Lessons learned from history's darkest chapter
Despite the prospect of visiting the site where 1.3million people were slaughtered during the Holocaust, the mood among the Sheffield students I was travelling with on the coach to Auschwitz was initially like any other school trip.
As we travel the 41 miles between Krakow and Auschwitz, they discuss who their favourite teachers are and which universities they have hopes of attending next year as they unwrap packed lunches.
But as we step into the grounds of Auschwitz and through the entrance gates emblazoned with infamous words Arbeit Mach Frei – Work Makes You Free – their reactions show this is an experience they are likely to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The site of the camp’s former barracks and crematoria now includes a museum, where among the exhibits are some of the belongings which were seized by the Nazis before they sent their owners to their certain deaths.
Demonstrating the void left by the incomprehensible numbers that perished, behind panes of glass we see piles of glasses with no owners, suitcases that will never be claimed as well as clothes and shoes – including baby booties – that will never be worn again.
“They never got the chance at life,” Sheffield High School pupil, Alice Serby, tells me.
“I’m 17 and you don’t imagine death to be any time soon, and they’ve all died so very young.
“Some of the children were less than a year old, less than two years old. They’re even younger than me and I’m still at school and haven’t experienced any life. They’ve experienced 15 years less life than I have – so for me that was the hardest thing to see.
“We see that these children were murdered and they had no chance, they stood no chance because they couldn’t be taken off and worked like the men – if they were strong enough. The children had no chance whatsoever.”
Established by the Nazis in 1940, Auschwitz played a leading role in the Holocaust, where 6m Jewish people, 5m Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and Slavs, were brutally murdered under Hitler’s genocidal regime.
Of the 1.3m people murdered in Auschwitz, it is estimated 1.1m were Jewish.
Jewish people from across Europe were brought in to Auschwitz on cattle trains. If they managed to survive the hellish journey – which could take up to 18 days without any food or water – they were split into queues of men and women.
Prisoners that were deemed healthy would be sent to the right hand queue for work, and those that were considered unfit for work, many of whom were children and elderly people, were sent left to the gas chambers.
Another part of the museum is a long corridor with portrait pictures of Holocaust victims – men’s pictures to the left, women’s pictures to the right.
Below each haunting picture is a caption detailing the person’s name as well as the day they were born, the day they were brought into Auschwitz and the day they were murdered there.
“That made it a lot more real because you could put a face to the scene,” says Alice.
“They were just really normal people like a butcher, a waiter, a doctor.
“They were just normal people like myself.”
And seeing each person killed in Auschwitz as just that – normal people with jobs, lives, hopes and dreams – and looking beyond the stark number of victims is one of the key lessons passed on by the Holocaust Educational Trust, HET, during the tour of the death camps.
HET educator, Ben Fuller, tells our group of Sheffield students and teachers that the Nazis dehumanised and literally stripped every prisoner of their identity the second they stepped into the camps. He says it is important that we try to remember each victim as an individual.
He adds: “Look at the items people brought with them; combs, pots and pans, some kosher some not, suitcases with their names on them – this gives us all clues about who they were.”
The HET’s Auschwitz project, through which thousands of students and teachers have visited the site over the last 17 years, asserts that ‘hearing is not like seeing’ when it comes to gaining a true understanding of the Holocaust.
And that certainly seemed to be the case on our tour, with every single person seemingly affected by the sight of one particular part of the camp or one specific exhibit.
For 17-year-old Lucie Greaves, the one part of Auschwitz that has left the biggest imprint was the sight of a mountain of hair forcibly shaved from the heads of female prisoners.
The King Ecgbert School pupil said: “I think the moment that I saw the hair shocked me the most because of how these people were just completely turned into nobodies, and the amount of people that were just ruined and had their identities taken away from them.
“Until you see the names and the face and the piles of hair you can’t come to terms with how many people were here and how they had their own lives. They were just turned into a statistic.
“I think it’s very important to remember these people had lives and they’re not just victims in a story.”
When we enter Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi’s primary death camp where more than 1m people were murdered, the overwhelming vastness of the site, which is the same size as around 250 football pitches, seems to strike everyone.
As we are guided through the parts of the site where prisoners came off the trains and a ‘doctor’ would decide whether they should be sent to their deaths – through the gas chambers where so many died or the crematorium reduced to rubble in a bid by the Nazis to conceal the evil that transpired there – it is difficult to comprehend how this could have happened less than 80 years ago.
Birkdale School pupil, Killian Dockrell, says he found it difficult to be able to understand the ‘ground level’ of what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau because of what is ‘missing’.
Killian, aged 18, says: “The prisoners are missing, their experiences are missing. It’s difficult to understand the actual events without people.”
Our trip concludes with a memorial and candlelit ceremony led by Rabbi Raphy Garson, who tells us that it is important for us to learn the lessons of where racism, hatred, prejudice and anti-semitism can lead.
And as we place lit candles on the train tracks that run between the sites of two of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rabbi Garson tells us we must ‘carry the light’ of those lessons and of being opposed to all forms of racism and prejudice into our communities to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again.