Horrors of Auschwitz camps live on for St Albans students 70 years after Holocaust liberation

PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:16 20 March 2015

Lessons from Auschwitz -  Holocaust Educational Trust visit to Poland, attended by 200 pupils from Thames Valley and Chiltern schools, including from St Albans and Harpenden. 
Photo courtesy of http://grahamsimages.com

Lessons from Auschwitz - Holocaust Educational Trust visit to Poland, attended by 200 pupils from Thames Valley and Chiltern schools, including from St Albans and Harpenden. Photo courtesy of http://grahamsimages.com

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Walking in the footsteps of mass murderers and the more than one million victims they brutally killed in extermination camps during the Second World War is a gut-wrenching experience, even 70 years after the end of the Holocaust.

Last Thursday (12), students from St Albans and Harpenden joined fellow pupils - 200 in all - from across the Thames Valley and Chilterns for an educational trip to the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Trip organisers, the Holocaust Educational Trust hope the younger generation will become ambassadors and teach others about what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable - and allowed to continue unchecked.

The easy part of the trip was the 7am flight to Krakow Airport, from where pupil-laden coaches, reporters and educators from the trust drove an hour to Oświęcim.

Upon arrival, the students were taken initially to a Jewish cemetery in the town, which was given the German name “Auschwitz” when the Nazis invaded Poland.

Before the Second World War 58 per cent of the town’s population was Jewish.

Now, there are none.

Headstones smashed during the war by Nazis have since been recovered to again mark the dead, and many have been pieced together to form a monument.

The trip continued to both Auschwitz I and the main killing centre of Auschwitz-Birkenau where the day ended with an emotional ceremony and prayers to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, and other victims of Nazi persecution.

While today the whole complex is referred to as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the name actually refers to three separate main camps and dozens of sub-camps.

It was at the concentration camp of Auschwitz I, beyond the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, that we were shown where dreadful experiments were carried out - usually with fatal consequences - and a hidden courtyard where people faced a firing squad.

In one block were starvation and standing cells, the latter being so small that prisoners were forced to enter upon their knees before standing in total darkness as punishment.

There were many rooms containing heart-breaking reminders of the people exterminated including broken dolls, hand-knitted babies’ clothes and booties.

Black and white photos of women, forced to have their heads roughly shorn and whose hair was sold to the German textile industry, line walls.

Nearly 2,000 kilos of hair were later recovered and are contained in an enormous room at Auschwitz I, which forms part of the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Walking through a gas chamber decades after so many were killed by poisonous gas that had been released into the former airtight rooms is a haunting experience.

So too is seeing the remnants of crematoria, gas chambers and hundreds of barracks – including timber stables – at the expansive Birkenau site, the main death camp, where prisoners were allowed to use toilets just twice a day.

On the eery railway track slicing through the site stands a solitary train carriage - once used to transport people to the camp - which was recently found and restored.

At the end of the trip, students from Beaumont, St Albans High School for Girls, and St Albans School said it had been “overwhelming” but educational.

During a moving ceremony they were told: “Jews and other people were murdered because they were different. An assault on differences is an assault on all of humanity.

“We aren’t condemned to endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.”

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I should probably have taken the hint! Walking out into the garden recently an unprecedented flock of thirty or more crows raucously greeted me from the treetops at the bottom of my garden. Cawing and croaking these big, black birds clung clumsily to the top most branches and twigs, jostling and flapping to stay balanced in a constant flurry of feathers. There is always something ominous about crows – they are after all carrion crows, the vultures of the bird world – always watching for scraps and weakness that might mean their next meal.

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