VIDEO: ‘I just don’t have words for it’ - Fenland students witness horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau
STUDENTS from Fenland visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a project run by the Holocaust Educational Trust yesterday. Reporter Rob Setchell went with them.
SUN glints off the Birkenau railroad track as schoolchildren stand silent on the platform. Their teacher for the day, David Jones, weeps as he speaks.
“To me, this is the most moving place in the camp,” he says. “This was the unloading ramp. The point where families were separated - some selected to work, some sent to the gas chambers.
“One of the reasons I do this is because my eldest daughter has got a very mild form of Cerebral Palsy. If we had been alive during the time the Nazis took over, she would have been put to death just for being slightly disabled.
“To stand here and know that this is the point I would have been separated from my daughters is very painful.”
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Teenagers from schools across Cambridgeshire, including four students from Fenland, have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.
It is the first time they have seen the concentration camps - but for trust ‘educator’ David it is his 16th visit.
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“My story is quite interesting,” he says. “My mum didn’t tell me until I was 13 that when she was pregnant with me, it looked like she would lose the baby.
“Several doctors wanted to operate to terminate the pregnancy and prevent a massive miscarriage. But one Jewish doctor insisted they let whatever was going to happen, happen naturally.
“Thankfully, I was born and my mum named me David - after the doctor. That started my interest in studying anti-semitism.”
More than 60 years have passed since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. It is estimated that one and a half million men, women and children were murdered at the death camp. More than a million of these are thought to have been Jewish.
Visiting students started their day at a Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim. Before the Second World War, 58 per cent of the town’s population were Jews. Today, there are none living there.
The group moves on to Auschitz Museum - but to call it a museum seems a disservice. It is a living hell, preserved so that generations will be able to see what Hitler’s war machine - and mankind - was capable of.
We pass under the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” - work makes free - sign, which is now a copy after the original was stolen. Tour guide Anna Kusak says: “It is false hope. Although they worked, they would not be freed. They would die.”
Sinister Nazi watch towers stand around the perimeter of Auschwitz I, overlooking the 28 worn, brick barracks.
We enter several of the buildings, seeing the rotting wooden bunk beds in the living quarters and the suffocating cells of the barracks used for punishing prisoners.
But it is a barracks of preserved items stripped from prisoners by the Nazis, which has the most profound effect on the students.
The teenagers peer through the glass at hundreds of suitcases, branded with the names of the camp’s victims and the addresses they had hoped to return to.
Corridors are lined with pictures of prisoners, taken on their arrival. Underneath is the date they arrived, followed by the date of their death.
Rooms are full of possessions taken away from the prisoners - Jewish prayer shawls, a mountain of kitchen pots and even tins of shoe polish.
There is a huge pile of glasses, taken from the bodies of people killed in the gas chambers, and there are thousands of shoes. Endless pairs of battered, brown shoes that once belonged to men, women and child prisoners.
The tour guide does not need to say anything as we enter the next room. Behind the glass is two tonnes of slowly disintegrating human hair. It was shaven from women when they arrived at the camp, and the Nazis used it to make carpets.
No amount of television documentary footage or advance warning can prepare you for these sights. They are not mere museum exhibitions. They are real possessions, real hair, real life.
Emily Savage, 16, from Sir Harry Smith Community College, in Whittlesey, said: “I just don’t have words for it.
“The most shocking thing for me was seeing all the shoes and all the faces of prisoners. I just don’t understand how people could do this.”
Students file into the gas chamber at Auschwitz I - it is the only one that was not destroyed by the Nazis as they tried to erase all evidence of the Final Solution. There are openings in the roof, where deadly Cyclone B gas was filtered in.
Wisbech Grammar School student Francesca Cooper, 17, said: “I knew this trip was going to have an effect on me, but I didn’t realise how much until we walked into the gas chamber.
“It’s really hard to describe how it makes you feel. It’s something you have to experience.”
The students move on to the second death camp Birkenau, which is almost 20 times the size of Auschwitz I.
They see four black grave stones yards from the ruins of the gas chambers and a larger memorial, which is visited by hundreds of Israeli soliders every month.
Towards the back of the camp, a building which had been used to register new prisoners is now a memorial to them.
Luggage not burned by the Nazis is preserved, from watches to house keys. Photographs of Jewish families, babies and couples line the walls.
The students gather to place candles at the end of the railroad line and listen to a final ceremony.
Rabbi Barry Marcus, who is nearing his 100th visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, says if we held a minute’s silence for every victim of the Holocaust, we would be stood still for three years.
But as the sun sets, it is David who provides the best explanation of why these trips are necessary.
“Soon, there will not be any eye-witnesses,” he says. “Even the youngest survivors are now around 70.
“When they’re gone, you might think that’s the end. That’s not true. You’re the new eye-witnesses, you’re the ambassadors who can leave here and make a difference.”
The message, which students had seen earlier on a sign at Auschwitz I, is loud and clear.
“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”