PUPILS SEE HORROR OF THE HOLOCAUST.
AT THE end of a railway track between two bombed out gas chambers we stood in silence.
Just a few yards from where we stood at least 1.1 million people were murdered by the Nazis in a programme of industrial-scale Genocide.
Just 70 years ago, at the snow covered spot where we stood, one SS doctor looked you up and down and directed you to the left (immediate death) or to the right (slave labour) with the flick of a leather-gloved hand.
Nearly 75 per cent of the young, old, or ill Jews, Poles, gypsies, Russians, and gay people, were sent straight to the gas chambers.
The rest were sent to the horrors of the labour camp and almost certain death by forced labour.
It's not until you see the baby clothes, the piles of shoes, and the mountains of luggage that you really understand the true horror of the Holocaust.
It is the these personal items, the photographs that were left behind and the sheer size of these death camps that will never leave you.
That is why the Holocaust Educational Trust invited me along with 200 sixth-form students from across the West Midlands.
The government-backed Lessons From Auschwitz Project aims to bring two pupils from every school in the UK with the motto that "hearing is not like seeing".
The scheme, now in its 11th year, starts at the Polish town of Oswiecim, which was Germanized to become Auschwitz when the Nazis invaded east.
The town was 58 per cent Jewish before the population was wiped out during the war. The one Jew who came back after 1945 died in 2000.
At Auschwitz 1 (the forced labour camp that used to be a Polish army barracks) the students walk under the entrance bearing the replica sign Arbeit Macht Frei, which means work will make you free. The original sing is now in a museum following its theft and recovery. We pass through the double enforced electric fences that penned in 15,000 prisoners before being taken on guided tours of the barracks where the prisoners were kept between working 15 hour days.
Here we are shown cavernous rooms filled with bowls and hair brushes that the women brought for the "new life" they were promised in the East.
It is here that you see piles of false limbs, baby clothes behind glass, piles of spectacles, and mountains of shoes.
In the films the shoes are all grey. In Auschwitz they are dif-f ferent sizes, in different colours, and mixed together with summer sandals, flip flops, and even high heels.
It's these shoes and the piles of suitcases that brings it home to the students, some of who are now visibly upset.
The names are painted in white on the old brown cases - Jacob, aged one, Prague In the next room we see masses of human hair, which was cruelly shaved off and used to make clothes.
And in a chilling warning of what could have happened we pass by a glass cabinet that houses the papers from the secret Wannsee Conference, which took place near to Berlin in 1942.
It was at this conference of death that Reinhard Heydrich outlined the "Final Solution" for the Jewish population of Europe. The Nazis murdered more than three million Jews at its European death camps, but they earmarked 11 million European Jews for "Liquidation" including 330,000 in the UK that would have been deported if Britain had been invaded.
Block 11 was a particularly disturbing part of Auschwitz 1 and was the prison within the prison.
Every weekend for three years prisoners were shot at the "death wall".
We got on our coach and drove the short distance to Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, which is the death camp that the Nazis built to kill prisoners in 1941.
We were warned here that it was what we "wouldn't see" that would stay with us.
The tracks lead straight through the middle of the camp, which is a staggering 26 times bigger than the labour camp. It is eerily quiet but in 1944 it housed up to 90,000 prisoners at a time.
The Germans bombed out most of the four purpose-built death chambers as they made their escape.
They also burned down the rows and rows of wooden horse stables they used to hold the prisoners in an attempt to cover up the atrocities.
It was here that we were told that the early tests of Zyklon B (a cyanide-based pesticide that they used to gas prisoners with) were not successful.
The Polish prisoners that were selected for test took two days and two nights to die.
The Nazis perfected the quantities and found they could "lower the costs" and use slightly less in the summer because of the warmer temperatures.
As dusk fell the group gathered at the end of the line to hear a prayer from Rabbi Barry Marcus - one of the men behind the trust's plans to bring students to Auschwitz.
Rabbi Marcus, who travelled over from a London Synagogue, read a prayer in Hebrew over a hushed crowd of students.
He said: "In Auschwitz it is what you see. In Birkenau it is what you do not see that is so upsetting. For me it's the silence in this place, the loneliness.
"If we were to have a moment's silence for every person who died here during the holocaust. We would have to be silent for four years. It's like a 9/11 attack every single day for 500 days."
Before leaving Birkenau every student lit a candle and placed it on the tracks.
Dan Coyle, an 18-year-old from Wythall, who is studying a BTEC National Diploma in Public Services at Solihull College, said: "It was very hard and very upsetting.
"There were several times when I became very choked and close to tears about what I was seeing."
He added: "It is so true that you can look at this in a book, or even on a film, but it is so different when you are here.
"It does not hit home until you see it with your own eyes. The sheer size of the place will stick with me.
"You are taught not to hate the people who did this and not to hold grudges, but it is hard.
"It is a natural human emotion when you see what happened to these people. I think somebody described it as surreal and that is how I would describe it too. It's totally silent and there is a feeling of death here."
Dan Lenton, a 17-year-old from Yardley, who was also on the trip, said he was shocked by the sheer size of Birkenau.
The Solihull College student, who is also studying a public services diploma, said: "It is so big that you just can't imagine it being full of people. It's so eerily quiet and peaceful.
"It took a long time to sink in that this happened here.
"More people should come here. It's important."
Notorious: The 'Work Will Make You Free' sign above the gates at Auschwitz. Remembering the nightmare: Memorial candles on the railway tracks of Auschwitz and (below) false limbs collected from unfortunate inmates.
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|Publication:||Birmingham Mail (England)|
|Date:||Mar 10, 2010|
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