‘Seeing Auschwitz really humanises the vastness of what happened here’

As we silently walked along the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau we became acutely aware we were in the exact spot where millions of innocent people met their fate.

It’s a scene we will have seen before, the gates of death and the train tracks that millions thought were taking them to a new life, but were actually bringing them on the road to death.

Students from schools in the region take part in a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau to learn more about the Holocaust.

Students from schools in the region take part in a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau to learn more about the Holocaust.

But walking in the footsteps of millions of men, women and children who were met with unfathomable brutality and ultimately mass murder, it really brings home the sheer horror of the most shameful period in European history.

A group of 200 students from the north east travelled to the area as part of the Holocaust Educational Trusts’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.

Now in it’s 15th year, the project is based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, and gave the students the chance to visit the town of Oświęcim, renamed by the Germans to Auschwitz, where the Nazi concentration and death camp was located.

Before the war, 58 per cent of the population was Jewish, with a thriving community and Synagogues dating back hundreds of years.

After the Second World War around 180 Jews returned to the town. The last Jew in Oświęcim, Shimshon Klueger, died in 2000, and now there are none.

Students then visited Auschwitz 1 to see the former camp’s barracks and crematoria, and witnessed the harrowing piles of belongings seized by the Nazis – suitcases with names and dates of births on them which would have been filled with their most prized possessions, mountains of spectacles, combs, 80,000 shoes, and two tonnes of human hair.

The now infamous and chilling ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work makes you free) adorn the entrance gate, mocking those who dared to believe it.

The pupils viewed the wall of death in a courtyard between the prison blocks, where thousands of prisoners were lined up and shot, and silently walked through the empty concrete shell which housed the camp’s first gas chamber, unable to comprehend the horror of what took place in the building they were stood.

Lucy Andrews, 17, from St Thomas More Roman Catholic Academy in North Shields, said: “It was an incredibly valuable experience.

“We have studied it for so many years, actually seeing it for yourself can you understand the vastness of it and what actually happened.

“Seeing it really helps to take it all in. I was stunned when I saw the hair. The sheer volume of it and knowing it was only a fraction of it. It really humanises what happened.”

Just 7km away lies the second Auschwitz camp, Birkenau, established in 1941 for the purpose of mass extermination.

The vast 200 hectare site is home to a wall of smiling family photographs of special occasions. The images of people who had hopes and dreams for the future, and whose lives were brutally cut short. These images are the people behind the numbers, and put faces to the statistics.

Rabbi Barry Marcus then led a ceremony to remember the six million people who died during the Holocaust, and the pupils took part in a candle lighting on the train tracks.

Bethany Wilson, 16, from Whitley Bay High School, said she now plans to share her experiences with other pupils at her school.

“We want to spread what we have learnt to the lower years so they can understand too,” she said.

“I thought I was prepared but I was shocked when we saw the gas chambers and what people had left behind.

“It was really hard, it’s really hard to come to terms with it.

“By seeing people’s belongings it really makes you realise these were ordinary people.

“When I saw the hair I cried, it was just awful.

“The magnitude of it was shocking, and knowing that was just a small amount of what there would have been.”