Reporter Sarah Howells joined a group of 250 sixth form students from the South West on a trip to Auschwitz.
Sarah Howells joined a group of 250 sixth-form students from the South West on a trip to Oswiecim with the Holocaust Educational Trust. Here she reflects on their visit to the sites of the former Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
WALKING the length of the infamous train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is a strong feeling that I am treading in the hopeless footsteps of those who thought they were destined for a better life, but were in fact met with brutality, desecration and mass murder.
This is the scene many will have seen from so many films and photographs capturing the Nazi death camps in Poland – yet standing in the exact spot so many met their fate, it really hits home what actually happened here.
The former concentration camp, now an eerie expanse of decimated barracks and crematoria, once housed 90,000 prisoners during World War Two.
It is not known exactly how many people were murdered here in the years that the camp was operational, from 1941 to 1945, but it is thought to be around 1.2million.
After being herded into the gas chambers and killed, their hair was shaven and made into rugs. Their gold fillings extracted and melted down. Their bodies burned and used as fertiliser on the fields, as if they were merely components in a well-oiled machine, not people.
More than a million people, including Jews from as far afield as Greece and Hungary, were shipped here – many with the promise of a better life. Others who died in the camp included gypsies, political prisoners, alleged homosexuals, Polish freedom fighters and Russian prisoners of war.
They packed their suitcases, believing there would be new jobs for them at the other end of the journey. Some even brought their house keys, perhaps with the idea, as any of us would have when leaving home, that they would return.
Now their worldly belongings lie for all to see in the museum at Auschwitz One – one of the first German Nazi concentration camps to be built in Poland.
We began our trip with a brief visit to a Jewish cemetery in the small town of Oswiecim, better known by its German name of Auschwitz. In 1939, around 58 per cent of the town’s population was Jewish. Today that figure is zero.
Our next stop was Auschwitz One, a former Polish barracks which was converted into a death camp where around 1.3million people were deported. Of these men, women and children, it is thought 1.1million were killed.
The camp is now a museum, and as we walked around the blocks we learned about the harsh, crowded conditions the prisoners would have faced, the rapid spread of famine and disease, and the pure desperation.
The rooms are now piled from floor to ceiling with prisoners’ suitcases, shoes, children’s toys, human hair – all discovered in warehouses after the liberation of the camp in 1945.
“The children’s shoes really put it into perspective,” said Josh Beer, 17, from Kingsley School in Bideford, who is studying history at A-level. “I had read about them in books before, but when you see the mountains of shoes it is just heartbreaking.”
He was joined by fellow history student Jenny Brookes, 16, who added: “Before coming here I expected it to be really dark and eerie. It’s hard to prepare for what it is like here – it’s so emotional. It’s hard to think about how people lived and died here.”
After our tour of Auschwitz One, which included visiting the gas chamber and seeing the execution wall outside the ‘death block’, we headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau, some three kilometres away, and the largest of the death camps.
The afternoon commenced with a tour of the camp, walking down the infamous tracks and standing on the platform where prisoners would arrive and undergo selection. Doctors would pick out those fit for hard labour – the rest would be taken straight to the gas chambers.
Many others, packed into the railway cars like cattle or worse, did not survive the inhumane train journey to the camps.
Showing us the room where the prisoners were stripped naked, shaven and tattooed with a number, our guide Edyta Stepien told us: “When they left this room they stopped being a person, a human being. They became a number. They became a nothing.”
Throughout the day, the sixth-form students had been encouraged by educators from the Holocaust Educational Trust to think about the victims of the camps as individual people, not just statistics.
As we approached the end of the tour, we came to a room lined with family photographs that had belonged to the prisoners shipped here.
Couples gazing into each other’s eyes, children laughing at the camera, family trips to the beach. All real people, with real lives.
As the sun set over Auschwitz-Birkenau, we gathered on the memorial next to the gas chambers, which were blown up by the Nazis days before the camp was liberated.
A ceremony of remembrance was led by Rabbi Andrew Shaw, who told the students of his grandfather who was deported to Poland and killed by the Nazis. We then held a minute’s silence.
“If you were silent for one minute for every person who was killed in the Holocaust, you would be silent for 11 and a half years,” Rabbi Andrew Shaw told the group.
He encouraged the students to feel hope rather than anger at what had happened, and to spread the word of what they had learned here.
We each lit a candle and left them on the train tracks with the words of Rabbi Shaw resonating in our minds: “A little bit of light expels a lot of darkness.”
To see more photographs from the trip, click the gallery on the right of the page.