ARRIVING at such a macabre site in glorious sunshine and blue skies seemed wrong somehow.
It felt disrespectful to the millions who were executed at this Nazi death-camp for me to experience warm rays on my skin, and hear the birds singing, and see trees in bud.
But if there is one thing I learnt on the Lessons from Auschwitz trip it’s that life goes on and it’s only by revisiting the past and examining history for ourselves that we can take away lessons and knowledge to hopefully prevent such a monstrosity happening again.
The group of mostly six-form students on the trip were a delight to be with – they were polite, chatty and incredibly well informed about the holocaust and the sites we were visiting.
There was certainly none of the teenager hysteria and mild histrionics that I expected to see as our groups were shown around by our knowledgeable guide – just a quiet and sombre reflection as the full scale and enormity of the genocide sunk in.
Our first stop on the day, after a red-eye start for us all with a 5am check in at East Midlands airport, was in the town of Oswiecim, better known by its Germanised name of Auschwitz.
Before the war, like many towns in Poland, it had a large Jewish population, making up nearly 60 per cent of the residents.
Today there are no Jews living there – yet the town folk have restored and maintain one of the synagogues, and is trying hard to encourage visitors, and to deal with its troubled past.
The 200 students are split into smaller, more manageable groups, each led by an ‘educator’ – ours was a friendly chap called Steve Richardson, a quiet, modest man, I assumed he was probably a history teacher given his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the holocaust, but in fact his chosen subject was RE.
He engaged everyone in his charge with his gently probing questions, encouraging the youngsters to consider the bare facts he laid out and to try and find their own answers to the questions he posed.
We took a walk to the synagogue where we met Rabbi Barry Marcus, an incredibly charismatic speaker, who soon had the whole group’s attention as he talked about the history of the area, and explained more about the Jewish faith.
It’s a short 5 minute drive from here to Auschwitz I to see the former camp’s barracks and crematoria, and we entered the site through the now infamous gates.
Arbeit macht frei, claims the sign above, but the sad truth is that work made no-one free in these camps.
As the groups wandered around the buildings – you could see the pain and bewilderment on their young faces as they were shown piles of human hair, collected from every prisoner and used to make textiles, thousands of pairs of glasses strewn in a haphazard pile, carefully named suitcases, and day-to-day essentials such as shaving kit and toothbrushes.
It became painfully clear that the Jews had believed the propaganda that they were simply being relocated as they had chosen their belongings to take with such care and deliberation.
We had a lovely local tour guide, who explained what we were going to see before we entered each room, a sort of warning to be prepared if you like, but in truth nothing really can steel you against the sights you see.
It’s probably fair to say though that the greatest impact was when we were shown the last remaining gas chamber and crematorium.
We stopped outside for a while, and looked over to the home of the camp’s commandant, Rudolf Hoss.
It was Hoss who designed and built Auschwitz from an old army barracks to a killing machine capable of murdering 2,000 people an hour.
Steve explained how, from 1940 to 1944, the Hoss family lived in the two-storey grey stucco villa on the edge of the camp — so close you could see the prisoner blocks and old crematorium from the upstairs window.
The family had cooks, nannies, gardeners, chauffeurs, seamstresses, haircutters and cleaners, some of whom were prisoners, and decorated their home with furniture and artwork stolen from prisoners as they were selected for the gas chambers.
It was a life of luxury only a few short steps from horror and torment.
He asked us to imagine the life the family led, just yards away from the chambers where so many lost their lives.
We shuffled slowly into the block, and to the gas chamber room, disguised to look like a shower block. Indeed, we were told, the Jews believed they were going in to be disinfected and washed – yet once inside when they real horror of what awaited them became apparent, they could do little more than claw desperately at the walls.
You can see the nail marks, deeply gouged in all the walls. Many of the group just stood and cried. Some touched the wall as if trying to share the pain.
It’s an image I will never forget and I suspect many of the students won’t either.
Moving on we drove the couple of miles to reach the main killing centre of Birkenau. It’s another of those photos everyone recognises – the long stretch of railway leading into the archways and entering the camp.
Birkenau is divided into nine areas – each surrounded by vicious looking barbed wire, and high wooden watchtowers.
The trainloads of people who were bought here were Jews, Roma and Sinti (gypsies). Prisoners of war, non-Jewish Poles and other prisoners were still imprisoned at Auschwitz.
The gas chambers here were also made to look as ordinary as possible.
They were underground rooms, and those being sent were also made to believe they were being sent to be showered prior to being admitted to the camp. The deceit went as far as the buildings being surrounded by well tended flower gardens, and numbers on clothes pegs in the undressing room.
It can’t be called a changing room, there were no clothes to change into – all sexes, and ages, were stripped naked and made to walk through the lines of guards, so those who had value as workers could be removed, those who weren’t continued to the chambers.
We continued with the tour – being shown man-made ponds, created solely to dump human ashes, guard posts on every corner, and the ruined remains of further crematoria, destroyed by the Nazis prior to liberation in an futile attempt to hide the crimes committed.
Finally all the groups met again at the memorial area, where Rabbi Barry led an emotional, yet somehow quite soothing, ceremony, with readings and one minute for quiet reflection.
I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes as he sang El Molei Rachamim for the martyrs of the holocaust and we all lit a memorial candle and placed it on the railway tracks.
As we walked back to the coaches we looked behind.
There twinkling in tShe dark were more than 200 tiny lights – a sign of peace and hope for the future, as well as a small but fitting tribute to more than 1.2 million souls who perished here in the not so distant past.
The Holocaust Educational Trust was established in 1988.
Its aim is to educate young people from every background about the holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today.
The Trust works in schools, universities and in the community to raise awareness and understanding, providing teacher training, an outreach programme for schools, teaching aids and resource material.
One of its earliest achievements was ensuring that the holocaust formed part of the national curriculum for history.
It continues to play a leading role in training teachers on how best to teach the holocaust.
Through the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, sixth-form students and their teachers take part in two afternoon seminars and a one-day visit to the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in order to then pass on the lessons in their schools and communities.
Since 1999, over 20,000 students and teachers have taken part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s groundbreaking Lessons from Auschwitz Project (LFA).
Based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, the four-part course explores the universal lessons of the holocaust and its relevance for today, to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.
The visits to the former Nazi extermination and concentration camp are preceded and followed by half-day seminars in order to ensure an exceptional educational experience.