Once Experienced Never Forgotten – A tour of Auschwitz

Last year my department got a letter from Chesterhill Charitable Trust Limited offering a free 2 day tour of Krakow and the Auschwitz camps in March 2018, including hotel, travel and food for 5 students, with an accompanying teacher. Who could say no to such an opportunity – certainly not us! So we packed our bags and off we went… (well that is once SLT authorised, risk assessments completed, letters home, payments received  for travel expenses to Heathrow airport, passports checked, endless train deals searched, mini bus and driver arranged, cover work set – you get the idea!)

We were greeted at Heathrow airport by Chuni Kahan (@Kahan_Travel), a man who has dedicated his life to arranging these visits for police workers, ambulance drivers, emergency service workers, students and others, in order to keep the history of the Holocaust alive, current and real to the next generation. Through the support of educational trusts and charities, Chuni has organised trips for over 15 years and we were very fortunate to now be part of this legacy of learning. Chuni was immediately welcoming, clearly very organised with group lanyards, fresh bagels and booklets of information on hand. We were set for our tour.

We arrived in Krakow and after a guided tourDSC03981.JPG of the historical features of the main town, a filling tea of homemade hummus, soup, marinated chicken and salad, we headed to our Spa and Wellbeing hotel that looked like something out of an Austrian Ski resort. After an early start, filled with a hot Kosher breakfast including crepes, coffee and fresh bread, we made our way to Auschwitz One.

As we approached the first camp the familiar feelings of dread started and upon seeing the brick buildings, barbed wire and overgrown railway line along the main road, I knew we had arrived (I visited the camps through the Holocaust Educational Trust about 7 years ago.) I didn’t know what was worse – knowing what we were about to experience or not knowing, as the case was for my students, the horrors that awaited them inside. Once you have seen the hair, the suitcases, the inside of a gas chamber, such memories are etched forever into your mind. A little bit of innocence is left behind. 

We were kitted out with our tour headphones and made our way to the famous sign. Over the next two hours we went in and out of the brick buildings (originally built for prisoners of war),  heard how the holocaust started and developed, the stories of the souls that perished and saw their lives captured in their belongings.

Once back on the coach, with our pre packed lunches that were provided, we made our way to Auschwitz Birkenau. We re-joined our guide and made our way through the sleeping barracks, along the railway lines, past the endless knocked down buildings and piles of rubble that were once the gas chambers.

Through the birch trees along the back of the camp (Auschwitz Birkenau means ‘Auschwitz of the Birch trees’) we visited the ponds were the burnt ashes of thousands of lives were scattered.

We ended the day with a touching prayer given by Chuni Kahan and then a slow, thoughtful walk back to the coach, each of us lost in our own thoughts from the day.

Thank you to Chesterhill Charitable Trust Limited and Chuni Kahan at Kahan Travel  for without them I would not have been able to share this experience with my students.

                        “This was by far the most intense experience of my life which deeply moved and affected me.”
(From one of my students)

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How to Teach about the Holocaust

There are three things I rely  upon when planning any lesson:

  • Book passages
  • Pictures
  • Quotes

There is an abundance of these sources available on the Holocaust. As far as books are concerned I tend to avoid the overly used but still very good ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ instead choosing passages from Elie Wiesel’s work.

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Holocaust Memorial Museum UK

When searching for Holocaust related placesIMG_4710.JPG to take students in the UK there are minimal options. Other than the collection of memorabilia in London’s Imperial War Museum the largest, dedicated centre just to
the Holocaust can be found in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

The Holocaust Memorial and Museum is named Beth Shalom: The House of Peace. The team at the Centre organise a day package of activities suiting all ages for minimal cost.

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It is all about the number…Teaching about the Holocaust

Over the years I have been extremely fortunate to take part in a number of events hosted by the Holocaust Educational Trust http://www.het.org.uk including a free CPD course on how to teach the Holocaust as well as visiting Auschwitz myself through the Lessons from Auschwitz scheme http://www.het.org.uk/lessons-from-auschwitz-programme. The one message that comes loud and clear through all of these courses is “teach about the individuals not about the number.” That ‘number’ being the death toll: six million Jews, over three million Soviet prisoners of war, 200,000 gypsies and about 70,000 men, women and children with mental and physical handicap to name a few.

This is why a few years ago I attempted something rather controversial in my classroom.

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Leaving a Lasting Impression: Personalised Holocaust Memorials

With the events of the Holocaust it is not just a matter of whether the students can recite answers to text book questions, it is about enabling your students to process the information in a more meaningful way. I believe it is important to allow your students the opportunity to express their own thoughts and feelings on what they have learnt. There are many ways to achieve this from: poetry, story accounts and book reviews but another option is to create a class memorial – a physical object that remains within the classroom as a reminder to the students.

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Teaching the Holocaust

Learning about the Holocaust can be very difficult, so teaching about it can seem very daunting. I somehow avoided learning about the Holocaust throughout my school years – I never studied GCSE History, R.S focused on Jewish traditions and practises rather than the events that affected their faith, so I was blissfully unaware …until my PGCE.

I will always remember the boisterous year eight R.S class who I taught the Holocaust to in my first teaching placement. I don’t know what worried me more: the thought of standing in front of a class to teach about a topic area so emotionally delicate or the response the year eights would have to it. As I planned my lesson I prepared myself for the jokes, jibes and inappropriate comments and I envisaged worst case scenarios (a right of passage for any teacher.) How wrong could I have been!

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