The Horrors of the Holocaust
‘The horrors of the Holocaust’,’ it must never be forgotten’, and ‘we must learn from it’ are phrases I have said every year when teaching Year 9 students about the Holocaust. They are words I never fully understood until 12th June 2013 when I was given the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. The trip is run annually for teachers by the Holocaust Education Trust. It was an opportunity that myself and James Clayton (Teacher of RE) felt we could not let pass us by. Having only learnt about the Holocaust from textbooks, pictures and different forms of media, we felt we needed to visit and experience Auschwitz for ourselves in order to fully understand this event.
The greatest lesson I have taken away from this experience is that 1.25 million people, mainly Jews died at Auschwitz, but it is not this number that is significant. It is the mothers, fathers, grandparents and children who were victims of this atrocity. They are not a number, they were individuals whose stories deserve to be told.
The Sunday prior to departure we attended a meeting in Manchester to help prepare us for our day. During this event we had the privilege to hear the story of Zigi Shipper, an Auschwitz survivor who considers himself, ‘lucky’. I asked myself why was he lucky, as I had just been told about his life in the ghettos, working as a labourer, including at Auschwitz. He had seen terrible sights including 5 boys, when lining up to be hanged, jumping off a stool rather than it being knocked from under them. He had contracted typhus and was not fed for 14 days at one point, but he was lucky. After he finished telling his story it became clear he was a charming, sport loving, proud family man, who could inspire anyone who has gone through a tough time. His message was clear: even after the horrors he had experienced, with the right attitude you can be happy! His story, and the testimony of others, rang in my ears as we walked around Auschwitz.
There were several moments in the day that I would like to share with you. I could tell you the facts that I learnt, but that was not the experience. One thing that became apparent to us while visiting both Auschwitz One and Birkenau was the sheer scale of the camp. There were, in fact, 40 sub-division camps.
At Auschwitz 1 the barracks housed some of the museum exhibitions. As we walked around one barrack I entered a room and looked to my left. I was faced with a cabinet of hair; if I am honest, my stomach sank. Hair that should have belonged to a woman or a man, to give them back their identity and dignity, had been taken from them, the Nazis had dehumanised them. Rooms of pots and pans, shoes, suitcases with names and more followed. It was the small cabinet of baby clothes and shoes that really made me stop. These represented a small number of the children who had died here. Each an innocent victim who was not given the opportunity to live their life and make their own choices simply because, in the eyes of the Nazis, they were ‘undesirable.’ I felt I was unable to pay each person the respect they deserved due to the voice in my ears from the guide who was telling me the next room awaited and I need to move on.
Before going to Auschwitz I was aware of what happened at the camp but, whereas before each barrack was the same, now they have their own story. Block 10 was where experiments on women and sterilisation were done. Block 11 was where Polish political prisoners were held and, in the cells below, prisoners who were being punished by starvation were held. Between the two buildings was a yard used for torture and as a firing range. If prisoners were too weak to work they were killed. Many of the punishments meant eventually they became weak and the inevitable would happen. This understanding is one memory that James will not forget.
The next moment I would like to share with you was when we walked from the train platform of Birkenau to the purpose built gas chambers (destroyed prior to the camp’s liberation) at the end of the track. As we walked that path it dawned on me, as a mother of a 3 year old, that there would have been many Jewish mothers who had walked the same path before me. Some, perhaps, already suspecting the fate that awaited them and their children. It is a realisation I still cannot put into words, but it was on that path that I chose to place my burning memorial candle.
My most emotional moment of the day was during the memorial service, led by a Rabbi at the end of the day. He stood at the end of the tracks near the gas chamber and said a Hebrew prayer in a traditional way. The sun was shining, the sight felt peaceful, but the sound of his prayer moved me.
Even though we were there just 7 hours there are many more experiences that I could share and that I don’t think will ever leave me. I know that James would agree that our teaching of the Holocaust will never be the same. If all we had taken from this day were a couple of new facts to tell Year 9 in lessons then we had failed. If, when we shared our experience with the staff at Tupton Hall, our words were quickly forgotten then we had failed. This was not simply a tour of Auschwitz. It was a personal experience we could never have prepared for, but one that we will continue to share. Since returning from Auschwitz we have managed to share our experience with the whole of Year 9 and hopefully broadened their understanding of the significance of this sight and possibly the opportunity to reflect slightly on their own lives.
Michelle Smith, Teacher of History
James Clayton, Teacher of RE