Herald reporter James Willoughby joined students from the North East, including pupils from Morpeth’s King Edward VI (KEVI) School, on a day-trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, in Poland, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
Harrowing, eerie and an experience which will take a while to sink in. These are just some of the words used by students to describe their emotional trip to the Nazi German death camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
It is, after all, the most powerful of history lessons, walking in the footsteps of the dead, setting foot in a place synonymous with suffering, brutality and mass murder.
Each visitor affected in their own way, trying to comprehend how such atrocities can be committed, attempting to work out what drives humanity to unimaginable depths of hatred and destruction.
Words, perhaps, can’t do it justice, simply because they are unable to convey the terror of these camps – graveyards of an incomprehensible scale and stage to one of the grimmest chapters in history.
Of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, more than a million were slain at these hell holes. Thousands upon thousands of Poles, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war were also murdered here. It’s an overwhelming figure that is difficult, if not impossible, to absorb.
It’s a shocking statistic which makes a mockery of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) sign above the gates of Auschwitz I; a cruelly ironic and chilling motto, almost taunting those poor souls who dared to believe it.
But the true horror lurks beyond the camp’s entrance. One of the most disturbing aspects is the vast collection of prisoners’ personal belongings on show in one of the site’s blocks, which displays the words Material Evidence of Crime above the door.
A mass of shoes, artificial limbs, glasses, suitcases and children’s possessions are just some of the items on display. A room of hair is sickening, especially when you discover that some of the victims’ locks were used to make clothes for German citizens.
All of a sudden, the prisoners become more than just a gross statistic.
This overwhelming collection of items, coupled with a sea of photographs of just some of the unfortunate souls targeted by the Nazis, humanises them. They become individuals – a mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter.
Evidence of evil is everywhere.
Take Block 10 for example, where several hundred women prisoners were held and used as human guinea-pigs for sterilisation experiments. Some were even murdered so that autopsies could be performed on them.
Then there’s Block 11. The camp jail, known as the death block, was truly a place of terror. For some time it held Sonderkommando, the special unit of prisoners employed to burn the bodies of the dead.
In the basement were punishment cells where the SS confined prisoners and subjected them to death by starvation and suffocation, as well as forcing people into standing cells.
In September 1941, the SS carried out experiments in the basement with the pesticide Zyklon B in preparation for the mass murder of Jews. Hundreds of Soviet prisoners of war and Polish political prisoners were selected from the camp infirmary as guinea-pigs and killed in this way.
The nearby gas chamber and crematorium, where thousands were exterminated, is a horrifying reminder of the slaughter which would follow these initial tests.
Behind one glass cabinet at Auschwitz I are stacks of empty canisters which had once contained Zyklon B, before it was used for murder.
A specially-built Death Wall, used for execution by shooting, is further evidence that killing would have been all around. Today, flowers and candles are placed in front of the structure in poignant tribute to the victims.
Murder, suffering and brutality was not confined to Auschwitz I. The huge site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is 3km down the road. It was the largest of more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. Its size is overwhelming.
The site’s entrance, the gate house – described as the Gate of Death by prisoners – is as foreboding as it is menacing and the notorious train tracks pass through it.
Trains rolled through this gate, day and night, bringing thousands of victims to be gassed at the four Birkenau gas chambers.
Inside the camp is the railroad siding where unfortunate souls exited from the trains and the selection process took place; those fit enough were put to work, the others were sent to one of the four gas chambers at the far end of the camp.
The gas chambers were made to look as ordinary as possible. Crematoria II and III had underground gas chambers and those being sent there were encouraged to believe they were being sent to the showers prior to entering the camp.
The deceit went as far as the buildings being surrounded by well-tended flower gardens.
These rooms of death were blown up by the Nazis as they left in retreat of the advancing Soviet army, which subsequently destroyed some of the wooden barracks to control the spread of disease.
Despite the gas chambers being nothing more than ruins today, they still provide a gruesome insight into the unimaginable atrocities which occurred here, just over 70 years ago.
The horror of Auschwitz is not lost on the students who made the trip to Poland last Thursday, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
Among those to visit were Simi Kaur, Molly Elliott and Lucy Davison from KEVI.
Reflecting on the Auschwitz experience, Simi, 17, said: “It was an emotional day and there was a lot to see and a lot to reflect on.”
Molly, also 17, added: “Auschwitz is bigger than I expected it to be and the gas chamber and crematorium was really eerie.”
Lucy, 18, admitted that the day has affected her more than she thought it would and added: “There was an exhibition at Auschwitz I which featured drawings which were done by children – that really stood out for me.”