Struggling to comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust

Stop: Original warning signs and barbed wire fences still line the route around the camp.
Stop: Original warning signs and barbed wire fences still line the route around the camp.
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ON A gloriously sunny day with the sound of birds flying overhead, it is hard to imagine the horrors which took place in Poland during the Second World War.

But little more than 70 years ago, the stifling heat around the red brick buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau would have been fatal for some of its emaciated prisoners.

Today, the three separate camps act as a permanent reminder of the deaths of six million people, including 1,500,000 children, during the Holocaust.

They tell a haunting tale of what life was like for the millions persecuted by the Nazis on concentration, death and labour camps.

Last week, teachers from Spalding and Donington joined more than 150 others at the camps in a bid to develop a better understanding of what happened and take it back to the classroom.

The gruelling day trip saw Barry Wilmot and Mel Deal, from Spalding Gleed Boys’ School, and Dr Geoff Baker, from Donington’s Thomas Cowley High School, spend time in Osweicim (Auschwitz in German), Auschwitz I and Birkenau.

The day was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, an organisation which seeks to address the difficulties of teaching such a significant and sensitive issue.

For the last 13 years, the Lessons from Auschwitz project has taken more than 14,000 teachers and pupils to Poland, based on the idea that ‘hearing is not like seeing’.

Teachers are also given the opportunity to learn about Jewish life in Europe before the war, reflect on their visit and plan ways of teaching what they have learnt to pupils and the wider community.

At Gleed Boys’ School, the Holocaust is a subject pupils asked to learn more about.

RE subject leader Miss Deal said: “I asked them if there was anything they had heard about that they wanted to learn more about. They decided on 9/11 and “the Jews”. They did not know the word Holocaust.

“It made me think about how we could approach the subject more.”

As part of the course, teachers met Holocaust survivor Bob Obuchowski. Miss Deal said it was a valuable experience for the classroom.

She said: “I told them a story about Bob Obuchowski and I was able to answer some of their questions as a result.

“When you’ve been somewhere and seen something for yourself it’s much easier to explain.”

Deciding on the most memorable experience of the day was something which did not come easily to Miss Deal.

“I think it’s the vastness of the place,” she said. “People can explain what it’s like but you can only imagine until you get here. It will definitely help me deliver it to the students.”

Dr Baker, head of humanities at Thomas Cowley High School, says his students study the Holocaust while looking at genocide.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau means the work pupils do will now be redeveloped, he said.

“Where this will help me is helping the students understand the individual stories of the Holocaust, and those of the people who died,” explained Dr Baker.

“It’s very difficult when teaching to talk about the huge numbers involved that we can not understand, let alone the children.

“These are real people who are like us and I think that will be far more powerful for the children.”

Dr Baker, like many of the other teachers, took photographs to use in his classes. He hopes by showing his pupils his own photographs, it will have a bigger impact than any other downloaded resource.

He said: “The experience was very understated. It was about reflection and what these things mean to you. You were not rushed around by someone. There is a lot to think about.

“I like what they have tried to do with their exhibition of life before the war, to show that they were not just victims. These were real people who had hopes and aspirations.

“It really brought home the machinery of it and the fact that what Hitler did was so clever and so efficient.

“The other thing is looking at how many people could be complicit in the Holocaust.”

As a result of the project, participants have led assemblies, created exhibitions and memorials and shared their experiences in class.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project is such a vital part of our work because it gives participants the chance to understand the dangers and potential effects of prejudice and racism today.

“The inspiring work that teachers and their students go on to do in their local area demonstrates the importance of the visit.”