A lesson in the horrors of history

PUBLISHED: 16:39 19 November 2008 | UPDATED: 09:57 12 August 2010

UNFORGETABLE: The entrance to Auschwitz.

UNFORGETABLE: The entrance to Auschwitz.

NOT a sound could be heard from the throng of teenagers as they made their way, each holding a candle, along a disused railway line at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, writes Fintan Quinn. The silence was in stark contrast to the friendl

NOT a sound could be heard from the throng of teenagers as they made their way, each holding a candle, along a disused railway line at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, writes Fintan Quinn.

The silence was in stark contrast to the friendly chatter of the same group at Luton Airport just a few hours earlier.

On a cold November morning, 200 students from Bexley and Bromley and a handful of MPs set off on a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).

The aim of the programme, Lessons from Auschwitz Project, is to educate students about the horrors that happened at the two Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps during World War II.

Government funding has enabled the trust to offer two places on an Auschwitz trip to every school and college in the country, to help educate students about the Holocaust, now part of the national curriculum.

HET chief executive Karen Pollock said: "The Lessons from Auschwitz Project is a vital part of our work, because it gives students the chance to understand the potential effects of prejudice and racism today."

Students from Chislehurst and Sidcup, Hayes, Townley Grammar and Beaverwood schools arrived at Krakow Airport in southern Poland on November 6.

They then travelled some 50km to the small market town of Oœwiêcim, home to 40,000 people and next to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz is the German translation of the town's Polish name and used when referring to the site.

The first stop was a visit to a Jewish cemetery, rebuilt after it was left to rot during the communist era.

The graves are all pre-1939 and provide evidence that a large Jewish community existed in the region before the war.

In fact, at one stage, Jews made up about 58 per cent of the area's population but, although a number of them returned to the town after they were liberated, none live in Oœwiêcim today.

In this most rural part of Eastern Europe, their absence is an example of just how effective Hitler's policy towards the Jewish race was.

Sixty years after the atrocities, the camps, former Polish Army barracks, seem almost idyllic in their wooded setting.

It is hard to imagine the suffering that millions of prisoners endured in these quaint, red-brick buildings once the Nazis had seized control of Poland following the invasion in 1939.

A guide led students through exhibitions that have been set up in the buildings - now converted into museums - and, here, the students began to grasp the magnitude of what went on.

Student Talya Stoll said: "When you learn about it in history lessons, it is much easier to take on board. But when you see the scale of what was done here it is really shocking."

Over one million people were murdered here in four, brutal years that followed its opening in May 1940 - more than 90 per cent of the victims were Jewish, from just about every country in Europe.

But statistics alone cannot convey the depth of horror felt at the sight of mounds of hair cut from the bodies of victims and which still litter the floors of the museums.

The trust is run under the motto "seeing is not like hearing" and, in these obscure buildings, it rings true.

In another room, some recovered luggage is on display bearing the inscription "L Bermann, 1886 Hamburg".

Another student said: "Louis Bermann wrote on the case because he thought he would get it back. He didn't know that he would never be going home."

The Birkenau camp - also called Auschwitz II - a short distance away was built by the Nazis to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners. In comparison to the original camp, Birkenau is a vast, open, gloomy space that stretches as far as the eye can see.

A number of wooden huts remain and, in these, there is a stronger sense of the torment endured.

Teenager Rachael Fairburn, of Townley Grammar School, Bexleyheath, became obviously distressed.

"This is horrible," she said to a friend. "It is the kind of place where you can never imagine being warm. That probably seems like a really minor thing, but it must have been really hard trying to survive here."

And then we see the railway line. It runs - straight as a die - into the centre of the camp, where it stops next to the gas chambers. There is little doubt as to what the final moments of many of the "passengers" would have been like.

The day ends with a short memorial and those who want to take part walked along the tracks with a candle to remember those whose last-ever journey was on these tracks. The silence is reverential.

John Austin, MP for Erith and Thamesmead, who accompanied the group, said: "The visit was an exhausting but unforgettable emotional and educational experience and I was greatly impressed by the maturity and the insight of the young students who took part.

"It provides a unique insight into what can happen when racism is allowed to gain legitimacy and when one group of people is less valued or respected than another."

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