Sunderland schoolchildren visited Poland for a harrowingly-compelling visit to Auschwitz. Katy Wheeler joined them to learn more about the horrors of the Holocaust.
ROBBING a nation of their neighbours, stripping them of their possessions, tearing babies from their mothers – this is how Hitler went about snuffing out an entire people.
Prior to the Second World War, Poland was home to 3.5million Jews. Today around 6,000 call it home.
We walked in the final footsteps of many of those Jews – grandparents, dads, daughters, mothers and sons – at the site of two former German labour camps in occupied Poland: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II.
Except these weren’t labour camps, they were death camps, a place where more than a million Jews – as well as others who did not fit with Hitler’s ideal of an Aryan Race – were murdered.
As you walk under the metal sign “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes (you) free) at Auschwitz, the cruel irony of the motto hits you. For these people would never be free, no matter how many hours in the dark, cold and wet they toiled away.
When they were transported to these camps in cattle trucks, people thought it would be the start of a new life, albeit a dramatically different one from the homes they were forced to evacuate.
They bought with them their shaving brushes, their cooking pots, their dolls – all life’s little necessities.
These items are now piled high in rooms at the camp as a haunting memorial to their owners. A room containing two tonnes of human hair is most chilling, exposing the human element to a site that represents the antithesis of humanity.
Shaved from prisoners, the hair was even used to create Nazi uniforms for soldiers who would walk around in clothes threaded with the remains of those they’d slaughtered.
It is in the first Auschwitz camp that you can visit a recreated gas chamber, one of the earlier ones used by Nazis.
Here, 800 prisoners at a time would be herded and told to strip outside before being gassed with Zyklon B, the Nazis’ preferred killing tool.
Over the years, their methods became more sophisticated, more coldly efficient. Down the road, at Auschwitz Birkenau II, its chambers could kill 2,000 at a time in a matter of moments.
As they were walked down the steps, the prisoners were told they were having a shower.
Some were even given bars of soap and towels to keep up the pretence. This wasn’t to ease the prisoners’ fears, of course, it was to reduce panic, to make the SS’s job as easy as possible.
The SS didn’t want to do all of the dirty work themselves though. Once everyone in the chamber had been exterminated, Sonderkommandos, work units made almost entirely of Jews, were forced to dispose of the victims, remove their gold teeth, sometimes dealing with the dead bodies of their own relatives.
Every three months they too would be gassed and replaced – they knew too much about the grim reality of the Final Solution.
Today, all that remains at these sites is rubble and bricks. As the Soviet troops advanced in 1945, the Nazis destroyed evidence of their atrocities.
At the steps to one chamber lie flowers, a juxtaposition of colour at a site that’s so starkly devoid of life. Even the birds seem to stop singing here.
We all stood in silence as we imagined the fate of those who’d been sent here just 60 years ago, in living memory. There are no exact figures for those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau – those who couldn’t work and were destined to die straight away were never registered – though it is estimated to be around 1.2million.
To pay a moment’s silence to each victim just in this camp alone – this was just one of many in Europe – would mean you would have to be silent for more than two years.
Instead, as we walked in the dark and damp, back through the camp, we each lit a candle of remembrance along its infamous railroad.
Though Auschwitz is chillingly fascinating and gives you an insight into a monumental chapter of history, it’s an emotionally draining day and you find yourself wanting to go home – we were just thankful to be able to leave the gates of this hellish place. The prisoners here were not so fortunate, for them it was a doorway to death.
I joined a group of hundreds of schoolchildren from across the North East who visited the camps as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
Each year, the Holocaust Educational Trust invites sixth-form students and their teachers to 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.
Natalia Miaskiewicz, 17, and William Fenwick, 17, attended from St Robert of Newminster School in Washington.
For Natalia it proved particularly poignant. Her grandparents lived in occupied Poland during the Second World War.
“Seeing the room full of hair really puts things into perspective ... the scratches on the wall,” she said.
“I used to ask my grandparents all the time about Poland when I was younger, but this is the first time I have seen it for myself. You hear about the Holocaust, learn about it in history, but nothing compares to seeing all those piles of shoes and glasses.”
She added: “For me it’s my heritage. The Jews were most targeted, but a lot of Polish people suffered too.”
William said: “It makes you realise the individual stories behind the Holocaust. You look at the shoes and think ‘my nephew has school shoes like that.’ It make you realise they were the same as us.
“You wouldn’t think anyone could survive anything like that, but at the seminar we met Eva Clarke, who tells you her mother’s story, who gave birth to her just days before the camps were liberated.
“It also makes you think about things that happen today, you do research and realise it does still happen, in Darfur, in Rwanda. The only way to stop it happening in your back yard is to educate.”