To stand inside wooden barracks designed for 52 horses, but used to house over 400 female prisoners, is to be overwhelmed by the horror of Auschwitz. No amount of preliminary research or listening to Holocaust survivor testimonies can prepare one for a visit to a place that was carefully planned and constructed as a factory for killing human beings.
In late June I joined a group of more than 200 teachers from schools and colleges across the south of England to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).
HET's Lessons from Auschwitz Project was set up 12 years ago on the premise that 'hearing is not like seeing' and that to grasp the scale of the Holocaust it is necessary to visit one of the Nazi camps.
The project combines a one-day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with follow-up seminars which deal with the issues raised. Initially established for students over 16 years of age, the project has been extended to include a professional development course for secondary school teachers. The scheme has enabled more than 10,000 students and teachers from the UK to visit the site.
We landed in Krakow and took a short drive west to the small town of Oswiecim, where, prior to the Second World War, there lived a community of almost 6,000 Jews, more than 50 per cent of the local population at the time. The prewar Jewish cemetery, destroyed and pillaged by the Nazis in September 1940 but reconstructed after the war, is now abandoned and overgrown. There are no surviving Jews in Oswiecim.
We were then taken to Auschwitz I, the first section of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, constructed on the site of a former Polish army barracks. Our journey ended at Birkenau, a subcamp built in March 1941 that was developed into the main extermination centre. Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the Central Synagogue in London's Great Portland Street, led a memorial service at the ruins of Crematoria II.
Although the project is aimed primarily at teachers, we were joined by a group of British police officers, who were there to gain a more thorough awareness of one of the principal sites of the Holocaust in an effort to combat a worrying surge in antisemitism in communities across Britain.
This is borne out by figures published in the Community Service Trust's (CST) Antisemitic Incidents Report for 2009. The CST is a charity dedicated to collecting, analysing and publishing statistics relating to antisemitic crime, as well as providing training and advice for the protection of British Jews. Last year it recorded 924 antisemitic incidents in the UK, the highest annual total since it began monitoring such incidents in 1984. The number is almost double the previous record of 598 incidents in 2006.
Could it be that this surge in antisemitic crime is linked to the way in which the Holocaust has been taught in schools?
Certainly the teachers I met on this visit think that the Holocaust can be 'overdone', featuring in the national curriculum in history, English and religious education, and is sometimes poorly taught. Most I talked to refuse to use any of the recommended textbooks in their teaching of it. They complained that the subject is often tacked on to the end of chapters about the Second World War as if it were some byproduct of the conflict. …