Each year hundreds of students from across the North West visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to learn about the genocide of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis. Gemma Sherlock joined a party of Lancashire youngsters at the death camp.
“You are the next generation of survivors.”
This is what hundreds of A-level students across Lancashire were told during a visit to the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz.
As those words sunk in, darkness had fallen and the faces of 200 pupils were lit by candlelight as they gathered in prayer on the memorial steps.
Just a few hours earlier this next ‘generation of survivors’, including pupils from Baines School, in Poulton, and Kirkham Grammar School, was boarding a plane to Krakow, Poland, from Manchester Airport. Organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau aims to increase understanding of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and the Holocaust in the Second World War, and signal what can happen if prejudice and racism becomes acceptable. For Hussain Hassan that statement couldn’t be more true, “It’s trips like this that are quite important to me just with hate issues,” said the 18-year-old.
“It is important to go back and remember what happened and why we should become more unified rather than creating divides in society.”
Some were unsure of their reactions towards visiting a place which became the graveyard to 1.1m Jewish people and families.
“It is quite horrific to think about, six million Jews died in the Holocaust, it doesn’t seem real,” said 18-year-old Rebecca Morse.
“It makes you realise it’s not just a statistic, these were real people. A lot of people know the extent of what happened but to see it is another matter,” said George Sanderson, 17.
The first thing to greet our group was the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, which translates to Work Sets You Free.
The statement couldn’t prepare for what was to come.
As the guide and educator, Steve Richardson, led the group through to the personal belongings exhibitions the silence became more prominent.
A poem entitled Pigtail was handed to the students before they were warned of the dark room ahead. Some of it read: “In huge chests, clouds of dry hair, of those suffocated, and a faded plait, a pigtail with a ribbon, pulled at schools, by naughty boys.”
A glass display containing 40,000 kilos of hair, representing 40,000 men, women and children, stood to the side.
Despite the students leaving the room quickly, those few lines of the poem will have resonated for a long time after.
“The hair was horrific, it made me think of my little sister going to school,” said Alicia McGooga.
“I do her hair in the morning and seeing that makes it more real, those people were real, the children will never wake up the next morning to go to school.”
More exhibitions followed, treasured kitchenware, shoe polish and brushes and thousands upon thousands of pair of shoes.
“This tiny brogue was just sat there, it would have belonged to a little girl, they had no power whatsoever, they were doomed,” said Rebecca Wakefield.
The final stop at Auschwitz 1 ended with a walk through one of the gas chambers, or “showers”, as millions of Jews believed they were going for a quick wash rather than to die.
It is believed some took 20 minutes to die as the cyanide Zyklon B gas was dropped by German SS soldiers.
Scratches could be seen along the walls – a last attempt at survival.
“The gas chamber was overwhelming,” said Rebecca Morse. “It was quite eerie, it makes you more aware in a way, it is a very odd and upsetting feeling as the reality sets in.”
If emotions weren’t running high enough the next stop was Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial.
This was nothing like any film or documentary.
The sun set behind the famous Birkenau tower as the groups left the coach once more.
As far as the eye could see metal fencing lined the road; fields stood behind, cordoned off to the world.
Students gathered on the railway tracks before entering at the same spot as Jews were transported from as far away as Hungary.
Scarves and gloves came out of pockets upon entering, but the cold was more than just physical.
Some wiped away tears as the guide led the group to the spot where a doctor decided whether you lived or died.
A trip to witness the horrific toilet facilities where 800 Jews slept followed.
Rabbi Garson, of Manchester, gave advice to the students ahead of the final part of the trip.
He said: “Think about these three words as you are here; fear, hunger and evil.
“Fear is not knowing whether you’re going to live or die the next day, hunger is wondering what your next piece of bread will be, when you will no longer feel the pain in your stomach, evil is not the friend who comes to play a prank you, evil is monsters like Hitler.”
A warm room waited for the students at the end of the walk which stretched for miles to the back of the camp.
Brightly lit frames of black and white family portraits, happy children laughing, adoring couples holding each other and babies gazing into the camera stood all around.
The room of memoirs, the room of the dead.
The display was very much a personal one for 17-year-old Jessica Scragg.
The student explained how her great auntie was a survivor of Auschwitz.
“I didn’t know her personally but the day has still been very emotional for me,” said Jessica.
“She got married to one of the officers who came and freed her from the camp. They travelled back to England to get married but they had to wait until four years had passed.
“She would always keep re-using a tea bag, I think the idea of saving everything you owned never left her.
“She never got rid of her Auschwitz tattoo because she wanted people to be reminded about it.”
And they were reminded in hundreds of photographs.
Rabbi Garson ended the day with a speech focused on gratitude, family and re-humanising the victims. A line of 200 candles sat on the tracks as the students headed for the coach home – each flicker of light representing life, the Jews’ memories and hope for a better future.