Inside Auschwitz; the heart of darkness

Petr Eisle, born 1942 . . . Hana Fuchs, born 1936 . . . Else Meier, born 1892. Just some of the names carefully written on suitcases belonging to Jews who believed they were being relocated for a better life in the 1940s.

Inside Auschwitz; the heart of darkness

Instead, they were on a train journey to death, sometimes straight to a gas chamber within minutes of Auschwitz.

There is only so much that youngsters from Shropshire can learn about the Nazi plan to wipe out Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents during the Holocaust from textbooks, teachers and documentaries.

But seeing is truly believing.

Students from Ludlow College, Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, Sir John Talbot's Technology College in Whitchurch and Adcote School, found out even more than they could have imagined about the horrific treatment of Jews during a trip the grey, industrial town of Oswiecim in Poland

There, on the outskirts of the settlement, still surrounded by rusting barbed wire and the foreboding ruins of watchtowers sits one of the darkest places on earth – Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It is quiet. Deathly quiet. And the snow muffles the frosty air, lending a funereal hush to the sombre groups of students paying respect along with visitors from all over the world.

Emily Muscat, Alex Allman and Rachel Preston reflect

You can be told that Jews were gassed, but when you see empty cylinders of poisonous Zyklon B crystals, it makes it real.

You can be told Jews had their heads shaved, but when you see two tonnes of human hair, that makes it real.

Textbooks tell you they were stripped naked and their possessions taken from them, but when you see 80,000 shoes and 40kg of glasses, that makes it real.

And this was just a fraction of the items recovered after Nazis tried to hide their appalling crimes by burning the storage units at the three Auschwitz camps.

To hold one minute's silence for each person killed during the Holocaust, you would have to be silent for three years. That hits home. But when you are told this by a Rabbi during a memorial ceremony in a room where the Jews were forced to have their heads shaved, it is even harder hitting.

Alex Allman, 17, from Alkington in Whitchurch, goes to Sir John Talbot's College and read a poem during the ceremony. He said his experience in Poland was one of the most memorable in his life.

"When the Rabbi started singing and seeing everything in the room, it put things into perspective. A girl cried when we looked round the museum and that's when I realised what we were looking at."

The death camps were covered in snow and the atmosphere eerie as we walked under the gates with the infamous untruth in huge metal letters 'Arbeit Macht Frei' – work makes you free.

The trip had been organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust which takes groups of about 200 students to the site 17 times a year.

Suitcases marked with the names of their missing owners

"The weather added something to the day," Alex said. "The Jews would have faced worse conditions. We were wrapped up in layers and had to put up with it for a day, but they didn't have any shoes and only thin clothes."

His classmate Grace Edwards, 17, of Bronington, was moved by the 'inspirational' experience.

She said: "We need to say 'what can we do to educate people about this?' so that there is less chance of it happening in the future."

Shrewsbury Sixth Form College students Emily Muscat, 18 of Bridgnorth, and Rachel Preston, 18 of Sheriffhales, said seeing the glasses, clothes, hairbrushes and kitchen pans that belonged to Jews who had travelled there was an emotional experience. Rachel said: "For me it was seeing the items, even babies' shoes, that was someone's baby and they would have gone into the gas chamber together. Looking at the house where the Nazi officials lived, we were questioning how you can be a father and kill other people's children.

"I felt angry about it. You pick up the idea that Jews are very different but when we saw the pictures of them, you see they are normal people. There was a picture there of a child, just like one my family has of me when I was little."

Emily, who is studying A Level history, is glad she made the trip in the winter because if she had gone in the summer there would have been grass on the floor – but for the prisoners it would have just been mud and straw.

"We got to see the camp how they would have seen it in winter," she adds. "It will change your whole life, how you view your own life when you go home. I feel privileged and humbled."

Luke Romeo and Rachel Preston view the pictures

As well as Auschwitz-Birkenau I and Auschwitz II, which the students visited, there was a third camp and 30 sub-camps across the area. It was a huge, sprawling operation.

The students visited the last remaining synagogue in Oswiecim, where now not one Jewish person lives.

Sarah Roberts teaches history at Ludlow College, and has taught about the Holocaust for many years. But the trip gave her an emotional attachment to the subject.

"The visual impact shocked me. I hadn't thought about how complex it was and how many different people were part of it. There were people driving the trains and there were administrators. We also learnt that people had to buy their own ticket to get on that train, I didn't know that.

"It is difficult to think, why didn't people stop it or why didn't the Jews try to get out, then you go there and realise that wasn't possible."

It is the third year the college has sent students on the trip and each time they pass on their experiences to year nine pupils at Ludlow School. Mrs Roberts took with her Stuart Booker, 17 of Ludlow and Luke Romeo, 16 of Cleobury Mortimer.

Luke said: "How quiet it was struck me, there were no birds around. And the human hair, that was only a small percentage of how much there was." Stuart added: "The sheer size of it struck me. In the watchtower, the camp was still going for as far as you can see."

The scheme was set up initially just for Jewish pupils by Rabbi Marcus from the Central Synagogue in London. He first took students 14 years ago and has been on every trip since, about 150.

"I felt there was a need to educate people," he said. "You learn about it in school but here you see it, feeling, breathing, walking."

The day was long and the message was hard, but no matter what the students saw or experienced, they knew it was just a fraction of what happened in this terrible place in the darkest days of the twentieth century.

By Dani Wozencroft

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