Holocaust Educational Trust – Visit to Auschwitz
As a teacher you often get asked in the run up to half-term if you are going anywhere nice. Especially in October when the weather here is miserable. People ask if you are going somewhere warm and sunny to sit by a pool or something.
So when people asked me this year if I was going anywhere nice for half-term, they probably didn’t expect the response they got.
Mr Jackson and I were lucky enough to be given a place on a teacher training course run and largely funded by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) aimed at raising awareness of the Holocaust and improving teaching in lessons. I’d often heard people say that visiting Auschwitz is an experience you will never forget and I was torn between not really wanting to go due to the difficult subject matter, and wanting to go as I felt I had a duty to do it.
We began with a half-day orientation seminar in Birmingham where we met the other teachers that we were going with. This was when I started to realise the scale of it. There were around 200 teachers there we were put in groups of up to 20 for the actual trip. We had the opportunity at this seminar to discuss our thoughts on the Holocaust, how we already taught it, and our preconceived ideas about the actual visit. We also explored pre-war Jewish life in Europe to try and help humanise the tragedy.
Four days later on a cold October morning at 4.45am I stood in the Premier Inn reception near Birmingham airport waiting for Mr Jackson to drive us to the airport. Our charter flight was due to leave at 7.30. Upon meeting up with the rest of the teachers at the gate it was clear that there was a feeling of apprehension: this is not an easy trip to make.
After a 2 hour flight we arrived in Krakow and boarded buses to our first stop: the town of Osweicem (the Polish name for Auschwitz) where we went to the town square and reflected again on pre-war Jewish life. Over 50% of the population of the town were Jewish before the war and their influence on society and culture was immense. And yet these people disappeared over night.
From here we moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When I picture Auschwitz this is what I see. The train tracks leading through the archway to nowhere. I’d seen that image hundreds of times, and yet it seemed smaller. I felt like something that had so much impact should have been bigger. As we stood on the unloading platform we were given a talk by a Rabbi from London who accompanies all of the HET trips helping to shed light on the impact of the Holocaust on Jews today.
Auschwitz-Birkenau itself is big. A lot of the barracks were wooden and so no longer exist and as a result it seems to stretch on forever. I tried to think what it must have been like to be dragged off the trains in the chaos, not knowing what was going to happen.
We explored a few sections of the camp and were given the opportunity to lay a memorial candle at the end of the train track. I have written and deleted bits of this several times, but there really are no words to describe how it felt.
We then boarded the busses and made the short drive to Auschwitz I. This is almost all intact and was the original camp. Just as I had seen photos of the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, so I had of course seen the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign: ‘work makes you free’. A lie, of course.
Nothing can prepare you for walking into the gas chamber or the crematorium. Nothing can prepare you for barbed wire that still exists, and the buildings containing personal belongings of the victims. You can read the numbers but they mean nothing.
The day finished, as the cold Polish night was drawing in, with a memorial service in the grounds led by the London Rabbi. From the lights of our mobile phones we read the words, as the Rabbi prayed out loud for the victims of the Holocaust. To hear a Hebrew prayer and the sounding of a shofar (a rams horn blown on the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah) in that place is something I will never forget.
By 10.30pm we were back on the plane. As it was a charter plane we were the only ones on it, and so we had all just experienced the same day. This, combined with tiredness, led to a subdued and quiet journey home.
It gave me time to reflect. What I remember most is the silence. This was not a film set. This was reality. This wasn’t distant history, acts committed in a savage, less educated, era by people who knew no better. At school we teach about the Holocaust so that we will remember and never let it happen again. I know now exactly how important this is and I certainly do have a different understanding.
But to be honest, I’m still processing it, two months later. Mr Jackson and I will be returning in the summer with a group of Yr 12 and 13 students.
I’ll finish with telling you what we were told on the plane on the way home. The crew (pilots and cabin crew) usually hang out in a hotel whilst waiting for return flights. This crew didn’t. When they found out the purpose of our trip they asked if they could join us. After a quick dash to their hotel they changed and met us at the first camp. When asked why they gave up their free time, they said they felt that it was just something they needed to do. I have to agree.
Head of Religious Studies
Akeley Wood Senior School
Published on: 14th December 2016