Students learn why we should never forget

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A sombre silence falls as a group of Sheffield sixth- formers stand on the site where hundreds of thousands were murdered.

Although it is 70 years since an endless stream of men, women and children died in the Auschwitz gas chamber during World War Two, there are still tiny pieces of crushed bone visible in the soil.

James Mills and Logan Robin

James Mills and Logan Robin

This harrowing fact creates just one of the emotional moments students from Sheffield and Rotherham experienced last week in an educational trip to Poland.

It was a world away from turning the pages of a history book to learn about the Holocaust.

Youngsters saw the end of the train tracks at the main death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jewish families from across Europe arrived with their suitcases.

The students walked among the cramped barracks where up to 1,000 people – selected to be worked slowly to death – slept in their own filth.

And they saw the confiscated photographs of happier times, showing mothers, friends, lovers and babies, many of whom were systematically gassed shortly after arriving at the camp.

Birkdale School student Jamie Anderson, aged 17, said: “It was very disturbing. The implications of all of it, walking around on people’s remains, is awful to think of. This place is a representation of everything wrong with humanity and it is our job to come and do better.”

Daisy Cutts, a 17-year-old student at Notre Dame High School, added: “It is so upsetting, but interesting at the same time. There are so many things from here which I will remember. The pile of children’s shoes really stuck with me. How could they kill children and not feel remorse about it?”

The Holocaust Educational Trust took youngsters on the trip as part of its Lessons From Auschwitz project – aimed at increasing understanding of what happened during the Holocaust.

Based on the premise that ‘hearing is not seeing’, students were taken to the first camp.

It was set up in 1940 at a Polish army barracks in the town of Oświęcim, which at the time had a large Jewish population, to house the increasing number of Poles arrested by the Nazis.

Now there is not a single Jewish person living in Oświęcim.

At the camp, inside a former living block, is a vast cabinet of human hair shorn from women and children as they arrived. Piles of belongings – shoes, tangled spectacle frames, even false legs and disability aids – also helped bring to life the 1.1 million people who died at Nazi hands. Most of them were Jewish.

And the brutal regime of those kept prisoner at the camps was revealed.

Students learned how victims were tortured to death by starvation, sometimes suffocation, forced to burn the dead bodies or crush the bones of their loved ones, and in some cases were the subject of criminal medical experiments.

James Mills and Logan Robin, both 17 and studying at King Edward VII School in Broomhill, had applied to go on the visit because of their family histories. James, of Ecclesall, said: “My grandad and his family were Hungarian Jews and they managed to escape the Nazi and Soviet occupations.

“They first escaped the Nazis by a couple of days, and they went back to Hungary not knowing it was the day before the Soviet occupation.

“So for me coming here it was like, ‘This is the life they could have had’. It is why I wanted to come.”

Logan, of Walkley, added: “My maternal grandfather was a German Jew and my paternal grandfather was Polish, and he was forced to work for the Germans.

“My other grandfather and his family managed to get out a few months before war was declared.

“The family changed their last name from Meyer to Robin because they thought it had associations.”

Students will now become ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and share their experiences with fellow pupils.

“It is hard to explain how it feels here,” said Emily Bryan, a student at Brinsworth School in Rotherham. “It is going to stay with me, and make me see things from a different perspective.”

Birkdale student Alex Moody, 18, added: “I always believed in the good of humanity. Auschwitz has shaken that quite a bit.”

Silence among the crowds

All youngsters should have the chance to visit the site of the genocide, a teacher said.

History teacher Helen Parsons – head of sixth form at Birkdale School – travelled with pupils Jamie Anderson and Alex Moody.

She said: “All children should have the opportunity to come here.

“Looking at the youngsters who came along, they are from all different backgrounds, but they were all moved and had a personal response.

“What struck me was the hushed silence as we were there. So many people were visiting that day but there was no noise at all because everyone was so overwhelmed by what they were seeing.”

Sheffield Heeley MP Meg Munn also took part in the trip.

She said: “Before coming to Auschwitz you know all of this, because you’ve seen it in books, and I have been to the museums.

“But I came here and saw the cabinet of hair, which I didn’t know about, and that’s so shocking.

“I also found the shoes so moving because they were so personal. My mum was born in the 1920s and there are people who died here who were born at the same time, while she has had a full life. Their lives were cut short for no reason.”