern student suitability and the number of attendees.

The first year of the programme has been funded by individual councillors who have used some of their community funding allowances to raise £4,600. The initiative to bring the “Auschwitz in Front of Your Eyes” programme to Leeds secondary schools supports the national work of the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which the United Kingdom is currently chairing.

Speaking about the importance of the project to Anglo-Polish relations, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Poland, Anna Clunes, said: “The ‘Auschwitz in front of your eyes’ tour is an important example of Polish-British cooperation to educate future generations, preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and ensure the tragedy of Auschwitz-Birkenau never happens again.

“The UK is committed to fighting antisemitism and will be honoured to lead international efforts to promote Holocaust education and remembrance in 2024.”

Leeds took part in a trial of the virtual tour system in May 2023, following Councillor Robert W. Gettings’ visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in November 2022 as Lord Mayor of Leeds. A reciprocal visit to Leeds by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation chief executive, Wojciech Soczewica, took place in January 2023 in which Mr Soczewica met Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture, and education Councillor Jonathan Pryor to discuss the project.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation chief executive, Wojciech Soczewica, said: “In less than a year the world will be commemorating for the 80th time the liberation of Auschwitz.

“We will be listening to survivors, who over the past decades have been warning against hatred, indifference, and polarization. Their personal stories are testimony to the horrific crimes committed at Auschwitz and other sites during the Second World War and have been shaping remembrance across Europe and the world. As a result, memorials have become centres of education. They have secured the voices of the victims, laid out the roles of perpetrators, and helped us understand how exclusion and hate led to Auschwitz.

“Now, in a rapidly changing environment, where new technologies provide global access to content, it is our responsibility to seek new ways in which the truth about Europe’s darkest chapter can be accessed by everyone.

“I believe that we can and should learn from history. This is why the partnership with Leeds City Council leading to the introduction of live, interactive tours at the memorial for all public schools is such an opportunity. It will allow the city’s students to see with their own eyes, directly from their school classes the universality of antisemitism and hate and serve as a vaccine against all types of discrimination. Together we are demonstrating that with goodwill and personal commitment, innovation across borders is possible and it will help us in our goals of reaching a global audience.

“I am confident that this is just the beginning of a close relationship, one based on common values and responsibility towards our difficult past.”

Former Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Robert W Gettings MBE JP said: “The horrors of the Holocaust must never be repeated, and we must allow as many people as possible the opportunity to learn the consequences of prejudice and hate.

“Sadly, the chilling shadow of genocide is still an ever-present issue in the world today, so the need for education on the product of hate is more pressing than ever. I am therefore proud that Leeds is going to play such a pivotal role in a project that could have a worldwide impact in furthering tolerance and understanding of each other.

“I look forward to hearing the feedback from those young people in Leeds who take part in the project and to offering this unique opportunity to as many students as possible.”

Schools in Leeds will be able to book their virtual tour from 19 February 2024 and further information on the project will be made available on the Leeds For Learning at https://www.leedsforlearning.co.uk/Store/Service/53569