Students from Northumberland were among a group of pupils who travelled to Auschwitz in Poland as part of a Holocaust educational programme. Reporter Tegan Chapman joined them on the trip.
As we silently walked along the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we became acutely aware we were in the exact spot where millions of innocent people met their fate.
It’s a scene we have seen before, the gates of death and the train tracks that millions thought were taking them to a new life, but were actually bringing them along the road to death.
But walking in the footsteps of millions of men, women and children who were met with unfathomable brutality and ultimately mass murder, it really brings home the sheer horror of the most shameful period in European history.
A group of 200 students from the North East travelled to the area as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz project.
Now in its 15th year, the project is based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, and gave the students the chance to visit the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by the Germans, where the Nazi concentration and death camp was located.
Before the war, 58 per cent of the population was Jewish, with a thriving community and synagogues dating back hundreds of years.
After the Second World War, around 180 Jews returned to the town. The last Jew in Oświęcim, Shimshon Klueger, died in 2000, and now there are none.
Students visited Auschwitz 1 to see the former camp’s barracks and crematoria, and witnessed the harrowing piles of belongings seized by the Nazis – suitcases with names and dates of births on them which would have been filled with their most prized possessions, mountains of spectacles, combs, 80,000 shoes and two tonnes of human hair.
The now infamous and chilling Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) adorns the entrance gate, mocking those who dared to believe it.
The pupils viewed the wall of death in a courtyard between the prison blocks, where thousands of prisoners were lined up and shot, and silently walked through the empty concrete shell which housed the camp’s first gas chamber, unable to comprehend the horror of what took place in the building.
Josh Racey, 18, from The Duchess’s Community High School, Alnwick, said: “It was a really good experience. I think it’s important to go and see it for yourself, as we need to learn from the mistakes in history. Seeing the suitcases and the photographs really brought home that these were real people, not just numbers, which is what you learn about.”
Just 7km away lies the second Auschwitz camp, Birkenau, established in 1941 for the purpose of mass extermination.
The vast 200 hectare site is home to a wall of smiling family photographs of special occasions.
The images of people who had hopes and dreams for the future, and whose lives were brutally cut short. These images are the people behind the numbers, and put faces to the statistics.
Rabbi Barry Marcus then led a ceremony to remember the six million people who died during the Holocaust, and the pupils took part in a candle lighting on the train tracks.
Caitlin Mitchell, 17, from James Calvert Spence College in Amble, said she now plans to share her experiences with other pupils at her school.
“We want to spread what we have learnt so that other people can understand too,” she said. I feel a lot more aware now that I have seen it in real life.
“It is a lot different to seeing it in a book, as I can feel what they would have gone through.
“I was shocked by how many of their personal items were kept.
“Seeing the suitcases really upset me, as you can see the names on them and dates of birth.
“They thought they would get to keep them and have a future.”