Sixth Formers Jack Lamb and Seth Goddard visited the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp as part of an educational trip run by The Holocaust Educational Trust. Between 1940 and 1945 at least 1.1 million people perished there, 90 per cent of them were Jewish.
The site was made into a memorial and museum in 1947 and it contains hundreds of artefacts and possessions from those who passed through the infamous entrance, its massive gates bearing the motto ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’
Students studying Philosophy and Ethics were invited to apply for the trip, which is called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’. Visitors are expected to undertake education work when they return, sharing their experience so that the Holocaust and its legacy is never forgotten. Jack and Seth plan to do an assembly and they want to plant a commemorative birch tree as Birkenau is named after the trees that fringed its western perimeter.
Jack and Seth, accompanied by Ms Durden, went for an orientation seminar at Nottingham Conference Centre where they heard the account of Auschwitz survivor Zigi Shipper.
Seth said: ‘Zigi was a child there but the children didn’t get any different treatment. He was still expected to work. He got typhoid and managed to survive a week with typhoid and without water. He realised they were going to send him to the gas chambers and he survived because he jumped off the moving truck as he knew that wasn’t going to end well. He was really inspirational and his story was very powerful. The main message he was trying to push was don’t hate because it is such a corrupting, poisonous emotion. Auschwitz 1 was a very scary place. It is difficult to describe because it is an experience that is hard to talk about. Words and text books don’t do it justice, not even birds sing there. It is a very melancholy place.’
Jack said: ‘Auschwitz 1 was originally a work camp. There was a single gas chamber there and a museum with all the documents and artefacts in glass cases. First of all you see this tangled mesh of wires then you realise that they are all individual spectacles. There are other cabinets with prayer robes that were taken from the Jews. As you progressed the displays contained other things such as pots and pans that had been confiscated. The most startling aspect was an enormous room full of hair that had been cut from those who were killed in the gas chambers. Each little pigtail and ringlet was from a person who will be forever commemorated in that cabinet. There wasn’t a dry eye walking out of there. It was hard to look at because it put it into a quantity. Six million isn’t a number that you can process but when you saw that room full of hair you suddenly have an amount that you can visualise. Also there was a beautiful vase there full of human ash that also served as a memorial.
‘On the walls of the barracks were thousands of pictures of Jewish people. They were catalogued on the day of arrival and on the day they died. For some of them the intervening time was two weeks or less. Birkenau was constructed as a death camp. There were wooden huts which were originally stables for the German Army, but each hut had 400 people in it. There is the famous gate which is enormous and we walked a kilometre and only covered one third of the camp which gave us an idea of the size.
‘It was challenging to be there. In the huts I touched the same wall that the prisoners had touched. I could walk out freely but they never had that chance. I came back from the day with gratitude, that we are lucky to live here and now. The people at the Holocaust Educational Trust don’t preach hatred and bitterness. Rehumanisation is one of the things they teach. We as humans are responsible for ensuring things like the Holocaust don’t happen again. It is up to us to stop them. Being a bystander is a negative. You can’t be a bystander and expect good things to happen.’
Seth said: ‘40 per cent of all the people who died in Auschwitz died in the last year of its operation. At the end of our time in Birkenau we had a ceremony at the end of the train tracks where we read some psalms and poems and lit some candles. The rabbi who conducted the ceremony said we were standing on the largest cemetery in the world. That was really a powerful statement that hit home, to think how many people had died there. That was the best way to finish off the day because that was the last thing we did, lay the candles on the tracks and walked out. The experience made you stop and think. It really was life-changing.’