DEATH is always difficult to dealt with – and it is unavoidable that visiting the place where more than one million people were murdered will leave a mark on you.
As Gwent students learnt this week, reading about the Holocaust in textbooks is one thing, imagining what it must have been like as you feel the freezing cold in Birkenau is something completely different. It makes the Holocaust real.
On Wednesday, I joined 18 students from Gwent schools who visited the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz Project.
Now in its 18th year, the project – which benefited about 200 students from Wales this year – is based on the premise that “hearing is not like seeing”.
After an early flight to Poland from Cardiff airport, the students first visited the town of Oswiecim, which had a 58 per cent Jewish population before the Nazi invasion.
“This place had a heaving Jewish population,” said educator Aled Rumble. “The family house was built by the priest and was used by Jews. There was a synagogue next to the church. They lived side-by-side and there was respect for each other, there was no them and us.”
After the Germans arrived, said Mr Rumble, the Jews were deported from the town.
“We started here to understand what was lost and to show how the Nazis changed the community,” he said. “How guilty are the by-standers, the people that watched them leave? How much blame does an individual have?”
From the beginning, the visit is thought-provoking – with the students listening carefully and unsure what the answers are to these difficult questions.
The students then visited Auschwitz 1, which used to be Polish army barracks and opened in the spring of 1940.
Between 1940 and 1945, the Nazis deported at least 1.3 million people to the concentration camp.
Of those, 1.1 million were Jews, around 140,000 were Poles, 23,000 were Roma, 15,000 were Soviet prisoners of war and 25,000 were prisoners from other ethnic groups.
“1.1 million of these people died in the camp,” said the group’s tour guide. “The majority of them were murdered in gas chambers.
“The first gas chamber was in Auschwitz 1. Up to 1,000 people fitted in the gas chamber at one time, it took about 20 minutes for them to die.
“The bodies were then taken to be cremated, but before that their hair was cut and was used to make thread to produce cloth for uniforms.
“When the camp was liberated, seven tonnes of human hair were found.”
The day is filled with shocking figures – such as the fact that women in the camp only survived three or four months there or the fact that 230,000 children died in the camp, with those who survived being those the Nazis did not have time to experiment on.
However, there is a lot of emphasis in turning those facts and figures into human stories.
Auschwitz has a room full of books with the names of people who died in the Holocaust. Birkenau has a room full of pictures of victims.
“I have learnt that they are not just numbers, but that each person had a story,” said Jack Mitchell, 17, a Year 13 at Newport’s St Joseph’s RC High School. “I thought the pictures at the end were moving and portrayed exactly that.
“The experience has been surreal. When we went into Auschwitz 1, it felt like a film – it didn’t feel like it happened.”
Finally, the students spent time in Birkenau, which was divided into sections because of its size.
Most of the wooden barracks and the gas chambers were destroyed before the liberation and only ruins remain.
“This is where the journey ended for a lot of people,” said Mr Rumble.
For the students, the day concluded with a service and a candle lighting to remember the victims of Nazi persecution.
Emily Lovell, 18, a Year 13 student at John Frost School, said the experience had been “thought-provoking”.
She said: “It was harrowing to be there, a place I had only seen in pictures. It is something I am very glad I have done, but I do not think I will do it again.
“The experience has increased my awareness of why it is important to remember and, with everything that is going on at the moment, you do not want to be part of the generation that repeats it.
“Seeing the town showed me that there was no separation between Jewish and Christians before the Nazis arrived and, in Auschwitz’s shoe room, I saw a pair of children shoes – which really affected me.
“In Birkenau, I tried to imagine what happened there, it is incomprehensible.
“I do not think you are able to fully understand without coming here, I would encourage everyone to visit at least once in their life.”
Marco Lekkas, 17, a Year 13 student at Lliswerry High School, said the experience was “insightful”.
He said: “Everything I previously thought was not wrong, but it was different. Seeing it in front of me is very different from reading about it in a text book. What surprised me the most is how big and noticeable everything was.
“I have more of an understanding of the Holocaust and how important it is to respect what happened in the past.”
Bethan Doughty, 18, a Year 13 at St Joseph’s RC, said it was “incredible”.
She said: “It is quite hard to put it into words. When you have only read about it in text books, coming here makes it real.
“It is very touching.”
The visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was preceded by a seminar in the UK where participants heard the testimony of a Holocaust survivor.
The students will now become Ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust and share their experiences with their schools and the wider community.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “The lessons from Auschwitz Project is a vital part of our work, allowing young people to learn about the Holocaust in a way they cannot in the classroom.
“The visit enables young people to see for themselves where racism, prejudice and antisemitism can ultimately lead and its importance is demonstrated by the inspiring work students go on to do in their local communities.”