Victoria Leggett, Education correspondent
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Each year, the Holocaust Educational Trust takes hundreds of sixth form students to Poland to visit the notorious death camps at Auschwitz. EDP education correspondent Victoria Leggett joined them for an emotionally draining day.
Tired, cold, emotionally exhausted and often welling up with tears.
In any other circumstances, they may have had reason to feel a little sorry for themselves.
But as 200 students from the East of England quietly trudged through the bleak, snow covered camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, they could not utter a word of complaint.
They knew just how lucky they were – unlike the Jews and other war prisoners in whose footsteps they followed.
They were not being forced to carry out work that was physically exhausting, degrading, and – in the case of those leading their fellow prisoners to their deaths – even barbaric.
They had access to food, warm clothes, sturdy shoes, and a heated coach.
They could leave.
At the end of a long day in Poland, in freezing temperatures and the haunting darkness of a wide-open former death camp, the students got to do something so few people entering Birkenau got to do.
Standing at the end of the purpose-built railway line which took deported Jews from all over Europe through the gates and all the way along to the gas chambers and incinerators at the far end of the site, they began walking back the other way.
Many chose to walk along the railway track itself, all-too-conscious that from March 1942 until January 1945 it had been a one-way route for the more than a million people who died there.
They lit candles and left them scattered along the line, illuminating their route back to the entrance.
The Lessons From Auschwitz trip had been organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, a national charity which receives government funding to run a series of regional visits each year for schools across the UK.
Students from the East of England – including around 50 from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – were part of the first cohort to make the journey in 2013.
Many of those travelling from Norfolk were up at 2am to head to Stansted airport, meet up with their fellow students and catch the flight to Poland.
Once they had landed on the newly-ploughed runway at a snowy Krakow, the visit was split into three destinations – each designed to re-humanise the Holocaust and help students see past the many numbers and dates associated with the atrocities and through to the individuals involved.
The first stop was a brief trip to the Jewish cemetery in Oswieciem, a town living in the shadow of the camps built there. It now has a population of about 45,000 – not one of them Jewish.
Alex Maws, head of education at the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), encouraged the students to look around and get a feel for pre-war and post-war Jewish life: the long history of the town’s Jewish community, the many broken headstones vandalised following a backlash during the post-war years, and the lonely grave of Oswiecim’s last Jew, who died in 2000.
From there they travelled to Auschwitz I – the original concentration camp created in 1940 and now housing a series of emotional and heart-breaking displays in its former living quarters.
Greeted by the famous gates and sign – Arbeit macht frei – the students’ were told this was the Nazis’ “biggest lie”.
Each brick building focused on a particular aspect of the Holocaust.
For many, the most chilling of these was introduced by our guide simply as an exhibition of “stuff” – the personal belongings of the Nazis’ victims.
From hair brushes and saucepans to children’s tiny clothes, each display was more heart-wrenching than the last.
A mountain of suitcases marked with the owners’ dates of birth – including little Petr Eisler, born in 1942 – was followed by an even bigger collection of shoes taken from the many victims.
It was in that building that Annalise Taylor, a year 13 student at Ormiston Victory Academy, in Costessey, and many others saw one of the sights that will remain with them for a long time.
“It was all the hair. That was when it hit me,” said the 17-year-old. “There was so much – it wasn’t a small amount. It was so personal. It was their hair.”
Each person – men, women and children – who arrived at Auschwitz had their head shaved to rid them of any individuality. From there, the students were taken to see the Wall of Death, where so many prisoners lost their lives at the hands of a firing squad – out of view from inmates in the surrounding buildings whose windows had been bricked up.
The final sight at Auschwitz I was the last remaining gas chamber and crematorium.
A mercifully brief walk through was welcomed by the silent teenagers who were already looking drained.
Students – including those from Norwich, Wymondham, Holt, Dereham, Attleborough, King’s Lynn and Wisbech – then headed back to their coach to make the short journey to the camp at Birkenau, 3km away.
A trip up to the top of the watch tower had an immediate effect on Attleborough High student and sixth form president Ben McArdle, 18.
Looking out over the vast death camp, the scale of the atrocities carried out there hit him.
“It was the size of Birkenau that struck me,” he said. “So many people had died there. There was something disturbing about it.”
The students’ time at the extermination camp – the first sub camp of Auschwitz and the largest at nearly 350 acres – saw them take in the cramped and draughty sleeping quarters with their tiny bunk beds which could hold up to three people per level.
While standing in the once-squalid toilet blocks, the students were told that prisoners often favoured working there because it gave them privacy from the guards – who refused to enter because of the smell – and was the only place they could pray without punishment.
And as they stood beside the ruins of the gas chambers and incinerators, educator Mr Maws explained how one had been blown up in an act of extreme bravery and defiance by the Sonderkommando – the prisoners forced to work there – while the remaining three were quickly destroyed in 1945 as the Nazis attempted to hide evidence of what they had done.
Walking over to the registration buildings at one end of the camp – where prisoners were first brought, had their heads shaved and their personal belongings taken – the students’ museum guide said: “These were people just like you. Remember that.”
Once inside, it was impossible to forget.
A display of hundreds of family photographs, saved by prisoners forced to sort through victims’ personal property, showed husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children.
It was one of the most emotive sights for Hannah Mortimer, 17, from Victory Academy, in Costessey.
“I thought they were amazing,” she said. “It showed how much they were like people these days. It put it into perspective how real it was.”
A ceremony at the memorial next to the destroyed crematoria, led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, gave students a chance to reflect on what they had seen as they read prayers and poems, and lit candles in memory of the people who had lost their lives there.
All students will now aim to use their experience to inform others through a Lessons From Auschwitz project.
Margaret Taylor, history teacher at Hellesdon High School, who accompanied the teenagers, said: “The trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was very important for all of the students. They will always remember it.
“The Holocaust Educational Trust has given these students the tools to be able to recognise and address prejudice and discrimination today and for that reason the Lessons From Auschwitz programme is invaluable.”