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The Memory Train: a trip that changes people

This year on “The Memory Train” there have been five cases of students coming out with their homosexuality . Teachers told me about it and they were very happy. During the trip, coming and going, in the dining car there are meetings with witnesses and representatives of the persecuted communities, such as gypsies and homosexuals. This is one of the few cases in which I can appreciate the usefulness of the job that I’m trying to do: the historian.

The Memory Train: the statement of a teacher

Most people think that the trip to Auschwitz is a waste of money and a twisted tourism, also a little bit morbid. Those who go there always change their minds. Sometimes I’m stopped along the way by students who recognize me and say: “the best trip in my life“. I smile and answer them: “I hope not“. But I understand what they mean. The first time I went there with my head and my emotions, I had to reflect. I should explain that students don’t just get on the train, and that’s it. The year before, teachers attend a summer school with some experts on this subject. Then they organize a special program with their students in the classroom  and at the end they select two of them who are particularly interested. All the students travel with a smartphone that allows them to make a report about holocaust: they interview the witnesses and the companions, they film workshops and guided tours.

Then, when back at school, they have to revise their documentation with the other students who haven’t gone there: they edit the documentary and add musics. On the website of the Tuscany region it’s possible to find these projects and, as you can see, they’re not bad at all. When we meet the witnesses – seven hundred students tired from a night on the train and a day in the cold inside the concentration camp – there’s absolute silence. Because they see what most of them have never experienced before: the pain. And they see the life of persons who severely experienced it, who found the strength to survive it and who now are ready to reopen that wound. And then they cry for them. They cry to instill in them something that they have to pass on, in their turn. It doesn’t happen often and it won’t happen to them on other occasions. That’s way they say “the best trip of my life“. That’s why those who have lived in silence until then, perceive the courage of these survivors and find themselves the courage to tell their companions something that they never told them.

The trip of a lifetime

To us, as teachers, remains the task to remove “best” from their sentence. What we do with the “Memory Train” is “the trip of a lifetime“: each of us in his lifetime goes through difficult times in which we need to choose between freedom and something else (career, money, a quiet life and much more…). On this occasion we remember what the lack of freedom means: dorms, toilets, gas chambers and creamtoriums. And we can choose blessing the fact that we’re not in that hellhole. And we can choose cursing those who teach to be afraid of humans who are different from you: there are a lot of “fear entrepreneur” in every time, including our time. They are the same who build gas chambers. Because they will never learn that it takes all kinds to make a world. And since making a living is not that easy, they will always find someone who listen to them. It’s always easier to blame somebody else.


Giovanni Gozzini, historian and professor of Contemporary History at the University of Siena.

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