Hagley students learn lessons from Auschwitz

Habridge students Matt Sanghera and Maggie Rose at Birkenau. Pic by Yakir Zur.

Hagley RC students Ruth Griffin and Tom Price. Pic by Yakir Zur.

The main gate at Auschwitz 1.

Sunset at Birkenau.

First published in Hagley

WARTIME terror faced by innocent people in other countries sometimes seems a world away for most of us.

But for a group of Hagley students who had chance to take a one-day trip to Auschwitz in Poland, the horrors behind the biggest conflict in living memory were brought vividly to the fore.

Piles of possessions taken from those imprisoned in the infamous Nazi death camps during the Holocaust were among the chilling exhibits that will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on the teenagers from Haybridge and Hagley Catholic High Schools.

The sight of tonnes of human hair sheared off prisoners after they were murdered in gas chambers, now preserved behind glass screens for as long as it may survive, is something few will ever see or want to see.

Likewise the mountains of shoes, muted muddy brown from the Auschwitz floorscape and nearly seven decades in storage but still showing traces of the colour and style that probably inspired their wearers to buy them.

Thousands upon thousands of spectacles, hairbrushes, pots and pans - even antiquated false legs and disability aids - all taken from people who would have no use for them where they were doomed to go - were also seen at the concentration camp known as Auschwitz 1 where many of the Jews and Poles captured during the Second World War were forced to work until they were skeletons.

A glimpse of torture cells and cremation facilities and a walk through the gas chambers, where lives and dreams ended in minutes, also made up the tour organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust which - through its Lessons From Auschwitz project - urges young people to learn from history to ensure such horrors are never seen again.

Clearly the project is effective, as during the visit Haybridge High School student Matt Sanghera, aged 17, told the News: “If everyone came here and saw the things we’ve seen, there would be far less prejudice in the UK.”

The second part of the trip took in the vast and desolate looking Birkenau site, framed with row upon row of razor wire, where many were sent to the gas chambers almost as soon as they arrived.

Just piles of rubble are now all that remain of the grim buildings, where so many met their end; as the Nazis blew them up shortly before liberation to try and hide their grisly purpose.

As the sun started to set behind the singed looking birch trees that surround the rear of the camp, Rabbi Barry Marcus led a moving service of remembrance for the one million-plus people who lost their lives there - pictures of whom are neatly displayed on the walls of one of the remaining buildings - to show how each of the victims, before being captured, had family, friends, a life and a future.

Apart from the images, little remains at Birkenau - the main death camp - to convey how many men, women, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters died on the sprawling site.

Rabbi Marcus summed up perfectly the polarity between the two death camps, saying: “At Auschwitz it’s what you see, at Birkenau it’s what you don't see.”

With the shadows of night looming large, visitors were given candles to place on the railway line that brought so many into Birkenau - before making the long trek towards the gates that most inmates could have only dreamed of walking out of.

Haybridge pupil Maggie Rose, aged 17, said the trip had vividly brought home the horrors of the Holocaust and the individual tragedies behind it.

She added: “When you see pictures of the people it makes it more personal, it makes it more real.”

Hagley RC High School student Ruth Griffin described the day as "enlightening" as she walked along the tracks towards the iconic watchtower which marks the entrance to Birkenau.

The 16-year-old said she was shocked by the sheer size of the death camps and how many lives were ended or ruined there between 1940 and 1945.

She added: “We hear about the statistics but we never actually get the feeling of how many people died and how they were treated until they were dead.”

Fellow Hagley RC student Tom Price, aged 16, said the trip was “unforgettable” and he added: “To see the things we did -we can’t imagine ourselves, but they’re things we can’t ever forget.”

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