EVERY year the Holocaust Educational Trust takes thousands of students to the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau so they can see the places where more than a million people were murdered during WWII. Reporter Amy Hirst was invited to join students from the Ormiston Ilkeston Academy on the visit.
IF there were to be a one minute silence in memory of every person that was murdered at Auschwitz it would last for three-and-a-half years.
Around 1.3 million people, 90 per cent of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz – that’s the equivalent to 9/11 happening every day for 500 days.
“There’s always one thing that will stay with people who make this trip,” group seven’s educator Morris Charlton said.
For me it was the hair.
As we filed into an Auschwitz prison block we were confronted with two tonnes of human hair piled up behind the glass.
Next to it in a smaller yet somehow more disturbing cabinet was a pile of plaited pigtails still tied with pretty ribbons.
Every prisoner that arrived at Auschwitz had their hair cut off and their head shaved.
It was just one of the horrendous ways that the Nazis aimed to dehumanise everyone and rob them of their individuality.
One of the students saw it and left. He said he didn’t want to see any more – it had all become too much for him.
As we walked out of the block we passed through rooms full of shoes, pots, pans, combs, clothes and suitcases all stacked up and on show.
They were all seized as their owners were admitted to the camp before being worked to death or simply sent straight to the gas chamber to meet their cruel and calculated end.
People filed past the items staring in shock, the rooms full of shoes made it a little easier to imagine the amount of people killed by the Nazis but the pairs stacked up and on show were just a small proportion of the real figure.
Walking around the camp, there was a continuous stunned silence.
The only voices heard were those of the guides who told us the grim tales of how the prisoners met their deaths and the horrible stories of the different ways some of the victims died.
In one block doctors carried out medical experiments, a courtyard we stood in was where more than 20,000 men were lined up against a wall and shot at point blank range, we looked in cells that were only big enough for someone to stand up in, where people were sent to suffocate to death.
Students struggled to understand how this was allowed to happen and couldn’t comprehend the number of people that met their death after filing through the camp’s gate, adorned with the words Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Makes One Free.
The next stop was the gas chamber and crematorium, purpose built next door to one another for ease.
We were asked whether we wanted to go in, some people declined.
As we walked in the temperature plummeted, it was damp, freezing and disturbing to be stood where so many people took their last breath.
Looking up there were scratch marks on the walls, evidence of people desperately trying to escape and then the small slots in the ceiling where the gas pellets were pumped in.
“It doesn’t get any easier, even though I’ve visited so many times.
“In some ways I come away feeling angrier every time,” Morris told me as we boarded the bus for the next stop – Birkenau.
As we pulled up, the main watch tower and smaller towers positioned along the security-fenced boundary was the first thing I noticed.
We then climbed the watch tower and had a view that during the years the camp was operating, only the SS guards would have seen.
The first thing you notice as you reach the tower is the train tracks. They just stop. It then occurred to us all that these people were quite literally on the train to nowhere.
Walking into the camp we were first shown around the toilet block.
Open for only half an hour in the morning and then half an hour in the evening, the camp’s 90,000 prisoners were all expected to use one of the 200 toilets during this time.
There was no running water and no privacy yet the toilet block was a place where the campers felt safe and relaxed.
Guards wouldn’t go in there because of the fear of disease and simply because of the smell, so prisoners could talk to each other, they could ask after people and sometimes devise escape plans without the fear of the guards overhearing and intervening.
Students found it hard to imagine how bad it must have been everywhere else on the camp to actually want to be in the toilet block as thousands of people used the most basic of facilities.
A block that started out as a stable for 50 horses was the next place we visited. When the camp began to expand the Nazis decided to house prisoners in the blocks, 400 of them in each.
Again, students couldn’t picture the conditions or imagine that many people living in such a small space.
Standing on the platform our Polish guide, Marcelina, told the group about the selection process.
“Men would go one way, women and children and the elderly another,” she said.
“They were sent straight to be processed and then to the gas chambers.
“The men were set to work, they would never see their wives and children again.
“There are many stories of families being parted forever at this very spot. There was no time for goodbyes, they were separated and sent on their way.”
As the light started to fade we walked up to the sauna.
We retraced the steps of some of the victims who were walking to their death. Here was where they were stripped naked, put in showers and their clothes disinfected in massive steam chambers.
As we came to the end of the walk a wall of hundreds of photos faced us. Smiling snapshots of just some of the people who became helpless victims helped to remind us all that the massive number we’d heard over and over again were all people – mums, dads, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, grandparents.
In the darkness all 236 students, teachers and guests stood at the end of the train tracks for a memorial service. Some students performed readings and Rabbi Markus – the man who arranged the first student trips to Auschwitz and has been involved ever since – then gave a short service.
At the end everyone lit a candle and placed it on the walk back to the coach. Looking back 236 candles set out on the train tracks looked a lot. I wondered what 1.3 million might look like.