Watching the sun set over a guard tower at Auschwitz left me torn between two emotions.
On the one hand I was in awe of the perfect orange sun dipping serenely below the horizon. It was one of the most beautiful, picturesque sunsets I had ever seen.
But in the very same breath I was wracked with guilt – guilt at ever thinking a place steeped in atrocities so unimaginable, a place that is a testament to the darkest and most murderous side of human nature, could ever be ‘beautiful’.
I couldn’t help but imagine the thousands of Jews 71 years ago who would have arrived by train and may have witnessed a similar sight.
Tired mothers and fathers with sobbing children, grandparents, aunts and uncles; entire families that had arrived at the camp who would be marched into a gas chamber, stripped naked and murdered in the most callous and ruthless way by Nazis from the SS.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me or the 200 students whom I travelled with for the day we had visiting a site where around 1.1 million Jews were slaughtered.
Our day began at 7am with a flight into Krakow.
The 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 town’s population of was Jewish.
Now, not a 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 trip to the cemetery was to show how the area had a strong Jewish community before the outbreak of the war in 1939.
Next, we moved to Auschwitz 1, which houses the museum. What we witnessed really brought home the horrors of the Holocaust.
A total of six million people were murdered during the Nazi extermination campaign – including 1.5 million children.
These figures are so enormous they are tough to grasp.
However, our time in Auschwitz 1 helped to bring this home and highlight individuals – not the mind-boggling statistics.
We were shown hundreds of suitcases of the people who arrived at the camp – there were thousands of pieces of clothes and toys too.
The site is now a museum and acts, in many ways, as a shrine to all those killed.
For me, the moments which really brought it all home was seeing a small pair of red children’s shoes and a set of house keys and the enormous stacks of human hair which had been cut from prisoners.
These people thought they would return home. Many never did.
When the camp was first built, prisoners would be housed here, crammed in rooms with mattresses made of straw. They would wash in cramped washrooms and would be forced to use filthy toilets.
The walls outside were adorned with headshot photographs of the first prisoners. They showed 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.
Elsewhere we were shown an interrogation block where prisoners were tortured and starved. Many never made it out alive.
We went inside one of the gas chambers which chilled me to the bone.
Inside, the walls were caked in black grime with scratches all over them.
It was also eerily cold and quiet. It was hard to imagine that thousands of people spent their last minutes of life in a place so desolate.
Next we headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This became the main extermination centre.
The site is absolutely enormous. It sits in the middle of a large, flat field. Wooden barracks are dotted everywhere with a central railway line slicing the camp in two.
Prisoners arrived by train and were instantly split into two groups – those who were strong enough to work and those who weren’t.
The unlucky were sent straight to the gas chamber where they were killed. Women, children, the elderly and the sick were the victims.
The rest would be sent to a ‘decontamination centre’ where their heads would be shaved, uniforms issued and tattoos printed.
Only about one in five people would survive the arrival to the camp – a fact which haunted those of us on the trip.
With the sun now set and darkness rolling in, we joined together to listen to a heartbreaking sermon by a Rabbi from London before lighting candles and placing them on the railway line.
Afterward, I spoke to Havant Sixth Form College student Louis Anderson.
The 17-year-old, of Portsmouth, told me: ‘Seeing what these people went through was just gut-wrenching.’
Louis and the other students will act as ambassors and spread what they have learnt to others in the hope that such atrocities will never again be repeated. . .