Teachers from South Yorkshire and across the UK have learnt stark lessons from a trip to a Nazi death camp.
More than 200 teachers visited Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Holocaust Education Trust Lessons from Auschwitz project, a development course for teachers.
Among the group were teachers from Birkdale School in Sheffield and Wales High School near Sheffield.
Steve Kenyon, aged 55, a religious education teacher from Birkdale, said: “Today has been hard work because we are looking at something so brutal, something done on such an industrial scale. It’s difficult to take in really. It’s beyond all imagining.
“I think coming to a place like this you are able to talk to pupils with a degree of authority in a way because you have gone there and seen it and experienced it. Some of the things that have been brought to us by the project, insights into how to put this across in the classroom, are really important. This brings more weight to it.”
The teachers travelled to Oświęcim in Poland to see the death camp and were given a tour of the barracks and cremation sites and saw piles of belongings seized by the Nazis, including piles of shoes, clothing and cooking utensils as well as tons of human hair that was used in the textile industry under the regime.
More than 1.1 million people are thought to have died in Auschwitz. Jessica Walker, aged 26, who teaches history at Wales High School, said: “I feel absolutely drained. It’s just trying to take it all in. You see things on TV, see all the footage, but seeing face-to-face is completely different.
“This is already influenced how I plan on teaching my students in the next couple of weeks, let alone the next couple of years. This is a very, very important experience and it has given me lots of ideas and the more I work with others it will help me to prepare something that will really benefit my students.”
The HET runs trips for teachers and students every year to help people gain a better understanding of what happened during the Holocaust. The aim is for the teachers to learn from their personal experience of the day and take that back to the classroom.
Martin Winstone, HET’s Education Officer said: “I think a key theme which underpins Holocaust education is that although one can study something in a textbook and there are huge numbers of wonderful books that have been written about the holocaust, actually seeing something first hand brings an extra dimension.
“Lessons from Auschwitz is actually a project we offer for more than 3,000 students per year but also we feel it’s important to have something that’s specifically for teachers. So it’s both for them an experience which hopefully informs their teaching and enables them to reconsider how they can effectively deliver the Holocaust education.
“In a way it comes down to teachers, if you reach one teacher you’re potentially reaching hundreds of students.
“First and foremost for all of them it’s a personal experience, visiting Auschwitz and being confronted by – let’s be frank – what are quite distressing and unsettling things.
“How it then impacts on them as teachers is something that will ultimately come out in the fullness of time. It depends on what age of student they’re teaching, what subject they are teaching and so on, but hopefully it gives them a greater understanding of what the Holocaust was.
“And also we try to encourage them to think about what came before and say that an understanding of the Holocaust is not only about statistics but also about people, families, community and culture.”
Educational day trip to hell on a pleasant summer’s day
Star reporter Lauren Clarke joined the teachers on their visit.
A bird is singing somewhere in a blue June sky and I can smell freshly mown grass.
Anywhere else it would be a pleasant summer’s day but I am standing on a site of systematic mass murder.
There should be nothing here but bare, barren earth and an eerie silence...but shoots have sprung up among the ruins and rubble of the burnt out crematoriums of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I have joined 200 teachers on their educational day trip to hell.
We are shepherded through the austere red-brick barracks as the barbed wire fences loom over us. Seeing the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei slogan on the wrought-iron gates in the flesh is chilling.
We walk for what seems for miles through endless sheds that aren’t even good enough for cattle.
Then we enter a long corridor filled with the empty-eyed photographs of the dead. Below the frame, their name and profession are displayed, many are teachers.
Our tour guide explains: “Teachers and intellectuals were among the first to be arrested and brought here. They hadn’t done anything but they were potential leaders who could have fought for freedom and independence. We all turn back to stare at the faces.
Everyone is thinking – it could have happened to any of us...