The Holocaust Educational Trust regularly takes groups of students to Poland to show them around Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp where more than 1m people died. Education reporter Ruth Scammell took the trip with them to see how the younger generation are being educated about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Auschwitz. Just the name brings shivers down the spine.
The atrocities that happened at the Nazi concentration camp 70 years ago are a permanent reminder of the powerful and cruel actions of mankind and where extremism can lead.
I knew that visiting Auschwitz was going to be tough.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for what you see when you reach the site where around 1.2 million people lost their lives.
We flew into Krakow. On arrival, the 223 students, teachers and guests took the short journey into the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. Before the war, 58 per cent of the population of the town was Jewish.
Today, not one single Jew lives there. The last died in 2000, a man called Szymon Kluger, who survived the Holocaust. He is buried in the town’s Jewish cemetery, which is the first place we went to.
The idea behind the visit to the cemetery was to show how the town had a strong Jewish community before the outbreak of the war in 1939.
Next, we moved on to Auschwitz 1, which houses the museum.
What we saw really brought home the horrors of the Holocaust. When the thousands of prisoners arrived at the camp, they each had a suitcase.
Many of them thought they would be returning home.
But each case was sorted out and possessions were taken away. The museum houses many of the items which belonged to prisoners including thousands of pairs of shoes, hair brushes, and even children’s toys.
One of the most harrowing sights was that of the hair belonging to prisoners.
When the camp was first built, prisoners would be housed here, cramped up in rooms with mattresses made of straw. They would wash in cramped washrooms and would be forced to use filthy toilets.
The walls outside are adorned with headshot photographs of the first prisoners. They show their date of birth, arrival date in camp and the date they died. Most of them lasted just a few months before they were killed, if that.
In another building, we see an interrogation room, where prisoners were tortured. Many didn’t make it out alive.
We went inside one of the gas chambers, which is not for the faint-hearted.
It’s hard to imagine that this is where thousands of people spent their last minutes. It’s eerily dark and damp with scratches all over the walls and much of the paint has chipped off.
Next we headed further up the road towards Auschwitz-Birkenau. This became the main extermination centre.
The first thing that struck me on arrival was the sheer size. It’s huge. I was completely overwhelmed. Fields that housed barracks went on for as far as the eye can see.
The prisoners arrived at the camp mostly via trains. The rail tracks still remain at the site, as prisoners were brought in from all over Europe. Many of them had been without food, water or toilets for days. Some of them didn’t survive the trip.
When they got there, they were inspected and the SS guards would decide whether they would live or die. Just one in five prisoners would survive on arrival.
Those who lived would be shaved, tattooed and given clothes to wear, before being put to work.
The rest would be taken to the gas chambers, unaware that they were being taken away to die.
Most of the barracks were made from wood, so they have since disintegrated over time. But we did visit some of the buildings that still stand; buildings where people were forced to sleep sitting up, back to back and toe to toe with 400 other prisoners.
Where prisoners would rather have a job staying inside and clearing up the excrement, instead of working outside in the bitterly cold, potentially life-threatening temperatures.
We were taken to a room which was full of photographs on display. When the prisoners packed a suitcase to leave their homes, the most important possessions were photographs.
The majority of them were burned by the Nazis. But a small collection were left behind. It was touching and poignant to see all the smiling faces of families and loved ones of those who perished in Auschwitz.
The final part of the trip was a memorial service. Students read poems and a rabbi read prayers and sang a song in Hebrew, before all the students were invited to light a candle in memory.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I spent a day on a site where so many people died. I am still astounded, all these years later, that people could commit mass murder and could want to wipe out groups of people, just because of their faith or their ethnic background.
And despite all the horrors I witnessed, I am glad I made the trip.
I am glad people have the chance to get an idea about what happened.
Above all, I am glad that youngsters are being educated about the horrors of the Holocaust and hope they reflect upon it and go on to educate others to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.
Auschwitz was one of the most fascinating yet horrific places I have ever been in my life and I must admit, I was relieved to be heading home.
I am certain that the feelings of horror evoked by the camp are shared by all those who visit.
I am sure that I will never forget them.
And I can only begin to imagine the hell that those prisoners of war faced.
Work of the trust
The Holocaust Educational Trust was founded by Lord Janner of Braunstone and the late Lord Merlyn Rees back in 1988.
The aim of the trust is to raise awareness and understanding in schools and amongst the wider public of the Holocaust and its relevance today.
The Lessons from Auschwitz project is a four-part course for two students aged between 16 and 18 from a school or college.
The project consists of two seminars, a one-day visit to Poland and a project called Next Steps project, where students pass on the lessons they have learned to their peers. The project is now in its 15th year and has taken more than 23,500 students and teachers from across the UK to Auschwitz.
Funding for the project is provided by the Department for Education and by Scottish and Welsh governments.
Trust bids to pass message on to students
FOR the past 15 years, The Holocaust Educational Trust has been running trips to Auschwitz.
The aim of the Lessons from Auschwitz project is to give young people an insight into the horrors of the Holocaust in the hope that they can help shape the future and ensure that it never happens again.
Sam Hunt is a teacher and volunteer for the trust. She regularly visits Auschwitz to lead groups of youngsters around and teach them about the atrocities that happened there.
‘It’s important that we pay respect to these people who perished,’ she says.
‘There’s a famous saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat history again.
‘We haven’t learned from the lessons of the Holocaust. There is still racism and prejudice.
‘It’s about saying to young people, “what does this mean to you today?”
‘What message does it give and what lessons do you learn? It’s about motivating young people to not be a bystander but to go out and make a change in the world.’
And Ms Hunt says going on the trip has a real impact on the lives of youngsters.
‘The young people I take on these trips, many of them come back wanting to change the world.
‘It’s when you see where racism leads that you get the motivation to stop it in its tracks.
‘Many young people go on to do fantastic projects when they educate young people about the dangers of racism and what happened here.
‘It’s about transforming young people to become active citizens who make a very positive contribution to make the world a better place.’
More coverage of the Auschwitz visit can be read here.