Stark lessons of Auschwitz

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IT MAY have taken place some 70 years ago, but the Holocaust is an event we should never forget. Reporter Rachael Clegg travelled with some Sheffield sixth-form students to Auschwitz and heard how they found the experience.

THE deserted train tracks at the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau need no introduction.

Poignant: Names and addresses on suitcases belonging to prisoners

Poignant: Names and addresses on suitcases belonging to prisoners

But in spite of this, nothing can prepare you for seeing first hand the sight of the most atrocious event in human history.

It was here, at the end of the line, where prisoners, transported in filthy cattle carts, were segregated and then moved to the left or to the right. Left meant death, right meant labour, malnutrition and torture.

While we read about these events in history books, seeing the site first hand has a chilling effect on the visitor - only then can the physical and shocking scale of the Nazi extermination camp.

And it is for this reason why a handful of Sheffield sixth form students have been brought here by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).

The trust has a saying ‘hearing is not like seeing,’ which is why it flies hundreds of post-16 students each year to Krakov, Poland, and then Oswiecim, Auschwitz’s neighbouring town, from which it takes its Germanic name - and then to Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau, as part of its ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ programme.

Lydia Vickers, 18, from Hillsborough College, is one of the students on the trip and one of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to be shocked by the sheer scale of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“I couldn’t believe how vast the site was,” she says. “It was much bigger than I expected and something that films such as Schindler’s List don’t prepare you for.”

The site sprawls across several acres. Some of the 300 huts are still standing, others only exist as foundations - the result of Nazis trying to destroy evidence. The huts are wooden, uninsulated and rudimentary. There are gaps between the roof and walls - one can only imagine how unbearable these conditions were in the sub-zero Polish winter.

About 12 people would share a ‘bed’ - a series of wooden slats. Poor hygiene, the absence of sanitation and the cramped conditions meant the huts were rat and insect-infested.

The site is surrounded by 13km of electrically-charged, 13ft-high fencing.

Inside were 300 barracks, which, in 1944, housed as many as 90,000 Jews.

Hillsborough college student Connor Parker, aged 18, says: “Until you see it for yourself Auschwitz is just facts and figures on a page, but to be here and see what it was like is something else and there’s a lot to be learnt.”

The first transport to Auschwitz 1 - a former army barracks - was in April 1941. Work on Auschwitz-Birkenau started in October the same year, just two months after the first mass murder of people using Cyclone B.

By January 1942, the Nazis had started killing hundreds of people at a time in the gas chambers. Today the gas chamber block at Auschwitz 1 stands empty, although the holes where the ‘shower heads’ emitted the deadly gas are still visible.

Beyond the chamber is a large model of the gas chamber operation. It shows thousands of dead bodies being shovelled out of the chamber by a Jewish prisoner and then fed to the furnace.

“That was really disturbing,” says Lydia. “The way they shovelled the bodies out of the gas chamber and burnt them. That was just horrible.”

But few things sum up the scale of extermination at Auschwitz as powerfully as the two tonnes of matted, dull, dead, shaven human hair behind a glass wall at Auschwitz 1.

This hair was shaved off the heads of the one million people who were deported to Auschwitz.

Then, in the next room, is the prisoners belongings - thousands of battered leather suitcases on which people’s names and addresses are innocently scripted, as if, at some point, they would be reunited with their owners.

Among the names are Bertha Eppinghausen, born April 3, 1936 - making her aged just five when the first Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

Beyond the cases is a valley of shoes and then, a huge pile of spectacles, a mountain of bed pans and a wall of false limbs.

Chris Ricketts, who is studying five A-Levels at King Ecgbert School in Dore, said: “Seeing all that hair and all the suitcases with names painted makes you think about how those people all thought that one day they would be going back home,” he says

“Being here does make it more personal. It makes you think about prejudice and discrimination and how harmful they can be.” But while it is important to see the site where 1.1 million Jews were imprisoned and many murdered, few can comprehend what it was like to have been dragged out of one’s home, taken from one’s family, shipped off on a crammed cattle train and greeted with Auschwitz.

As Sheffield Auschwitz survivor Otto Jakubovic, 84, said: “You cannot imagine what Auschwitz was like unless you have been through it.

“And the biggest impression of all - that cannot even be properly described - is when the cattle truck is opened as you arrive and you take your first breath of Auschwitz.”

We can no longer smell the stench that permeated Auscwitz-Birkenau but we can still see the camp.

And it’s still deeply shocking.

Holocaust awareness

The Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) was established in 1988 to educate young people about the Holocaust;

The Trust runs a four-part programme called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ to raise awareness of the Holocaust and discuss the issues surrounding it;

1.2 million Jews were transported to Auschwitz. Transportation of Jews started in 1940;

In June 1940 Nazis started relocating local people away from the area to aviod them witnessing the crimes, contacting prisoners or helping them escape;

The Germans moved 5000 Poles from Oswiecim and its neighbouring villages. They destroyed eight villages and demolished more than one hundred buildings to make way for the camp;

On September 3 the first murder sing Cyclone B is committed. By autumn Nazis start using gas chambers;

Hans Frank, Governor General of occupied Poland, said: “Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated.”

For information on the Holocaust Educational Trust call 020 7222 4761 or email info@lfaproject.org.uk or visit www.het.org.uk