Nov 22 2012 by Caitlin Black, Harrow Observer
Being told I have seen the shadow of the valley of death while standing where more than 1.1million people were exterminated provoked one of the most heart-wrenching feelings I have ever encountered.
The white fog and the crisp, freezing air made the Auschwitz concentration camp seem a hostile place even now, nearly 70 years since it was liberated by Russian troops.
As I walked through the camp, the cries of the children and the footsteps of the Nazi soldiers on the gritty path echoed across the decades.
Those who perished in the extermination complex during the Second World War, 90 per cent of them Jewish, became real. They were no longer numbers, but human beings – uncles, daughters, babies, sisters, brothers, and fathers.
Auschwitz I and Auschwtiz II-Birkenau were sited in the small Polish town of Oswiecim, and were the largest of the Nazi regime’s concentration camps.
On arrival at the camps, under the instruction of the guards, mothers and fathers labelled their suitcases under the mistaken belief that the worldly belongings that they had quickly gathered from their homes would be returned to them.
Girls neatly plaited their hair, not knowing it would be cut off to be used in industrial processes after their death.
On Thursday last week, – a day I shall never forget – I joined students from Harrow who were among 200 North West London pupils on a visit to the complex organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
Now in its 13th year, the project is based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’.
For Anna Milewska, 17, head girl at Canons High School in Shaldon Road, Harrow, it was her second visit to Auschwitz I and first visit to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Anna said: “It has been really emotional for me today. Everything has been shocking and very moving, the scale and the reality of it.
“At the end of the day, when we were given a candle to light anywhere in the camp, I chose a place where no one else was putting theirs, by the gas chamber.
“Thousands of people went in there and never came out. It’s a horrible thought and when I lay my candle on what is left of the blown-up chamber, I felt so emotional.
“I stood there and prayed for a moment. I never knew these people, but I tried to imagine myself there, stood in the cold with no clothes.
“I think the whole experience has been so interesting. I want to make sure I send my children here to learn what I have learned.”
Auschwitz II was built by the Germans not far from Auschwitz I, to exterminate Jews. Its death chambers would kill 5,000 people a day.
Kyle Gray, a 18-year-old A-level student at Hatch End High School in Headstone Lane, Harrow, wants to study history at university.
“The photos on the wall of some of the victims were very moving,” he said. “The children looked defenceless.
“None of the children heading to Auschwtiz knew what was ahead of them. They didn’t understand. They were innocent.
“I read one story about a man who came to Auschwitz – there were photos of him on the wall. He owned a bakery and played in a sports team, he had his own family – but he was Jewish. He never left the camp.
“This story really grabbed me because he was just a normal, innocent guy.”
For Royce Clemete, 17, also from Canons High School, the hardest part was seeing the personal possessions in the camps.
“They belonged to people, it’s very sad,” he said. “The moment I arrived here, I was completely captivated by it all. It is such an effective way of learning about the camps and appreciating life.
“No text book could ever teach people about this without seeing it first hand. The numbers you are told just don’t seem real until you get here.”
For me, the most poignant place was a room full of abandoned baby shoes, tiny soft leather shoes, once worn by innocent children.
To end the day, and pay our respects to those who died, we held a minute’s silence in the darkness by the memorials at the camp. We were told that to hold a minute’s silence for every Jew who died there would take three years.
Throughout the day, we were given facts and figures about the gas chambers, the guards and the way the camps worked. The grotesque efficiency of the Nazis was apparent. Nothing went to waste. Everything – gold teeth, toothbrushes, hair, clothes – was taken from the Jews and other prisoners and recycled.
Adolf Hitler ordered that a collection of 200,000 Jewish artefacts be displayed at the end of the war as a trophy case of archeological remains. It was to be called The Museum of an Extinct Race.
Photographs confiscated from victims are on display at Auschwtiz II-Birkenau. More than 90 per cent of the people in the pictures are unidentified and their remains have never been found. Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock said: “HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project is such a vital part of our work, because it gives students the chance to understand the dangers and potential effects of prejudice and racism today.”
For more information on the trust and its work, visit www.het.org.uk.