How to try and make sense of the systematic genocide of six million people based solely on their religion?
This was the task assigned to pupils from all over Buckinghamshire last week, who visited the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, a trip organised by the Holocaust educational Trust [HET].
Around 200 students and teachers from Schools and colleges across Thames Valley and Chiltern visited the Nazi concentration and death camp as part of the HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project, which is now in its 18th year.
For the first and only time so far in history, a state and its accomplices attempted to murder every single member of a people.
1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau – roughly subdivided into 1 million jews, 64,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinai and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and around 12,000 other ‘undesirables’.
These numbers are vast and very difficult to contextualise over a lifetime, never mind a day, yet this was the challenge that pupils faced
Reading about the Holocaust in textbooks is one thing, imagining what it must have been like as you feel the freezing cold in Birkenau is something completely different.
It makes the Holocaust real.
Hearing, after all, is not like seeing.
The HET faced the mammoth task of humanising and contextualising the incomprehensible nature of this atrocity, from the Jews in their day to day life before WW2 – to the Nazi guards who at the end of the day were human beings like ourselves. Although it is difficult to see how human beings could have committed such an atrocity.
The former army barracks were chosen for their seclusion, in the drained swampland just outside Oświęcim which was drained so they could build the infamous ‘death ovens.
The site remains hauntingly bleak, bookended by haunting white birch trees that loom over the memorial site, obscuring the mass graves behind them.
The pupils were shown three sites: Auschwitz – a concentration camp, Birkenau – the main extermination camp and Monowitz – primarily a slave labour camp.
Grace Downes, a pupil from Cottesloe said: “It’s been an emotionally draining day – you hear about it all the time but seeing the chambers, the collected human hair and twisted glasses.
“These all belonged to people who had their own lives, families and they were stripped and dehumanised simply for a set of beliefs.
“It’s almost impossible to believe, but it’s something everyone should see and ensure that it never happens again.”
Anum Ilyas from Cottesloe School said: “It’s been a very difficult day to be honest.
“It’s hard to put your feelings into words when you look across the vastness of Birkenau.
“The HET have tried to humanise it with stories of individual people, and that has given us a sharp insight the everyday life and the atrocities of the Third Reich.
“These people were treated like animals and showed immense courage, even sacrificing their meagre food rations to practice their religion.”
Eliane Wright, from the Royal Latin School said: “It’s been horrifying to see the pictures of people just living normal lives, to see what people bought with them as the bare essentials. I’d seen pictures before of the camp but nothing can prepare you to the reality of the size of the camp.
“I’m leaving here with a real appreciation for life and freedom we have.
“The whole place is intimidating, the horror of everything people experienced is everywhere.
“From the gallows to the death orchestra, to the medical experiments. The whole place is horrifying.”
With something so difficult to understand – perhaps it’s best left explained by Kitty Hart-Moxon, who survived numerous camps during WW2.
“I lived through Birkenau without ever understanding how any members of a great nation could indulge in such wickedness.
“Not only that, but deliberately to set about contaminating everyone else too. For that was a part of a policy: to turn their prisoners into beats and then turn those beasts against one another.
“Only afterwards did I read the full history of those years and still I cannot fully understand.
“As it is barely credible to someone like myself who lives through the worst of it, perhaps I ought to not be surprised at members of a younger generation who cannot believe it happened at all.
“But I did live through it and I do know it happened.”
As the sun went down, the pupils made their way to ‘Canada’ - where the plundered goods were kept, ‘inmates’ tattoo’d and they were given scalding hot or freezing cold showers.
In the final room of the labyrinth structure, there is a display of family photographs, that were stashed away from the Nazis. Each photo offering a vignette of lives stolen and provided a haunting backdrop to where several pupils read poems from concentration camp survivors.
The day finished with a poignant sermon from Rabbi Shaw, where he reflected on his own family history relating to the Holocaust, as children lay tea lights at the termination of the infamous Birkenau railroad.
Death is always difficult to dealt with – and it is unavoidable that visiting the place where more than one million people were murdered will leave a mark on you.
But I left with the feeling that the pupils who attended had learned a lot from their day.
Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “The Lessons from Auschwitz Project is a vital part of our work, allowing young people to learn about the Holocaust in a way they cannot in the classroom.
“The visit enables young people to see for themselves where racism, prejudice and antisemitism can ultimately lead and its importance is demonstrated by the inspiring work students go on to do in their local communities.”