Gwent pupils see horror of Auschwitz death camp
END OF THE LINE: The train tracks on which carriages transported prisoners to their death stopped alongside the gas chambers that claimed their lives
Almost 70 years have passed since the end of the Second World War but the horrors of the Holocaust live on. Education reporter NATALIE CROCKETT joined Gwent school pupils on a visit to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in a bid to learn from the past.
THERE are not many places in the world devoid of any sound or life, but Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of them. I know you will think such a thing impossible, but that is truly the only way to describe the stark, crumbling stronghold where millions of Jews lost their lives.
No birds sing and even the grass appears unmoved by the biting wind. It’s like nature knows what once went on here.
And it is not the only thing to be affected. Hundreds of people visit the site every day, and it is evident from the expression on their faces that the experience will leave a lasting mark.
Just ask one of the 20 Gwent teenagers who joined me on the one-day trip from Cardiff to Owiecim. I have never seen a group of teenagers so quiet, and neither did I expect the mature way in which they spoke about how it made them feel.
Hours earlier they were sitting on the plane and the coach, chatting about nothing in particular, but here they are silent.
Perhaps it is the pile of old leather suitcases at nearby Auschwitz I, each bearing the name of its owner now long dead. Or maybe it is the stacks of discarded shoes belonging to children who would never grow up.
For me it was the two tonnes of human hair, shaved from the heads of men, women and children, who died for no other reason than they were born into the “wrong” faith.
Not to mention the shaving brushes, glasses, and other personal items seized from their owners on arrival at the camp – kept by the Nazis like trophies, or worse still, sent off to factories to be used as raw materials in the manufacture of carpets and other goods.
Countless rooms house items once treasured by Jewish families and now serve as a lasting reminder of what they went through and why what happened must be remembered.
Hallways of the former army barracks, which once housed hundreds of prisoners brought to work at the camp, now bear their photographs – putting a face to the millions who did not escape.
Then there are the torture chambers where captives were beaten and experimented on, the courtyard where they were made to stand for hours on end and the infamous gas chambers – much smaller than I had imagined and even more terrifying for it.
We take a bus to the much larger Auschwitz-Birkenau three kilometres away.
What is so startling here is the size – making how it went unnoticed for as long as it did all the more unbelievable.
Even the railway tracks upon which carriages transported prisoners to their death stopped on the doorstep of the very same gas chambers that claimed their lives.
It is difficult to see how the Nazis could have been more blatant about what they were doing.
Long brick sheds dot the fields either side of the railway line, where up to 1,000 people would attempt to sleep each night. Today they wouldn’t be fit for cattle.
We are told by our guide that 10,000 people a day were exterminated – and that is the exact word he used – and the only reason it wasn’t more was because they couldn’t burn the bodies fast enough. That is one of many figures we are told. But one sticks in my mind more than any other.
It comes from Rabbi Barry Marcus during a remembrance ceremony, who tells us that if we were to hold a minute’s silence for all those who died at Auschwitz and other camps, we would be silent for three years.
He leaves us to ponder this as we lay candles and walk along the same tracks millions had travelled along before. The difference between us and them, of course, is we are leaving.
Pupils dumbfounded by the horror, and the pity of squandered lives
THE Holocaust Educational Trust has been taking school pupils to Auschwitz since 1999, and the visits, combined with pre- and post-seminars, aim to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust based on the premise ‘hearing is not like seeing’.
The Trust recognises the number of people who witnessed what happened first hand are dwindling every year and therefore works to ensure those who died and the events that led to their deaths are never forgotten.
St Joseph’s RC High School pupil Andrew Williams, 18, of Newport, is among 20 Gwent youngsters on the trip.
He says: “It’s shocking to think so many people died in such a small space in that amount of time.
“It was such a needless loss of life, such a waste.
Literally treating people like animals and using them to harvest materials for manufacture – it’s awful.
“I find it very hard to listen to people who question that it never happened because you can clearly see the proof.”
His fellow pupil, Ellen McDonnell, 17, says the trip brought what she had learned from books to life.
She says: “You hear the figures but when you see the reality it’s quite different. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to fully grasp it all.
Even visiting here it still doesn’t seem real.”
Leah Morgan, 18, of Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw, in Pontypool, finds it difficult to put what she has seen into words, adding: “It was quite indescribable, I found I couldn’t really express myself. You see it in books and films but it’s nothing compared to real life.”
For her friend, 17-year-old Evie Little, it was the children’s shoes that stirred emotions: “You see tiny baby shoes and you think, they should be starting their lives and instead their lives ended and for no reason, really. That was hard. I didn’t really know what to do, I just stood there trying to take it all in.”
Hannah Atherton, 16, of Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls, says the trip provides a human perspective on the facts and figures she learns about in school.
She says: “From this we can see the actual experiences people had. The piles of shaving brushes moved me – my dad’s got one of those so that made me think they belonged to someone else’s dad.
“I can’t imagine being here for so many years knowing that you probably wouldn’t survive at the end of it. You cannot emphasise when you haven’t been through it yourself but you can develop a deeper understanding by coming here.”
Georgina Saunders, of St Joseph’s RC High School, feels it will take some time before what she saw could sink in. She says: “I feel like I need to reflect. It doesn’t feel quite real. I don’t think I will ever get the image of the piles of hair out of my mind, it was horrible. But I’m glad I came, I will never forget it.”
Ellie Bale, 17, of Duffryn High School, believes all students should make the trip.
She says: “This is a once-ina- lifetime thing and I think everyone should do it because it puts everything into perspective,”
The trip was also beneficial to St Joseph’s teachers Michelle Ryan and Vikki Watkins, who said it gives them greater understanding of the topic and would make passing on knowledge to students that much easier.