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'The gas chamber was a dreadful awakening to the horrors that had taken place'

Secondary school teacher Mohammad Nahal from Kenilworth School and Sports College in the West Midlands recently attended the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz Career and Professional Development site visit for teachers. Here he talks about the trip and how it will impact his teaching. 

Our coach slowed and stopped at an unusual spot: a petrol station. After a short walk we arrived at a graveyard, much more unkempt than the ones we had passed thus far on the journey. Gravestones engraved with various symbols relating to Jewish culture stood around me, some neatly in rows, others lent against trees and some forged together to form monuments representing, in some unexplained way, much more than those who had been buried there.

In our groups, our educators led discussions about the site we were on. We were, of course, in a Jewish graveyard in a town where no Jews remained to maintain it. The monuments had been created after the war using the gravestones that had once been looted and used for paving the roads for the Nazi advance. They had been collected and returned shortly after the war. 

The absence of a community that before the war made up over 50 per cent of the town I was stood in left me with a real sense of the effect the Holocaust had on many communities in Europe long after the events of the Holocaust took place.   

Back on the coach we travelled for a few minutes before arriving at Auschwitz; we then obtained our headsets and met our guide. Before I could take in where I was, I found myself being led under the German sign that read "Arbeit Macht Frei", meaning "work will set you free". I felt anxious and thankful I could enter and leave as a free man. 

What followed was a walk through the camp, entering some of the brick built blocks that had once held over 2,000 prisoners each. Some of the blocks were now being used to house many artefacts, documents and images. 

Thousands and thousands of shoes. Tonnes of hair. Displays containing various items including spectacles and false limbs. Piles of suitcases marked clearly with the name and address of owners.

I focused on one case, marked with a name and date of birth of a young girl. I thought then of my young daughter, who looks so sweet with her backpack on, walking off to school with her mother. A humanisation process was taking place. It was not 6 million people that were killed during the Holocaust. It was 6 million individual people, each with their own life, family, dreams and aspirations, that had been brutally murdered. I knew I had to get my students to see things this way.  

Later, we stood in front of the place where the head commandant of the camp had been hung. The residence of Rudolf Höss and his family were pointed out. He lived there with his wife and children who would play in the garden. It was without doubt within hearing distance of the execution wall and visible from the journey prisoners made to the gas chamber. I wondered, and we discussed as a group, what type of 'family' man he may have been and what kind of events may have led to him overseeing such acts, something that I intended to discuss with my students in the future.  

The gas chamber was a dreadful awakening to the horrors that had taken place. 

We then arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It was vast, large in scale. The visit to the 'sauna' struck a chord with me. This was the place prisoners who had been deemed fit for work would have been registered, tattooed and had hair removed. After a shower, the camp uniform would be given to them. In this area was a display of personal photos taken from the cases of the victims I had seen at the previous site. Glimpses into lives taken covered the display: families on holiday, playing in the park, going to school. One image stood out for me, this time I was to think of my son who will also often run around the house wearing only his nappy. 

Further into the trip, I found myself stood in the central watch tower above the entrance through which the infamous train tracks led into the camp. I felt strange in that place as I contemplated who once stood there and what they were like. What were their thoughts? How did they live day to day? I thought about their mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. It was a complex web I was exploring. 

Back in England, as my family slept next to me, I praised Allah for all that I have. In my heart, I asked Him to keep us from such events being repeated by humanity again and to help educate us all, the whole of humanity, so we can understand the absolute necessity to treat each other with patience and love. 

My approach to learning about the Holocaust has changed and I have no doubt how I teach about the Holocaust and other events of genocide will improve as a result of the visit. 

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