GALLERY: Cromwell Community College and Ely College students visit Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

Ely College students Nicola Dunk and Matthew Setchfield with Cromwell Community College students Ell

Ely College students Nicola Dunk and Matthew Setchfield with Cromwell Community College students Ellen Garrett and Isaac Smy. Picture: Yakir Zur. - Credit: Archant

Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust – one million perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Students enter Auschwitz I. Picture: Yakir Zur.

Students enter Auschwitz I. Picture: Yakir Zur. - Credit: Archant

The majority were killed in the gas chambers. Those who were deemed fit enough to work succumbed to the inhumane living conditions.

Four students – two from Cromwell Community College and two from Ely College – were part of a group of about 200 young people, accompanied by guides and a rabbi, who visited one of the camps where the Nazis implemented their final solution.

The trip was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, whose aim is to educate young people about what took place and the lessons that can be learnt today.

With a sense of trepidation at what we were about to witness, we arrived at the entrance of Auschwitz I.

A pile of shoes which belonged to prisoners. Picture: Yakir Zur

A pile of shoes which belonged to prisoners. Picture: Yakir Zur - Credit: Archant


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Accompanied by our guide, we passed through gates carrying the slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which means ‘work brings you freedom’.

Auschwitz I was primarily a concentration camp which held about 15,000 prisoners. It was initially used for Polish political prisoners.

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It later housed Soviet prisoners of war, “anti-social elements” and prisoners of many nationalities.

Some of the blocks have been converted into a museum. The walls are emblazoned with quotes and images, including of prisoners undergoing a selection process, where the guards decided whether they were destined for the gas chamber or forced labour.

The entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. Picture: Yakir Zur.

The entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. Picture: Yakir Zur. - Credit: Archant

Prisoners were misled into thinking they were being re-settled, so they travelled with their possessions. These were taken off them on arrival.

In Block Five, preserved inside a giant glass case, is a mountain of shoes, which belonged to 40,000 prisoners.

In another room, there is a pile of cutlery. Another room has a stack of cases and baskets, another has shoe polishes from 23 different countries. There is even a room of artificial limbs.

In one room, you are confronted by an enormous pile of hair, more than 20 metres long and several metres high, belonging to 40,000 victims.

The rail road which runs through the middle of Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur.

The rail road which runs through the middle of Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur. - Credit: Archant

Before prisoners were led to the gas chamber, they had their hair shaved off. Hair to the Nazis was a commodity which could be sold.

We were taken to a courtyard where prisoners would be hanged or shot.

After that, we were shown a gas chamber. The guards would create the illusion the prisoners were being deloused in preparation for the next stage of their re-settlement journey.

They would tell them not to forget where they had put their clothes, so they could retrieve them afterwards.

Students gather for the ceremony. Picture: Yakir Zur.

Students gather for the ceremony. Picture: Yakir Zur. - Credit: Archant

We did the walk so many prisoners did to their deaths. There are no words to describe what it is like to be stood inside a gas chamber.

Once our tour of Auschwitz I had finished, we made the short bus trip to Birkenau.

The first thing you notice about Birkenau is that it dwarfs Auschwitz I. Looking out of the guard house, you get a sense of the sheer size of the camp. It measured 300 acres, had 300 buildings and could hold more than 90,000 prisoners at one time.

We were taken to an outbuilding where upwards of 400 prisoners were packed in, four on a bunk bed.

We were shown a tiny wagon which upwards of 130 prisoners endured for many days before arriving at the camp (they were transported here from all over Europe).

It was at this point selection took place – families would be separated, with men and women forced into different lines.

It would be the last time they saw each other, for the fate that awaited the majority of prisoners was the gas chamber, which was only a couple of minutes walk from the end of the rail track.

A small minority deemed fit enough to work were taken to a separate building where they were “disinfected” in the most degrading way. Inside the building today is a display of pictures of prisoners.

At the end of our visit, in the shadow of the rubble of one of the gas chambers, a ceremony was held.

Volunteers read out poems, then Rabbi Barry Marcus tackled the question: Now that 70 years have passed since the Holocaust, is it time to move on?

His response was that we have a responsibility “not to forget the millions who were so mercilessly butchered”.

“I believe that we can not face the challenges of the future without identifying with our past,” he said.

Addressing the gathering, he added: “Thank you for putting your life on hold for just one day. Whether this is your first time here, your second or your 100th, as it is mine, you can never comprehend what happened here.

“We are stood at the end of the rail road. For one million Jews, 100,000 of them your age, this meant the end of life.

“If we were to hold a minute’s silence for everyone who died here, we would stand silent for two years.”

His words were followed by a moment’s silence. Then, everyone lit candles and placed them on the rail track - a poignant end to an immensely moving day.

Reflecting on her afternoon at Auschwitz, Cromwell Community College student Ellen Garrett said: “You can’t imagine that happening to your family. It was so peaceful today. You could never imagine the atrocities that happened here.”

Fellow Cromwell student Isaac Smy added: “What struck me was how close the train was to the gas chambers. As soon as the prisoners opened the door, they were only two minutes away from them.

“When they realised what was going on, it would have broke their hearts.

“I was apprehensive at first about going somewhere like this. I’m so glad I did. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Ely College student Matthew Setchfield said: “When I saw all the hair of the people who died, it was something very personal which brought it a lot closer than just hearing the numbers of people who died.”

Fellow student Nicola Dunk added: “It rehumanised the Holocaust seeing all the hair, shoes and personal belongings. They were just innocent people like us.”

FACTFILE

Auschwitz concentration camp was established by the Nazis in 1940 at a Polish army barracks in the suburbs of a Polish town called Oswiecim.

Auschwitz I was primarily a concentration camp which held about 15,000 prisoners. It was initially used for Polish political prisoners. It later housed Soviet prisoners of war, “anti-social elements” and prisoners of many nationalities. Harsh working and living conditions led to high death rates.

Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, was the main death camp. It was the location of the gas chambers and crematoria. It was a slave labour camp for the minority of Jews who were not selected for immediate death in the gas chambers. In 1944, it held more than 90,000 prisoners.

During the Second World War, 1.1 million Jews were sent to the concentration camp, along with 140,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

The death toll was one million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

At the end of 1944, with the Red Army approaching, the Auschwitz administration began to remove traces of the crimes committed there by destroying buildings and documents.

Between August 1944 and January 1945, 120,000 prisoners were evacuated to camps in Germany, on cattle trucks or “death marches”. Many of the prisoners died due to the freezing conditions, hunger and shooting by the guards.

The remaining 7,000 prisoners were liberated by the Red Army on January 27 1945.

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