A chilling lesson for Northern Ireland pupils from Auschwitz
Victoria Leonard joins students and teachers from 58 Northern Ireland schools on an emotional educational trip to Krakow in Poland.
Few places more chillingly embody the notion of Hell on earth than Auschwitz-Birkenau. The former Nazi concentration and extermination camps, where around one million Jews were murdered from 1940-1945, stand as a reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink when evil runs unchecked.
Recently a plane chartered by the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project departed Belfast International Airport bound for Krakow.
Among those on board were 158 pupils and teachers from 59 Northern Ireland secondary schools, eight of which were participating for the first time, and the Belfast Telegraph.
It was the third time local pupils have participated in the UK-wide project since 2008 and was enabled by a £122,000 grant from the Community Relations Council as part of the NI Executive’s Together: Building a United Community Strategy.
Chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust Karen Pollock said that the visit “enables young people to see for themselves where racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism can ultimately lead”.
Before flying out, pupils had attended a talk by survivor Janine Webber (86), who endured the loss of her home and several family members during the Holocaust.
The first stop in Poland was the town of Oswiecim, which was given the German name Auschwitz after the 1939 Nazi invasion.
Before the war, the thriving Jewish community comprised 58% of the population.
However, after the Nazi invasion, Jews were persecuted and SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered that a concentration camp be built in the town.
In the town square, pupils were shown haunting black and white photos of Jews being evicted from their homes and their belongings piled up outside, as armed soldiers looked on.
Ahead of the journey to Auschwitz I concentration camp, Belfast Royal Academy A-level history students Layla Creaney (17) and Caitlin Sahin (17) said the trip was important to see the “human faces behind the story”.
“I feel some trepidation for what’s to come — it’s sad because we know the history, and now we’re going to see where it actually happened,” Layla explained.
“We know a good bit about it, but the importance of this trip is putting the human faces behind the story.
“It’s really important for young people to come here — as the years go on there are fewer Holocaust survivors.”
Caitlin added: “It’s really emotional because it’s such a beautiful wee town and you can imagine how it was.
“It’s upsetting to see the pictures of people being led away, because they just thought they were being moved.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the biggest killing centre of the Holocaust and also played a prominent role in the murder and persecution of non-Jews.
Around 1.1 million people died there from 1940-45, including around one million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.
The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau now bears witness to the horror.
Walking under Auschwitz I’s notorious gate bearing the words ‘Arbeit macht frei’ — ‘Work sets you free’ — is an unsettling experience.
In one block, a corridor is lined with stark black and white photos of former prisoners, many clad in regulation striped pyjamas.
Their eyes are pools of fear and emptiness which emanate suffering, their heads brutally shorn.
Nearby, an exhibit displays tiny jumpsuits and bootees belonging to toddlers, little innocents lovingly dressed by mothers who could not have imagined the evil they would endure.
Our guide reveals that most children were sent straight to the gas chamber.
We pass block 10, where ‘Angel of Death’ Dr Josef Mengele and gynaecologist Carl Clauberg conducted horrific experiments.
Outside block 11, the Block of Death, is the infamous Death Wall, where thousands of prisoners were executed.
Candles and wreathes now mark the spot where victims were shot before their bodies were loaded on to trucks bound for the crematoria.
Lower sixth history student Hannah Kempston (16), of St Dominic’s Grammar School in Belfast, said she was “shocked”.
“Seeing the children’s tiny boots and clothes were the most shocking,” she added. “But I don’t regret coming here. Everyone should have the opportunity to come here.
“It helps you recognise what happened and prevent it happening in future.
“You could feel there was something wrong about the Death Wall. The memorials show people are still remembering.”
Then comes a striking sight which visually reinforces the scale of the horror.
It is the Book of Names, whose pages span almost the length of a room, and which contains the names of more than four million Jews murdered in the Nazis’ Final Solution.
But even this does not fully capture the extent of the Holocaust, with researchers still seeking to trace all six million victims.
We walk past the gallows, where corpses were left hanging for days and view horrific images of naked Jewish women being herded into the gas chambers.
A large model shows a gas chamber in which the Nazis murdered prisoners by dropping in poisonous crystals of Zyklon B after telling them they were going to shower.
Their abandoned possessions now fill the museum. In one block, a pile of rusting spectacles sits with legs interwoven like a mound of spiders.
Another exhibit shows a mountain of suitcases, carefully marked with the names of unwitting victims who believed they were being relocated rather than sent to death.
In the deep pit of crockery nearby, brightly-coloured milk jugs, bowls and utensils point to hope for a new life.
But vast stacks of shoes and sandals testify to the cruelty of the lie.
We enter the gas chamber, a dark, oppressive space where so many lives were ended.
In the gloom, we stand directly under the hatch where lethal Zyklon B would have been dropped down.
Next door, furnaces which once consumed the bodies of innocents stand extinguished.
This hellish place is just a stone’s throw from the house where Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss lived in luxury with his family — another insight into the warped Nazi mindset.
We travel to extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, walking along the railway line where Jews from across occupied Europe were transported like animals in cramped, windowless cars.
About 90% of Auschwitz victims died in Birkenau. Its scale is immense, with guard towers and barracks stretching as far as the eye can see.
Despite the retreating Nazis’ attempts to conceal their crimes by destroying the crematoria and other buildings, the remains reveal the vastness of the operation.
Here, the Nazis committed mass murder on a colossal scale.
Accompanying the group is Rabbi Raphael Garson, who tells students that they are “standing in the largest cemetery in the world”.
“Words like fear, hunger, evil and cold don’t mean the same things in Birkenau,” he told them.
“Why is it so big, if this is a centralised factory of death?
“That is because of a conscious decision taken very early on by the Nazis —you have a workforce here, we can work them to death.”
Standing at one of the unloading ramps, where newly-arrived Jews were separated from their families and sent either for forced labour or along the so-called ‘Road to Heaven’ to the crematorium, St Joseph’s College Belfast student Eireann Gallen (18) described the experience as “surreal”.
“I never expected it to be on this scale,” Eireann said.
“There’s always the question, ‘Why?’, but especially hearing it was women and children who were sent straight to death rather than to work.
“Coming here is so important.
“You have to spread the word of what you’ve seen to stop it happening again.
“Every school pupil in Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to come here.”
We enter one of the wooden barracks, each of which held up to 1,000 prisoners, who slept on wooden slats in temperatures as low as minus-20 degrees.
Their paltry daily diet consisted of hot water in the morning, soup after several hours of work, and a small piece of bread and cheese for supper. Most died from starvation.
Entering the “sauna” building where prisoners were stripped, shaved and showered and their clothing disinfected, Aquinas Grammar School A-level history pupil Jude Smith (17) said he found the site “eerie”.
“You can’t really comprehend the magnitude of it,” he said.
“People just stood and allowed it to happen out of fear.
“When you see the size of the camps, the road they walked on, the gates, the electrified fences, it’s just scary.
“The personal possessions belonged to someone who had a family, they’re gone and that’s their things left.
“People should be tolerant but also use your right to freedom of speech to speak out against injustices, so it never gets to a level like this.”
As we exit, pupils view hundreds of pictures of the victims.
“You look at the faces and can’t help but be moved,” said John Wishart (42), head of history at Lagan College.
“It’s our duty to pass this on, especially with the dark times we have at the minute. History repeats itself.
“There’s more hatred now than ever before, and people are uncertain, fearful.
“Between what’s happening with Brexit and in America, people have different concerns about the future, and hatred can really spark off in those dark times.
“The time we forget what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau is the time humanity will suffer it again.
“Our little corner of the world, out of anywhere, knows what hatred can do and the extremes it can go to.”
A-level politics students Aaliyah McDaid (17) and Sarah O’Doherty (16), from St Mary’s College in Londonderry, said the experience was “eye-opening”.
“If you forget then it might happen again, and you wouldn’t want that ever repeating itself,” said Aaliyah.
“We take life for granted really,” added Sarah.
“We’re walking and saying we’re really cold, but we’re thinking how cold they would have been in those conditions with really thin pyjamas and wooden clogs.
“You can’t be ignorant of what happened here.”
The pupils gather together for a sunset ceremony at the ruins of Crematoria II.
After poems and a prayer in English, Rabbi Garson sang Hebrew prayer El Malei Rachamim, the words echoing hauntingly around the site.
“We have no idea what it means to be in Auschwitz, what was taking place here 70-plus years ago,” he told the youngsters.
“To make this world a better place is why you are here.
“Evil is a reality which exists in our world.
“The Holocaust shows what can happen if we allow the internal animal within us to control ourselves.
“The question wasn’t ‘Where was God during the Holocaust?’
“The question was, ‘Where was man?’
“God didn’t build Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was built by man.”
The rabbi highlighted the importance of “zakar”, Hebrew for remembrance.
“Every person had a name, hopes and dreams and aspirations, just like all of us here,” he continued.
“Ripped away in the prime of their lives for crimes they never committed just because of their belief system and who they were born into.”
He highlighted that “much could have prevented almost six years of genocide here, but it didn’t, because of silence”.
“The Holocaust began with words. The words of one man and they rallied up a nation to persecute a race wherever they existed on planet earth,” he added.
“The state-sanctioned ideology of hate, the demonising of the other.
“In our world today you’ve got to be that voice to stamp out hate.
“We have a responsibility to stamp out racism wherever you see it, to speak out, to protest, to never be a bystander, to take the lessons of this place, because it’s so important.”
He described Holocaust denial as a “war on memory”.
“Never did we think we’d have to defend the truth,” he said.
“It’s the most documented genocide in history.
“If Holocaust deniers are to be believed then three groups have to be lying — the perpetrators, bystanders and victims.
“We need to empower ourselves to fight the war on memory.”
After a minute’s silence, each pupil lit a candle, which they placed on the International Monument.
Travelling home, it was difficult to come to terms with the evil we had witnessed.
But one phrase by George Santayana, inscribed on a plaque at Auschwitz I, resonated.
It stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”