High Peak school children see the horrors of Auschwitz first-hand

  • 200 school children from across the East Midlands spend the day at Auschwitz
  • Pupils from three High Peak schools are among those who went on the trip
  • Day includes visit to Jewish cemetery as well as time at Auschwitz and Birkenau
  • Visit was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust

They sit there in their thousands piled high.

Shoes as far as the eye can see, all of them belonging to the condemned men, women and children who crossed through the now infamous gates, never to return home again.

Arbeit Macht Frei - work sets you free- is written above the gates to Auschwitz.

Arbeit Macht Frei - work sets you free- is written above the gates to Auschwitz.

All it had taken was a quick glance, and their fate was decided.

This was Auschwitz, where more than a million Jews died, murdered simply because of their faith. Because they were different.

I travelled to Poland last week alongside 200 children from across the East Midlands, including six from three High Peak schools.

The visit was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) as part of their Lessons from Auschwitz programme. The trust say “hearing is not like seeing” and they are right. Treading in the footsteps of the victims really brought to life the enormity and horror of what happened in the suburbs of a Polish town called Oswiecim (Auschwitz in German).

Barbed wire fences at Auschwitz I.

Barbed wire fences at Auschwitz I.

Our day began with a visit to a Jewish cemetery, a place which had once meant so much to the 6,000 Jews living in the town.

From there we went to Auschwitz I, where we saw the enormous mounds of human hair removed from just some of the prisoners and the piles of shoes, clothes and belongings they had taken with them after being ripped from their homes.

Another room was piled high with suitcases, each filled with a family’s most treasured items, and with it, no doubt, their hopes and dreams.

Most of those taken to Auschwitz had no idea what lay ahead. As they left their homes, they locked their front doors, expecting one day to return. The majority of them never got that chance.

Stepping into the gas chamber sent a shiver down my spine, as I visualised the true horror the victims were about to face.

Forced to strip naked and crammed in there in huge numbers, they believed they were going to shower. But once inside, gas canisters were dropped in through holes in the roof. Some died instantly, others took longer but all had perished within 20 minutes. Guards then dragged their bodies out and cremated them, throwing their ashes into the river.

We then moved on to Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. This was the main death camp. Here we were able to go up into the watch tower and see the view the guards would have had over the camp. Again the sheer enormity of the site was mindblowing. As a prisoner, any thoughts of escape must have surely been dimmed by the knowledge that it was almost impossible to evade the guard’s all-seeing standpoint.

We saw the wooden huts which slept several hundred prisoners at a time, the toilet blocks with no ventilation but designed to be used by up to 1,000 prisoners each, and a train carriage, which would have brought anywhere between 60 and 100 men, women and children to the camp.

Such carriages would stretch the entire length of the platform.

The day ended with a service at the memorial, featuring readings by students and prayers and reflection from Rabbi Barry Marcus, who said that if a minute’s silence was to be held in honour of all those who had died at Auschwitz, it would last for two years.

Afterwards, we lit memorial candles in tribute to the 1.1 million victims of one of the worst human crimes in history.

As the sun set behind the watchtower, we left Birkenau behind, but the true horror of what we had seen there will remain with me forever.