Two Sixth Formers toured the concentration and death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of an awareness raising exercise called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
David Hall and Ruby Johnston, along with Head of BPE, Ms Coombe, were among a group of around 200 Sixth Formers from the East Midlands who went to the notorious site. The students will now deliver presentations about what they have seen in order that the legacy of that time is not forgotten.
In order to prepare them for their visit, the group had an orientation seminar in Nottingham when they heard a first-hand account from a Holocaust survivor who was transported to Auschwitz as a child.
The delegation first visited Auschwitz 1 which was set up as a work camp. Auschwitz II or Birkenau was a purpose built death camp where it is estimated that 1.1 million people were exterminated. Poignant memorials included vast displays of shoes, hair and possessions that were taken from inmates before they were gassed.
David said: ‘The survivor, Ziggy is in his 80s now, but he was just a little kid as the Holocaust started. He was sent to one of the ghettoes in Poland and from there he was moved to various concentration camps, one of them being Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was amazing how he survived. He lost all of his biological family, but he referred to his family now as all of the friends that he made in the concentration camps that also survived.
‘Auschwitz 1 was originally a Polish army base so when the Germans arrived they began using the huts to house inmates. Each building had glass cases where all the shoes, hair and prayer shawls that had been confiscated are now displayed. The camp later expanded to Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau and later number III which was incomplete when the war ended.
'We walked to Auschwitz-Birkenau along the same path that the prisoners walked down. If you arrived there you would have a 75 per cent chance of dying within the first hour. It was the uniformity of the camp that scared me the most. We got the chance to go into the guard tower and I had a bird’s eye view of the entire camp. It was so big I couldn’t even see the end of it from the guard tower.
'Once the Russians and Allies were closing in the Nazis tried to blow up all of the concentration camps in order to cover up what they had done. It was a site of dehumanisation; the prisoners had all their clothes taken from them, their possessions, their property so the only thing they cared about was their next meal and survival.
‘One of the main things that I wanted to learn was how so many people could have survived? For them they got a piece of bread, cup of coffee and worked all day. I tried to compare my life to theirs and it was almost impossible. We went to a follow-up seminar where we looked at how to disseminate information through the community. We might do presentations to the school or local community and councillors. I have definitely learned, on a different level, what humans can actually do to each other.
'During the whole experience there were three places that were really disturbing: One was the fusty-smelling room with glass display units full of prosthetic limbs which had been confiscated. We actually got to go inside a gas chamber and that was really scary. It made a dramatic contrast as outside it was a nice sunny day and as soon as you stepped in that gas chamber it was freezing.’
Ruby Johnston said: ‘I have always had an interest in the Holocaust and I wanted to be part of this project to spread awareness. Ziggy was nine when it started and it was a gradual process, which is important to remember, because when we think of the Holocaust we tend to think of the final number of six million exterminated. Ziggy was in a ghetto for a long time working in a metal factory and he spoke about how dehumanised he was. At the age of 11 he would be stepping over bodies on a daily basis and sometimes they would be people he would know, but all he could think about was the bowl of soup he would get at the end of the day.’
‘Auschwitz I is more like a museum where you see physical remnants of all of these people, their spectacles and prayer mats. It was hard to deal with the shoes as they are such a defining part of you as an individual and one pair of shoes represents one person, so when you see two rooms full of them it shows the scale of destruction. However, the worst bit for me, and for a lot of other people, was a room full of hair. Among all of this bleak, grey-brownish hair that had deteriorated over time you would see these blonde perfect ringlets that must have belonged to a little girl and hair that was still in plaits.
‘Auschwitz-Birkenau was purely an extermination camp and you couldn’t see the end, it was so enormous. In that particular complex up to 1.1 million people died and it is impossible to comprehend the scale of it. It sounds clichéd but I am really passionate about the thought of being able to have some kind of active role in educating people about what happened. It still has an important moral for everyone, the fact is that in the 20th and 21st century there is almost always some act of genocide going on somewhere in the world.'
Ms Coombe said: ‘My first thought was that it should never happen again and that is what the Holocaust Educational Trust want to happen. We need to pass the message on about the awful things that happened. However, we know that it is happening elsewhere. One of the things that we were really challenged about is our own personal behaviour now because it is easy to say those people over there shouldn’t do something, but actually what are we, as individuals, doing?
‘We were warned that all of us were going to react to Auschwitz in a different way. For me the most moving part was when we were standing near the cattle truck and the actual testimony of a young boy was read out. He was with his father and his mother was being transported elsewhere. The last view he had of his mother was of her touching his sister’s hair and he obviously did not know that he would never see them again.’