There can be few places on this planet that have such an horrendous history as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration camp where more than 1.5million Jews were murdered. There can also be few places on earth that offer such an important lesson for future generations as CATE MUNRO discovered during a trip with pupils from five of Huntingdonshire’s secondary schools.
HEARING is not the same as seeing.
Those were the words of Rabbi Marcus on the flight from England to Poland for a day-long trip at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp.
Hours later those words would resonate as myself and students from five Huntingdonshire schools – St Peter’s, Sawtry, Abbey College, Hinchingbrooke and Kimbolton – digested the powerful lessons that can be taken from a place where the murder of 1.6million Jews occurred between 1940 and 1945.
It was my first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death factory created during the German occupation of Poland, and built around army barracks in the suburbs of a city called Oswiecim, about one hour from Krakow.
The camp was built with one aim: the mass extermination of an entire race of people using, for the first time in history, industrial methods, namely gas chambers.
The trip started at Stansted Airport 5am on a foggy Thursday morning, which was filled with nervous apprehension.
“I don’t think you can have any idea about what to expect from something like this,” 16-year-old Hinchingbrooke student, Annie Avery, told The Hunts Post.
And that seemed to be the consensus.
No amount of research could prepare any of us for the vast range of emotions that we were to experience throughout that day.
The trip was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz project. Group educator David Jones said the aims were to “re-humanise” both the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
“Our aim is to pass these lessons on to contemporary society, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,” Mr Jones said.
The initial part of the visit took place at Auschwitz 1 – one of six death camps in Poland. All of the camps were strategically located near large populations of Jews and on main transport routes.
At the camp near Oswiecim – later Germanised into the name Auschwitz – Jews accounted for 58 per cent of the population. Every last one was wiped-out.
To enter Auschwitz 1 everyone has to pass through its steel gates. But you pass into an area that is so unobtrusive-looking, that it is hard to see how it was home to so much evil.
Emily Price, 16, of St Peter’s School, said: “The whole place is a lot more unassuming than I thought it would be. If you hadn’t seen what was going on in the inside, you would never guess Auschwitz was a concentration camp.”
The main street was lined with well-built, red-brick barrack buildings which the Nazis turned into ‘blocks’.
Block 10 became known as the “Death Block”. It was there that SS Officer Dr Josef Mengele – known as the Angel of Death – performed experiments on the prisoners. Block 11 was known as the “Poison Block”, where prisoners were tried by a Gestapo court, tortured and terrorised for their ‘misdemeanours’.
Heading towards the only remaining gas chamber in Auschwitz, the mood of the group became even more restrained than throughout the previous two hours. We had witnessed chambers filled with over two tonnes of human hair, shoes, suit-cases, children’s toys, even kitchen utensils packed frantically by Jewish women after they were told by the Germans that they were leaving home for a “better life”.
The walk to the crematorium created a silence. We walked in. We walked out. No flash of cameras. No words were spoken.
“The experience of the gas chamber was unbelievably overwhelming,” Hinchingbrooke student, Ruari Clark, 17, told The Hunts Post. “Something like this definitely gives you more perspective on your own life.
“I’m so glad we had the chance to come here to see it first hand.”
The approach to Auschwitz 2 – named Birkenau – was strangely haunting. By 3pm, the sun was sitting low in the sky and dusk was forming over the 425-acre site.
The camp, built in 1941, originally held prisoners but was quickly turned into the main extermination centre, with old farmhouses used as gas chambers before two additional crematoria were built.
Prisoners used to walk the 3km from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau before the Nazis deemed this an uneconomical use of time. It sparked the building of the railway line which starkly divides the camp into two and allowed prisoners to be brought from all over Europe.
They would then endure a selection process to decide whether they would go straight to the gas chamber or be sent for hard labour.
Kimbolton School student, Hamish Duncan, 17, told The Hunts Post: “Two things struck me about Birkenau in particular: the sheer scale of the camp, and the amount of thought that went into planning it.
“I will take away a greater understanding of just what can happen when prejudice and racism are left to fester, as was the case in the years leading up to the Holocaust.”
John Heath, also 17, added: “During this trip I saw the effects of mindless hatred and prejudice.
“I learned that racism cannot just be disapproved of by people, but must be actively protested against instead.
“I learnt what happens when good people let evil things happen.”
Mr Jones said that each time he visits the camp he takes away a different experience. And it’s a very personal experience for him. His young daughter, who suffers with mild Cerebral Palsy, would have been destined for the gas chamber immediately after arriving at Birkenau, as so many children were.
Darkness creeping across the camp provides a fitting backdrop to the final act of remembrance.
Group leader, Anita Palmer, led a short service of remembrance during which students read out poems penned by holocaust survivors. This was followed by an emotional service by Rabbi Marcus which allowed time, in the fading light of a cold, lonely Auschwitz to reflect upon the day.
And as darkness and silence descended on the camp, we each lit a candle and placed it on the train track which had led so many to their death.
Unlike those prisoners, I was able to leave Auschwitz. The memory of the place will, however, remain with me forever.