I know the history. I've read the books. I've watched the documenatries. These days I even teach the history.
But none of that prepared me for walking under the 'Arbeit Mach Frei' gate at Auschwitz. Or arriving at the railway siding in Birkenau in the pitch dark and driving rain.
To describe what can be seen at the camp would reduce the experience to something far too ordinary. In fact it is the brief glimpses of the ordinary amongst the horror that are the most shocking. The single recognisable plait of hair in a room full of human hair. The odd pair of impractical high heels in a room filled with battered utiliarian shoes. Or amongst the corridors of grim prison photos of the murdered - the occasional cheeky child, glamorous woman, or defiant and cocky tough-guy.
But most of all I have never been anywhere were the sense of place is so overwhelming. Just the un-remarkable brick buildings themselves ooze something that eats into you.
Throughout the tour of Auschwitz we were fitted out with headphones and a receiver through which our guide delivered her commentary. For about an hour and a half I found myself complete absorbed in the place and my own thoughts and unaware of anyone else. And when I did look around me, I could see that the fifty 17 and 18 year old too-cool-for-school, savvy London kids we had taken on the trip were equally absorbed. So much so that by the time we had made the short trip to the Birkenau site we didn't even need the headphones to achieve the same effect. And then the next day the same thing happened when we went round the former Cracow ghetto , visited the Schindler factory, and met a survivor.
When you're fiddling the key stage three data input in order to demonstrate progress over time, or sitting through a CPD session listening to the latest SLT pedagogical initiative whilst everyone is ignoring the fact that it is an 180 degree turnaround from the initiative we committed to last term - it is easy to forget: Sometimes, just sometimes, being a History teacher is the best job in the world.