Harrogate sixth formers were among the 225 pupils to travel to Auschwitz in Poland as part of a Holocaust educational
programme. Reporter Laura Hill joined them on the trip.
The town of Oświęcim in Poland still lives in the shadows of Auschwitz today.
Houses have been built just a stone’s throw from the barbed wire fence of the former Nazi concentration camp but not a single Jewish person lives in the town.
Prior to 1939 the town of Oświęcim’s population was 58 per cent Jewish with Synagogues and a Jewish community dating back 400 years, though there is little evidence of that now.
“We are looking for the void, we are looking for what isn’t here,” explained educator Lorraine Platts from the Holocaust Educational Trust who led a group of pupils from North Yorkshire schools including Harrogate High School, Rossett School, St John Fisher Catholic School and St Aidan’s Church of England High School.
After the Second World War around 180 Jews returned to the town. The last Jew in Oświęcim, Szymon Kluger, died in 2000.
He is buried in the town’s Jewish cemetery which, when we drive past, is locked, and unkept.
Auschwitz One is located around 2km from the centre of Oświęcim and is marked by the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign.
As the group walked under the sign and into the former concentration camp heavy snow started to fall from the grey sky and there was a tangible change in the atmosphere.
Lost for words, the students silently walked from block to block trying to decipher what had happened here.
“Look into the eyes of these people, these mothers with their children,” said our guide Mirclaw Obstarczyk pointing at a photograph of Jewish families arriving at Auschwitz.
“I guarantee within 30 to 40 minutes of this photograph being taken these people would have been killed.”
Hundreds of photographs of prisoners line the walls of one corridor, eyes stare from underneath the shaven heads of men, women and even children, none of whom made it out alive.
Their faces are etched with fear, these photographs show just a fraction of the estimated one and half million people killed, tortured and murdered at Auschwitz.
By 1943 the Nazi camp workers had abandoned much of the photography and started to tattoo numbers on the prisoners for identification.
“How did the SS men see the prisoners?” Mirclaw asked the students, “not as a person, not as a human, but just a number.”
Block 15 contained harrowing piles of artefacts of those imprisoned at Auswitchz, piles of combs and toothbrushes in one room, 80,000 shoes in the next.
A web of spectacles sits in one cabinet while two tonnes of hair shaved from the heads of Jewish prisoners is piled taller than a person in another.
“I found it really moving to see all of the personal belongings, just piled up, it brought it home that these were real people,” said Liz Hardy, 18, a pupil at Rossett School.
We were then led to the notorious Block 11, the prison within a prison where political prisoners faced farcical trials, torture and execution against the ‘wall of death’.
Outside the snow had started to settle on the floral tributes laid at the wall.
“It’s hard, I don’t really know what to take photos of to show the Year 8 students,” said Kathryn Ramsey, 18, a Year 13 student at Harrogate High School.
As only a couple of students from each school go on this trip, the pupils often relay their experiences to others pupil back at school.
“I don’t know how much of it they will be able to understand and take in or if it will be too much for them,” Kathryn added.
Finally we walked through the empty concrete shell which was the camp’s first gas chamber. Kathryn said: “I found that part the hardest, it was eerie.”
Our guide explained that the second Auschwitz camp, Birkenau, was established in 1941 with the purpose of mass extermination.
As we travelled the 7km to the 200 hectare site, Mirclaw explained that he, like many of the guides working at Auschwitz, has a family connection to the place.
“My father’s family lived in this town before the war, my uncle, he was a prisoner here. My father was a prisoner working on a farm in Germany during the war, the farmer asked him, ‘What is happening in Poland?’.
“He told him and the farmer helped my father to get together all the things needed for his escape. Not all Germans were Nazis, my father was very lucky.”
Much of the Birkenau site has been flattened, rows upon rows of brick chimneys are the only indication of the hundreds of wooden barracks which housed hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
However the guard tower remains standing, the
entrance to the camp which an estimated one million
European Jews passed through.
The train line was extended into the camp in 1942, “Why is this train track so poignant?” Lorraine asked the pupils, “because it is the end of the line, it was a train to nowhere.”
Matt Townson, 18, a Year 13 pupil at St Aidan’s School said: “It is sad to be here and it is difficult to take in.
“But it is so important to remember the Holocaust especially as time moves on.”
As we made our way across the snowy ground towards the camp’s gas chamber for a memorial led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the Central Synagogue of London, a group of young Israelis were paying tribute at Birkenau.
Clutching photographs of relatives and Israeli flags the group led a candle lit procession along the train line which carried thousands of Jews to their death, singing Hebrew prayer.
Their prayers reminded us that Auschwitz is not just a museum, it is still a place of grief and pilgrimage.
Seeing is different to hearing about Auschwitz, but remembering is what is most important.
Why visit Auschwitz?
Rabbi Barry Marcus pioneered the idea of one day trips to Auschwitz for community groups and leads memorial services at almost all of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s visits.
He emphasised the importance of visiting Auschwitz in the face of growing Holocaust denial.
“As you are sat here right now printing presses all over the world are getting ready to churn out another publication denying the Holocaust,” he told the students.
Chloe Kay, 18, a Year 13 student at Harrogate High said she has seen Holocaust denials on the internet.
She said: “The fact that this place is here that proves the Holocaust was real.
“There are people out there, on the internet, and people that call themselves historians who deny the Holocaust. Just googling the Holocaust brings up all these lies on websites and for some people, especially younger people they might believe those lies and think the Holocaust didn’t happen.
“If I didn’t know what I know I could think it too, but I am here, I have seen it myself and I know in my heart what happened here and that should never be forgotten or denied.”
The students had the opportunity to hear from Leslie Kleinman, a Holocaust survivor before their visit.
Leslie, the son of Romanian Rabbi was just 14 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz in 1944, though he was told to lie about his age and claim he was 17.
This saved his life and he was selected for work, separated from the rest of his family who were sent straight to the gas chambers.
Nicky Stainforth, 18 a Year 13 student at St Aidan’s School said: “It is even more important now as the survivors are dying out.
“It’s more important to our generation to hear from them, while we still can and to visit this place.”
She added: “We can learn facts and figures but when you see it and hear stories that happened then it really sticks. That’s the real message from this.”
St Aidan’s teacher, Martyn Beer has been involved with the Holocaust Educational Trust for 15 years.
He said: “I am a great supporter of Trust and the visit which is done in a way that is challenging and supportive of the pupils. The visit shapes their understanding of the Holocaust.
“This is something on such a scale it needs humanising, it needs to be broken down. The pupils had the opportunity to hear from Leslie the survivor, to hear from someone who was actually there.
“There is currently an urgency to hear survivor’s stories, that generation is not going to be around much longer and we speak to students about how when they aren’t around the story will be kept going, and the place is an important part of that. But the place is rotting too, it wasn’t built to last for ever.
He added: “Seeing is not like hearing, it is a totally different experience.”
“It will be a great loss when there is no survivors left to speak. With World War One, there are no soldiers left alive to speak about it, but more and more people are going to visit the battle fields.”
Patrick Taylor, Martyn’s colleague at St Aidan’s took part in the trip for the first time.
He said: “I think from an educational point of view it challenges the students’ thoughts about what they have learnt at school and it challenges them emotionally and academically.
“As a historian it is one thing to read about these things in books but it is another thing to go and see the actual camp, to actually visualise it always has an impact.”