CLUTCHING our candles in the dusk of the early October evening, we slowly made our way along the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
With the so-called gates of death visible in the distance, we were acutely aware that we were in the exact spot where more than a million people had ended their final journey more than half a century before.
A group of 200 or so teenagers from north east schools had just attended a ceremony by the Holocaust memorial at the infamous death camp after spending a day learning about one of the most shameful periods in European history.
I was fortunate enough to join them on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s day trip to Poland on Tuesday as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project.
That morning, after an hour-long coach journey from the airport at Krakow, we arrived in the town of Oswiecim – or Auschwitz, as the Germans renamed it.
More than half of the town’s population was once made up of Jews, but after the war very few survivors returned, and its last know Jewish resident, Holocaust survivor Shimshon Kluger, died in 2000.
We were shown his grave in Oswiecim’s Jewish cemetery, where gravestones – removed to pave the streets of the town – had been returned to the site.
The students had all attended an orientation seminar prior to the trip and met a Holocaust survivor to prepare them for what they were to see.
At the Auschwitz museum, we were shown the conditions in which prisoners – not just Jews, but political opponents, the disabled, homosexuals and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis – were kept.
We were led through the death chambers where so many died and shown photographs of families – taken the moment they were separated from each other on the train platform.
We had been warned that the day would be both physically and emotionally exhausting and that we might all react differently to things that we would see.
Around 1.2m people died here – the sheer scale of it is difficult to comprehend and it is easy to get lost in the numbers.
For me, it was entering the room containing a huge glass display, housing almost two thousand kilograms of hair cut from the dead that was most upsetting. There were displays of children’s pigtails and plaits still bound together with hairbands.
For others in my group, it was the wall of death in a courtyard between the prison blocks, where thousands were lined up and shot or the collection of children’s clothes and shoes.
Later in the day, we travelled the short distance to the second, bigger camp of Birkenau – or Auschwitz II.
By the ruins of the crematoria, we were shown photographs of bodies being burned at the same spot where we stood.
We were taken to an exhibition of hundreds of photographs found among the belongings of those who were tricked into the gas chambers in the belief there were going to have a shower, before being slowly suffocated.
The photographs were poignant displays of family occasions – happy, smiling people celebrating births, weddings and birthdays – which put faces to the statistics.
They helped give everyone food for thought at the ceremony led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, during which he urged us all to pass on the message to never forget what happened here.
Speaking to me just after our plane left Krakow airport that evening, 16-year-old Carla Salvin said she planned to share her experience with fellow pupils back home at Whitley Bay High School.
The 16-year-old said: “I thought it would be really thought-provoking and eye-opening, that it would be better to experience it in real circumstances rather than reading about it from a text book.
“And the atmosphere was – well you could feel the story behind it, the sense of loss. It was overwhelming.
“It just hits you at times. The photographs of the people who had lost their lives and seeing the human hair.
“It’s vitally important never to forget the Holocaust and remember that things like racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia still exist in society. It’s a lesson in how you treat people.”