GALLERY: Horrors of the Nazi concentration camps are experienced by Cambs students who learn Lessons from Auschwitz

Auschwitz education trip. Picture: Kath Sansom. Auschwitz education trip. Picture: Kath Sansom.

Thursday, March 6, 2014
11:53 AM

It is more than 70 years since the Nazis built the death camps where six million Jews died during the Second World War.

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Flowers are tied to the fencing at Birkenau by visitors as a mark of respect to the millions of Jews who lost their lives at the concentration camps. Picture: Kath Sansom.Flowers are tied to the fencing at Birkenau by visitors as a mark of respect to the millions of Jews who lost their lives at the concentration camps. Picture: Kath Sansom.

But during a tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the atmosphere of this landmark site felt like the pain had been trapped in time.

It doesn’t matter how many history books or survivor tales you read, to stand in the spot where horrific war crimes were committed on a mass scale feels like the word humbled had been taken to a whole new level.

Spelling out the cost of human devastation is part of an annual one-day tour in which young people from across the UK visit the Nazi concentration camps to learn lessons for the future by witnessing horrors of the past.

At the London-based Holocaust Education Trust, HET, which has run the trips for 14 years, their goal is to educate young people, the decision makers of tomorrow.

Project a ‘vital part of our work’

Karen Pollock, MBE, chief executive of HET, said: “The Lessons form Auschwitz project is a vital part of our work, allowing young people to learn about the Holocaust in a way they cannot in the classroom.

“The visit enables young people to see for themselves where racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism can ultimately lead and its importance is demonstrated by the inspiring work students go on to do in their local communities.”

Anita Parmar, head of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, said: “Today intolerance and prejudice still exist in many forms. which is why young people’s commitment to the project is essential.

“The lives of the victims serve as a timely reminder that this should never be allowed to happened again,” she said, and although the majority of the Auschwitz Birkenau victims were Jews and Roma and Sinti gypsies, there were others persecuted for not fitting in such as disabled, Jehovas Witnesses, political prisoners, homosexuals or so called a-socials.

“I leave with a stronger commitment to celebrating life and freedom,” she said.

Taking us round Auschwitz our guide brought the human suffering into sharp focus.

Joel Fitzsimmons looking at suitcases and baskets that belonged to the prisoners. Picture: Kath Sansom.Joel Fitzsimmons looking at suitcases and baskets that belonged to the prisoners. Picture: Kath Sansom.

Stories like the women who broke free from their barracks to run at electric fences on the perimeters of Birkenau concentration camp knowing the death that followed would be a welcome exit ticket.

Women, whose children were taken the moment they stepped off the cattle trucks at Birkenau platform and were told their youngsters were being taken for showering to be brought back shortly.

Weeks, months, later however, when the children never appeared they realised the truth was that they were marched straight to the gas chambers of Auschwiitz where it took an agonising 20 minutes for them to die of suffocation from the crippling fumes of Zyklon B.

The chambers still bear the scratch mark testimony of the victims as they grappled to get out of the tightly locked chambers in which they met their end - and all because they practiced “the wrong religion”.

"What we didn’t see was as powerful as what we did. It was almost too much to take in and as we landed back at Stansted airport after a 15-hour whirlwind tour to Poland the surreal nature of this day trip hit home."

Kath Sansom

The stories are among thousands of painful memories logged in Holocaust record books, which bear witness to the six million Jews, 1.5 million of them children, who died during five years of second world war.

As I sit in a centrally heated office the day after joining the tour, knowing my own two girls are safe at school with plenty to eat and a bedroom full of everything they could wish for, I burst into tears.

Comprehending the level of hatred that can drive one human to hurt another in such a shocking way is beyond what most of us can imagine.

The trip is overwhelming, humbling and painful and only sinks in on return to the comforts we all take for granted.

Women threw themselves at electric fences to kill themselves after learning their children had been killed in the chambers. Picture: Kath Sansom.Women threw themselves at electric fences to kill themselves after learning their children had been killed in the chambers. Picture: Kath Sansom.

Stories of Block 10 return with a force - this was where Auschwitz Physician Josef Mengele carried out sick experiments in the name of medical research. To stand in the spot where that took place took my breath away.

Stories about the line drawn at 156cm where children were forced to stand on the railway platforms - if they measured up and were tall enough they lived if not it was straight to the chambers.

Under this ruling my 11-year-old daughter would have gone instantly.

The wooden slatted beds in huts built for 56 horses but in reality housed up to 400 starving prisoners with muddy floors and no sanitation.

The end of the line - the railway track at the entrance to Birkenau. Picture: Kath Sansom.The end of the line - the railway track at the entrance to Birkenau. Picture: Kath Sansom.

Piles and piles of shoes, shaving razors, pots and pans, all the regular household items packed hurriedly into suitcases and baskets when the Nazis invaded towns and rounded up Jews to take them to their new lives.

All packed with the hope that the future may not be rosy but at least they would be safe.

Innocent items like toothbrushes and shoe shine brushes that would never see the light of day.

Tonnes of hair shaved from the bodies of prisoners which was used to make vests for German officers or to stuff pillows.

Memorial service remembers victims

As the day drew to a close we were gathered together at the head of the train tracks into Birkenau for a candle-lit memorial service led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the Central London Synagogue.

Before chanting a prayer in Hebrew he spoke of the lessons which he hoped the young people would take back with them for life.

He said: “The Holocaust was a blight on humanity, we lost a third of our people. We must never forget the danger of preaching hatred, those who forget are destined to repeat it.

“If we were to observe one minutes silence for every person that died we would stand here for three years.

“I hope you leave today with a little more understanding of each other, with a little more kindness and with a bond of common humanity.

“I hope you can use this experience as hope and inspiration when your own lives become difficult. Know that you can overcome.”

When Soviets liberated Auschwitz on January 27 1945 there were 43,000 pairs of shoes found stored in the camp. Nobody knew their life expectancy within the prison camps would be just three to four months.

Who could have predicted that?

Tales of the punishment cells for prisoners who dissented - of the standing cells where a prisoner would be made to stand all night in a cell 31.5sq in with just a few holes for air - which in the winter became blocked with snow and they would suffocate to death - if they survived the night they would be sent to work all day in harsh conditions.

As we walk across the plains of Birkenau trying to compute the vast scale of murder we see row upon row of barracks, a never ending line of crematoria chimneys spanning acres where up to 1,500 bodies a day were burnt. It is numbing.

What we didn’t see was as powerful as what we did. It was almost too much to take in and as we landed back at Stansted airport after a 15-hour whirlwind tour to Poland the surreal nature of this day trip hit home.

This was a soul-touching experience that will stay with all 260 of us on the HET tour for life.

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