Last Wednesday, LAURA LEA followed Gwent school children to Auschwitz-Birkenau for an unforgettable trip into one of the darkest parts of modern history. This is her report:
Leaving early from Cardiff airport, pupils from a number of Gwent high schools joined students from all across Wales to make the journey to Krakow.
The Holocaust Educational Trust was formed in 1988 and aims to preserve the Holocaust in the nation’s collective memory. The Lessons from Auschwitz project, now in its fifteenth year, consists of four parts – a seminar, the day-trip to Poland, another follow-up seminar and finally the ambassador programme where pupils disseminate what they have learnt to their peers.
Auschwitz consisted of three separate camps. Collectively it formed the largest Nazi German concentration and death camp, with 1.3m deported there from 1940-45. Of these, 1.1m were Jews.
During the trip we visited two of these camps. The first, Auschwitz I was a former Polish army barracks established as a concentration camp in 1940. All the barracks buildings still stand here along with the watch towers, and the entrance sign reading ‘arbeit macht frei’ – ‘work makes (you) free’.
One block is now dedicated to the material proof the crimes took place. In one room there are some 40,000 shoes piled up. My eyes were drawn to the small shoes and the pretty heeled sandals – possible someone’s ‘best’.
Similarly there are piles of combs, glasses, suitcases and pots and pans. But for me, it was the room piled with human hair that was most shocking. The Nazi were resourceful and all hair was shaved to be sent back to Germany and sold to the textile industry to be woven into fabric.
This is what remains from the warehouses where items were sorted before being redistributed and sold in Germany. Most of the warehouses nicknamed Canada – the land of the plenty- were destroyed prior to the liberation.
Block 11 was the so-called ‘death block’ where prisoners would be subject to torture and await execution. We are taken into the basement cells each designed for different methods of torture – standing, darkness or starvation.
The final stop of the day was Birkenau, or Auschwitz II – the purpose built killing camp, just a short bus ride from the first camp.
On arrival we are lead to the entrance’s watch tower. Despite learning about this camp, everyone was shocked by the size. Lined by electric fences and watchtowers, there was row after row of barn-like barracks – there would have been 300 in total. From up there it looked like a huge chicken farm.
What is soon apparent is the sheer scale of the operation. Jews travelled hundreds of miles – some even paying for their own train fare- to reach Auschwitz. It was a well organised operation that must have included numerous levels of bureaucracy. In other words hundreds of people – not just Nazis – would have been involved.
With the use of Zyklon B, this is where “mass extermination” took place. That’s a term more associated with pests than human beings, but in the gas chambers here 2,000 people were killed in just 20 minutes.
The guide told us 75 per cent of all Jews who arrived were sent straight to the gas chambers. They were tricked- told to shower and remember their coat peg number for when they came out.
Other prisoners were forced to collect and burn these bodies – many of whom would have been their family and friends. Only 15 per cent of the perpetrators at Auschwitz have ever been brought to justice.
Despite walking into the barracks where hundreds of women slept, or standing on the same platform where all those thousands deported trains, I found it difficult to connect with the unimaginable horrors that actually took place. For me, it wasn’t until the end of the tour that I began to link the atrocity to the individual.
In the sauna – the place where prison arrivals were stripped of their identities before entering the camp- are now hundreds of photographs on display. All documents and pictures were systematically destroyed by the Nazi but this collection of pictures had been found crammed into a single suitcase- saved by one prison worker.
Each picture – a precious snapshot of happiness – held significance for their owner who chose to take it with them on possibly their final journey. There were school pictures, smart portraits, garden parties, mothers with hours-old newborns, stylish couples beaming from pavements, or siblings pulling silly faces. In another, a young woman holds her glass to the camera – a cheers on her wedding day. We have so much in common with them. These are people who had beautiful lives stripped from them.
The day concluded with a brief memorial service held by Rabi Barry Marcus near to the memorial at the remains of the camp’s crematorium. By this point it was pitch black and silent –there were no other visitors around. Several students read poems before the Rabi sang a memorial psalm in Hebrew.
His voice resonated across the camp as a wolf howled in the distance. It was quite profound and clearly made an impact on the students – many of whom described it as the most important part of the day. This was certainly something normal visitors would never have experienced.
Candles were lit and left on the train track before the students made the long and haunting walk back through the camp to the exit.
Sam Manship 17, from St Joseph’s RC High School, said: “The memorial service was the best part. It was really amazing.” He said it brought to life elements of history that the classroom and exams can’t. He said: “You walk through parts of it yourself, reading what happened there as you go along.”
Kyren Routledge, 17, from Rougemont High School said the memorial service – where he read a poem- was the most significant part of the trip for him.
“The solemn silence and the way he sung the prayer in the native language. It was a once in a lifetime experience. “
Kyren and classmate Cameron Holgate will be giving an assembly when they return to school to relay what they experienced. Cameron, 18, said the trip had “reinforced” what he had previously learnt.
“The living conditions in Berkannau – the women and children’s hut – that was the most memorable thing because it hasn’t been restored,” he said.
“It’s been the most emotional yet amazing experience of my life.”
Masiya Akhtar, 18, from Lliswerry High School, said: “It’s definitely an experience I won’t forget. I didn’t expect there to be that much fear.
Pupils from Newport High School, Bassaleg, St Julian’s and Duffryn also attended.
We are never going to be able to understand the full extent of the horrific crimes which took place – but visiting Auschwitz is the probably the closest you will get. It forces you to accept what happened and leaves you to try and process it. None of us who visited last week will forget that trip and the power the students have as ambassadors, to pass on what they witnessed, is priceless.
Since 2010, the Lessons from Auschwitz project has been provided by the Welsh Government, ensuring two pupils from every school have the opportunity to participate in the course. Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust,s aid: "The visit enables young people to see for themselves where racsim, prejudice and antisemitism can ultimately lead."
Learning about the Holocaust will be vital so long as prejudice and racism exist in the world. One of the resonating questions from the day was how could this be allowed be to happen when people must have known?
Just last week, the United Nations published a report detailing crimes against humanity being carried out by the North Korean regime, including torture and execution, with so-called strong resemblances to those committed by the Nazis. We all know about that now.
One inside wall of the Barracks bears the quote by philosopher George Santayana: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” Let us not forget that.