During half term I had the opportunity of attending a study visit to Poland organised by the Holocaust Education Trust (HET). Twenty teachers from all over the country were accompanied on the tour by representatives from the HET including the renowned author Martin Winstone, and our guide was Jeremy Leigh from the Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, Israel.
The study tour was academically rigorous and can be used towards a Master’s degree level. It required considerable background reading beforehand, and we referred to a variety of texts including poems, eyewitness accounts and primary and secondary sources during the visit.
We visited a wide range of sites associated with the holocaust including sites of mass shootings and burials in forests and the notorious Treblinka death camp. Treblinka operated between 23 July 1942 and 19 October 1943 as part of Operation Reinhard, the most deadly phase of the Final Solution. During this time, it is estimated that between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed in its gas chambers, along with 2,000 Romani people. More Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz.
For me the highlight of the four days was the visit to the newly opened Museum of Jewish Life and attending a service at the only surviving and functioning synagogue in Warsaw.
Such was the intensity of the four days that the only time I had to go to mass was 7.00 am on the Sunday morning, and to my surprise the church was full!
Herein lays a problem for me with the holocaust as a practising Catholic. Whilst one can admire the bravery of many individual Catholics and members of the Catholic clergy, the conduct of others and the church as whole in the holocaust was ambivalent to say the least.
I have had time to reflect since my return, and hope to use the experience to work with the history department in reviewing how we teach the holocaust in school. The key is a cross curricular approach, collaborating with other departments such as RE, Art and English. If we can persuade these departments to work together our students would have a greater appreciation and understanding of this fascinating and most important event in history, and St Thomas More could apply to become a Beacon School in Holocaust Education.
The pictures above are from the Memorial at Treblinka Death Camp. There are 15,000 stones laid out surrounding a large stone memorial. The stones represent the 15,000 locations from where victims of the camp were taken, and the names of places are carved on some of the stones.