Horror of the Holocaust

WALKING through a concentration camp in darkness, with around 200 silent, shocked sixth formers carrying candles, is a surreal experience. The trip to Auschwitz in Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust and East Anglia schools was a life-changing ev

WALKING through a concentration camp in darkness, with around 200 silent, shocked sixth formers carrying candles, is a surreal experience.

The trip to Auschwitz in Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust and East Anglia schools was a life-changing event.

And the final walk down the railway track towards the entrance to the camp, treading the same steps as the victims all those years ago, will never be forgotten.

But the difference is that while our group returned to the comfort of a coach back to Krakow airport, the victims of Auschwitz Birkenau were separated, humiliated and then led into the chambers of death.

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The horror of the holocaust is hard to imagine, so the opportunity to see one of the camps where around 1.2 million people were estimated to have been killed, was not to be missed.

Last year the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) received Treasury funding of £1.5 million to support its Letters from Auschwitz course for teachers and sixth form students.

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And the one-day trip on Wednesday last week was the first of a regional roll-out.

The first stop was an Oswiecim pre-war Jewish site. The group took in the Jewish cemetery, where, even in 2003, Nazi followers vandalised and wrecked gravestones.

Next, students were shown round Auschwitz I, now a museum.

Emma Cherry, 17, of Webb Close, Letchworth GC, who attends Knights Templar School in Baldock, said: "It was totally different to how I thought it would be. During the first tour I thought it was scary how normal the buildings were. I think it's hard to imagine what it was really like."

Groups viewed rooms filled with hair, combs, glasses and even fake limbs that had been collected after the deaths of disabled prisoners, also targets of the Nazis.

Emma said: "It's not nice to see. It's scary to think that it's actual people, that it's part of them.

"I think it will help people. It gives you a greater understanding of what it was and what it was like.

"But I think you don't know how to react because it hasn't sunk in yet. It might in a couple of days."

Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which houses the majority of gas chambers and the crematorium, was even more intimidating.

Daniel Miles, 16, and Robbie Finch, 17, and humanities teacher Mark Griffiths, were representing Fearnhill School, Letchworth GC.

Mark, who teaches the Holocaust, said: "It is hard to visualise the events of Auschwitz. Seeing the events first hand brings home the industrial scale of the murder.

"I left with dignity, millions didn't. A moving tribute to the horror of the Holocaust."

To end the trip students gave readings at a memorial service.

And Rabbi Barry Marcus followed on with a moving speech and song.

He said: "If we had a minute's silence for every victim of Auschwitz Birkenau we would have to stand in silence for two years.

"It's the equivalent of September 11 every day for four years or July 7 every hour."

He added: "What happened here began slowly, it began with abuse, verbal abuse, bullying. And we know about that in the UK and it's an issue that needs to be confronted and dealt with."

Kay Andrews, head of education at the trust, has been about 14 times with various groups, including survivors.

She said: "I do think it's not about them going away and feeling miserable.

"We want them to go away with a feeling of hope and pass those lessons on.

"It's about challenging racism and prejudice in Britain today."

As the memorial service ended everyone lit their candles and started back towards the entrance, along the railway track which was created especially to bring the prisoners into the camp.

Either side is barbed fencing and bomb shelters built to save the lives of the Nazis in the case of bombings.

As the group sat on the coach, ready to return to England, visibly shaken, a TV reporter remembered a tripod had been left at the memorial service, miles into the camp.

He had to run through Auschwitz in the pitch black looking for it, a fate not wished upon anyone, proving that nobody on the trip was immune to being swept up by the enormity of Auschwitz and the horrors that will, hopefully, never be forgotten.

But what happens after getting back to England? At the time Laura Maxwell-Bernier, 17, from Witter Avenue, Ickleford, who attends St Francis College in Letchworth GC, said: "It's just so unbelievable. I don't think it will sink in for a few days yet. It's just so hard to imagine."

Getting in touch a few days later, she said: "Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, and being able to see for myself what had happened there, was overwhelming. What I experienced has not yet completely sunk in, as I am sure is the case for most of the 200 students who travelled to Poland.

"Standing so close to where so many were murdered made me feel ashamed to be a part of a human race capable of inflicting such suffering and destruction on others, but also made me realise that it is fundamental that all our attitudes change.

"It is for this reason that what the Holocaust Educational Trust is doing, by allowing two students from every sixth form to see what went on 60 years ago, is so crucial.

"By teaching us that we have to learn from what has happened in the past, we stand a better chance of preventing anything as horrific as what went on at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as the other five Nazi death camps, from happening again.

"To make a difference, as opposed to burying our heads in the sand, and to allow mankind to move forwards and progress, since, as George Santayana wrote: 'Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it'.

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