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Harrowing visit shows horrors of history

PUBLISHED: 10:02 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 09:24 01 August 2010

THE wind blew cold across the death camp.

Snow still lay on the ground, among the ruins and the railway lines, the barbed wire and the watch towers.

Two hundred sixth-formers, including many from East Anglia, started their visit to Birkenau by climbing the guard tower, to see the vast size of this site.

THE wind blew cold across the death camp.

Snow still lay on the ground, among the ruins and the railway lines, the barbed wire and the watch towers.

Two hundred sixth-formers, including many from East Anglia, started their visit to Birkenau by climbing the guard tower, to see the vast size of this site. Near the Auschwitz concentration camp and sometimes known as Auschwitz II, this was the largest Nazi killing machine.

A railway line ran straight into the camp, unloading thousands of men, women and children, mainly Jewish, who could be sent straight to the gas chambers. Afterwards their bodies were burned, and when the wind blew, the smell of burning flesh could be detected 30km (19 miles) away.

The students were shown a wooden barrack block, built as a stable for 52 horses but used to house 400 to 700 people, on rows of three-tier wooden bunks, several people to each bunk.

It is chilling to imagine so many people crammed in there, half-starving, with only weak coffee for breakfast, soup made from half-rotten vegetables for lunch, and bread and margarine for dinner.

The gas chambers are no longer standing, destroyed by the Nazis to cover up their crimes as the Russian army approached. The ruins lie as the Germans left them, in piles of brick and concrete slabs. There were no tears, but those present were clearly moved.

More than 30 sixth-formers from Norfolk and north Suffolk, plus teachers and Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, visited Birkenau on a long day trip this week. Earlier in the day they had seen the Auschwitz concentration camp and the nearby town of Oswiecim, once a thriving Jewish community. Two students travelled from each school, in a programme organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, with the help of government funding.

The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has written: “Sometimes I am asked if I know 'the response to Auschwitz'; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don't even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is 'response' in responsibility.”

On the plane journey to Poland the students were told there was no right or wrong response to what they would see, and the young people did respond in different ways. It was a trip that tried to deal with the difficulties of understanding something without having been there, and balancing the dehumanisation of the death camps with individual stories.

As night fell over Birkenau, all 200 people gathered for a memorial service, with readings from students, including Munya Chawawa, 17, a Notre Dame student from Framingham Pigot. They were also addressed by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who came up with the idea of taking students on a day trip to Auschwitz. He said: “It is impossible to take in, to comprehend, what we have seen today.

“I hope through your visit you will understand you are not condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Students lit candles in memory of the dead and placed them on the infamous railway line as dark fell over the death camp.

Nearby was a row of memorial plaques in all 21 languages used by the camp's victims. The plaques read: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.

“Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.

“Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.”

See video of Auschwitz and students talking about the experience at www.edp24.co.uk.

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