Hundreds of students from across west London joined charity the Holocaust Education Trust last week on a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz.
Among them were youngsters from Kensington and Chelsea and their MP, Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
As a journalist, it can be easy to become desensitised, but I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for this visit.
Heading to Gatwick early on Thursday (26) I had no idea how I would react to the day and the things I would see and hear.
After a two-hour flight to Krakow, our group climbed straight on to coaches heading to Auschwitz I, the first of the concentration camps to be created on the site of a former Polish army barracks.
Completely unexpectedly, there was a designated coach park, a cafe and a book shop, along with dozens of tourists.
Although we were adding to the crowds ourselves, I never thought the camp would be a tourist attraction on such a scale that it is. But 1.3million visitors a year tells its own story.
We were met by a guide who walked with us through the main entrance and into some of the buildings constructed by slave labour.
The first few were full of photographs – images of men, women and children packed onto trains, pictures of families being separated and people being marched off to their death. Many of the images have been widely reproduced, and though they were horrible to see, I was prepared for them.
But the next building contained something neither I nor the students were prepared for. It was the moment I was hit by a realisation of the sheer number of individuals murdered at Auschwitz.
We were warned by our group leader, Tom, from the Holocaust Education Trust, that it would be ‘difficult’ – a significant understatement.
First comes a display of hair cuttings from women who had their heads shaved, their hair used on an industrial scale to weave material for guards’ uniforms.
Then there were prosthetic limbs, crutches and sticks taken from disabled prisoners who had been taken straight to the gas chambers, along with piles of glasses worn by the men and women, suitcases bearing the names of prisoners, and children’s shoes and clothes.
I knew what had gone on at Auschwitz. But when the belongings of real people are presented – distinct individuals murdered on a massive scale – it is deeply upsetting.
Many of the students were in tears, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind was visibly moved.
Other buildings carried the photographs of just some of the victims, covering the walls of every corridor. It was hard to look them in the eye, especially the women and children.
Then came building 11 – perhaps the most infamous of all. It was for the prisoners who had violated the rules of the concentration camp.
The rooms on the ground floor showed cramped accommodation, and a room where people were sentenced to death. But everything became much darker as we headed to the basement.
It was cold and a musty smell filled the air. We were shown ‘standing cells’ where four men would be placed in a cell too small for even one, and there would be no room to sit or sleep – they had to stand all night, before going out to work all day with the other prisoners.
Other ‘dark cells’ contained such a tiny window – little more than a gap in the wall. Many prisoners suffocated to death in there.
We went on, deep in thought to the most sinister of all of the buildings – the gas chamber.
It was a little like a factory inside – just a bare room with a hole in the ceiling. You would have no idea what went on in there if you did not know the background. At least until you see the crematoriums – large furnaces in place to dispose of the bodies of thousands of people.
By the time we left, the students and I were animatedly discussing what kind of a person could work there and whether anyone is inherently evil – I still don’t think they have their answers.
These discussions took us all the way to Auschwitz Birkenau, the second of the camps to be built on the site.
The red-brick entrance tower is probably the most iconic image of the concentration camps – it featured in Oscar winning film Schindler’s List and is what many people think of when you mention Auschwitz.
We climbed the guard’s tower, and the sheer vastness of the camp was overwhelming – it stretched as far as the eye could see and beyond. Brick buildings to one side, wooden ones to the other. Each of them far too small to fit the 1,000-plus people who were shoe-horned into them.
The railway line which transported prisoners into the camp also stretched to the very back, and as we walked along it, a sombre feeling spread across the group.
We stopped at the point where the men were separated from the women and children, and where the prisoners who were deemed unfit to work were taken straight to the gas chambers. All that remains of the chambers is a pile of rubble. They were demolished when the camp was liberated.
But one of the most poignant areas in the camp is the memorial set up for its victims. Flowers adorn the abstract sculpture which features the distinctive chimneys from the numerous crematoriums.
Our group included Rabbi Barry Marcus from the Central Synagogue on the outskirts of Marylebone, who led a service for the dead, but also encouraged the young people to take with them the memories of the day.
And that was something we all did. We were deeply affected by the stories of the prisoners, and deeply upset by what we had all seen.
Listening to a teenager’s poem during the service written as he waited to be transported to Auschwitz – ‘When I grow up and reach the age of 20, I’ll set out to see the enchanting world.’
He outlines his dreams for when he grows up and his hope for the future – hope that he would survive Auschwitz. He didn’t.
But living a life as full as possible and fulfilling dreams, it’s not the worst message you could take home from a visit to somewhere like this.
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