Gallery: Students see the horror of the Holocaust

Yesterday, pupils from across Herts visited the World War II concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau as the guests of the Holocaust Educational Trust. Comet reporter Richard Young, who joined them on the visit, recounts the experience.

“Hearing is not like seeing,” said Rabbi Barry Marcus, who has helped organise dozens of these one-day visits to the notorious Nazi death camps in Poland, as we took off on an early morning flight for Krakow.

He’s absolutely right. Hearing that six million men, women and children were transported from all over Europe to a place where they were systematically murdered, is not an easy thing to understand.

That it is possible for thousands upon thousands of people to engineer, carry out, collude and passively watch the deliberate destruction of their fellow human beings because of their religion, race, disabilities or political opinion is incomprehensible.

So seeing it helps. Seeing the rail tracks that brought millions in cattle trucks to their deaths, the barracks where those not immediately killed slept in their thousands, the miles of once electrified barbed wire, the watchtowers, the gas chambers, it helps.

Despite the bitter cold, the sun shone as our groups were taken by expert guides and members of the trust around the camps. It made the red brick of the barracks at Auschwitz almost pretty, as one of the pupils, Zoe Davidge, a sixth-former at Heathcote in Stevenage said.

But inside these buildings the true horror of what went on here in the first half of the 1940s becomes increasingly clear.

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The whole camp is now a museum to the dead. Jews made up the vast majority of those killed, victims of Hitler’s Final Solution to eradicate the Jewish race. But hundreds of thousands of Gypsies, political activists, prisoners of war, intellectuals, Jehova Witnesses, the mentally ill and disabled were also murdered here, at Birkenau and their many smaller satellite camps.

To try to get across the sheer scale of this slaughter, the curators have chosen to display simple objects - shoes, reading glasses, suitcases, toothbrushes, Zyclon B cyanide cylinders - in their hundreds and their thousands. The vast remnants of lives choked to death.

Zoe, who was moved to tears by the experience, said: “I will remember the huge piles of shoes and how they said it was only five per cent of those killed. And just the cold and how people could have survived in that weather.

“Seeing the photographs and seeing the belongings - that’s what helps me get my head around it. They were real people like me, not just facts and figures.”

Zoe and year-mate Ryan Woolhed, said they will return to Heathcote to share their experiences with the school - fulfilling the central aim of the trust to keep alive knowledge of the Holocaust and all it teaches us about racism.

Ryan said: “It’s helping to pass on that knowledge to those who don’t fully understand it. It’s important so everyone can get a better understanding,” the 18-year-old said.

“It was mass genocide. If we don’t pass on that knowledge there’s going to be generations down the line who don’t know about it. It needs to be something we are fully aware of.”

As the sun sank over the vastness of Birkenau, and the temperature plummeted even further, the various visiting groups came back together in a huddle of 250 souls, to keep warm and to listen to the words of Rabbi Marcus.

“I have never met a person who didn’t think they were special,” he said. “And that is because you are. You are all of God’s making. And so were they.”