St Albans and Harpenden teenagers learn Lessons from Auschwitz
PUBLISHED: 10:06 18 March 2011
AROUND 200 students from across Hertfordshire including those from Harpenden and St Albans schools were flown to Poland on a one-day visit to the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau this month. Herts Advertiser chief reporter Aimee Brannen joined them as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, on what was an emotional day.
LOOKING over the now crumbling ruin of the gas chamber at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, it’s hard to comprehend that it was the very spot where more than a million people were mass murdered in the most heinous, barbaric and harrowing way.
My visit to the site in Poland with a group of St Albans and Harpenden teenagers conveyed with hard-hitting impact the brutality and cold efficiency behind the genocide that happened there during the Second World War, but like many others I still struggled to grasp how evil on such an unimaginable scale could have ever existed.
As between 70 and 75 per cent of the prisoners were executed on their arrival before being registered, exact figures of the victims can’t be placed – but at least 1,100,000 Jews, 140,000 Poles, 20,0000 Gypsies and 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war perished at Auschwitz, which comprises three camps with different purposes. All murdered in cold blood or tortured because of their religion or nationality.
It’s hard to grasp, which is why the work by the HET in taking school pupils to this ghastly place is so important – so that young people today continue to learn and pass on to their peers the universal lessons of the Holocaust and its relevance to prejudices in society today.
On the early morning flight from Luton to Krakow Rabbi Barry Marcus, who spearheaded the one day visits, told us that “hearing is not seeing”. This sentiment couldn’t resonate more than when you’re standing at the foot of the mountain of battered suitcases marked with names and dates of births which were torn from the grip of their owners and the carefully packed contents ransacked by their captors. The same goes for the vast piles of shoes, for large, small and tiny baby feet.
And then knowing that these vast remnants of once happy lives account for such a minuscule percentage of those murdered at this haunting place – the Nazis burnt most to hide the evidence of their abominable cruelty – is enough to make the heart sink and the stomach churn.
All of these belongings are displayed at what has now been turned into a museum at Auschwitz 1, primarily a concentration camp which consisted of around 15,000 prisoners who were spared immediate execution but condemned to torturous work in arms factories suffering harsh conditions, appalling hygiene and poor nutrition. How chillingly ironic it is then that the archway they walked through to enter the camp was emblazoned with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free.) There was also a hospital block – only, no caring went on, mainly just thousands of futile, agonising experiments inflicted on the young and old alike without anaesthetic.
A gas chamber in this camp is still standing and we were led into it during the visit and talked through what the people crammed into the dark, ominous, dingy space would have experienced as they faced their deaths..
The Holocaust Education Trust has now taken more than 10,000 students to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of its government-funded Lessons from Auschwitz project, which also involves seminars before and after the visit. Students selected for the project then go on to become ambassadors for the HET, raising awareness in their schools and communities of the horrors of the Holocaust and challenging prejudice and racism today – including two students from St George’s School in Harpenden and from St Albans schools Sandringham, Loreto College, Francis Bacon, St Albans School and St Albans High School for Girls. Here are some of their reflections on the experience.
Scarlett Dixon, a Year 12 student at Sandringham School, said: “Although I’m sure the experience hasn’t changed my entire outlook on life, it’s certainly taught me a few things that I should respect much more than I do.
I am grateful for my education, my upbringing and the fact that I could walk out of those gates once my visit was over, something the prisoners and victims of the Holocaust never got a chance to do. Emotionally, it’s much more effective than simply reading a book or looking at pictures due to the vast scale of the site. It’s certainly a day that I won’t forget.”
Dominic Holroyd, a Year 12 student at Sandringham School, said: “It was an extremely moving and thought-provoking day. It confronted me with the darkest side of humanity and made me think twice about what is going on in the world right now – is history still repeating itself?
“Entering the only remaining gas chamber in Auschwitz I was the most poignant part of the day. Realising and remembering how many thousands of people died in the very room I was in day after day horrified me; and all because of their religion, political view, sexuality or skin colour?
“We must remember that all those, whether victim or survivor, had a story, had a life, and, had a family. The Holocaust took away all of this; replaced their names with numbers, and replaced their life, with death.”
Nicola Hammersley, head girl at St George’s, said: “For me the visit really brought to life the enormity of the extermination process. The experience has highlighted to me the importance of not being a passive observer of injustice. The survivors’ stories are full of single small acts of defiance, I think we can learn from them and should commit to make a stand against prejudice and injustice.
“The conditions and experiences the prisoners must have endured are unbelievable and even after seeing it I still find it hard to imagine, but it is our duty to remember and learn and that is what I have taken from the trip.
Gameli Ladzekpo, head boy at St George’s, said: “I will never forget Auschwitz, it shouldn’t be forgotten. There’s not much to see really, only a fraction remains. Indeed, it’s not what I saw, rather what I didn’t see that proved most insightful.
“We didn’t see the perpetrators nor the victims, although we were encouraged to re-humanise both. What I found particularly harrowing was the sheer obedience of SS men. After the war, the excuse ‘I was just following orders’ seemed a justification for evil, malicious behaviour.
“The main lesson I learnt from visiting Auschwitz was that evil thoughts may always lurk in the background, it is only when we don’t question those thoughts that evil truly perseveres.”
Around 400 people a day were choked to death there – but it wasn’t enough for the Nazis, they wanted to kill 4,000 a day. That’s when they started building Birkenau, or Auschwitz 2 – the main death camp which held more than 90,000 prisoners and the main extermination site.
It’s now a vast, desolate place with a distinctly eerie silence and as we walked around the temperature plummeted to below minus 10. Despite numerous layers and a thick skiing jacket, I was the coldest I’d ever been and can’t imagine how any prisoners even survived the temperatures alone in bare feet and their flimsy uniforms.
We saw the so called ‘living quarters’ in which the prisoners were subjected to the most unimaginably sickening conditions. Harpenden resident and Auschwitz survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon said in an interview with the Herts Advertiser in 2007 that the only hope of survival was to think and act like animals. They weren’t expected to live – that was the point.
The rubble of the gas chamber rests just beyond the end of the railway line which brought in the prisoners in hellish cattle truck conditions in their droves under the charade of ‘resettlement’. This deception continued until the very end – on alighting the train victims were enticed into stripping bare outside the killing room, told it was a shower block. There were indeed shower heads, only no water came out – just cylinders of rat poison dropped on the victims to choke them to death. The cold calculated reality of the Nazi soldiers incomprehensible.
Many must have known the truth – we were told a story about how a group of teenage boys were lined up outside and had fallen at the soldiers’ feet, begging to be spared. Desperate pleas ignored.
Last was the block where the prisoners’ belongings were rifled through and sorted for sale. Photos now cover several walls – happy memories stripped from the victims on arrival, images of people oblivious to the pain, destruction and heartache their futures would hold.
The visit culminated in a poignant ceremony led by Rabbi Marcus to reflect and remember the victims, before candles were lit in memory.
As I walked back along the railway line and out of the camp, an overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me – I was free to leave.
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