On Holocaust Memorial Day, Lisa Ettridge finds a visit to a Nazi concentration camp is still an overwhelming and revealing experience
THE spine-chilling monstrosities of war will be brought sharply into focus today as the world marks annual Holocaust Memorial Day.
January 27 marks 67 years since German death camp Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops and news of its atrocities spread.
From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Testaments at the Nuremberg Trials suggested up to three million people died in the camps with 2.5 million gassed, and 500,000 from disease and starvation.
Six million Jews perished in total as part of a brutal, systematic programme of genocide carried out by the Nazis.
The scale and manner of deaths on European soil less than 70 years ago is a difficult one to comprehend.
But many schoolchildren across the Fylde coast were able to get a vivid glimpse of life in some of history’s darkest hours by visiting the death camps on a trip to Poland.
The Holocaust Educational Trust was established in 1988 and aims to educate young people about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned from it.
Students and teachers from St Mary’s Catholic College, Blackpool Sixth Form, Montgomery and Lytham St Annes Technology and Performing Arts College made the eye- opening trip.
And its lessons have left a lasting impact on pupils according to Sylvia Crompton, head of history at St Mary’s Catholic College.
She said: “I’m in no doubt the images and feelings evoked in our pupils at Auschwitz will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
“Humanising the people who died in the Holocaust is a big part and I know pupils who visited were affected by the photographs, and seeing belongings seized from the victims.
“The scale of the death camps is particularly shocking, it’s hard to put the deaths of six million people into context.
“The amount of chilling precision it took to create the infrastructure for these death factories is truly terrifying.
“It is so important the lessons of The Holocaust are never forgotten so we can try and prevent it ever happening again.”
Visitors to the Auschwitz camps hear at first hand the devastating facts about mass execution, savage beatings, starvation, forced labour, medical experimentation and families being ripped apart.
Two camps form part of the tour, they are situated in a small Polish town called Oswiecim, near Krakow.
They were turned into a museum in 1947 and more than 30 million visitors have passed through the infamous iron gates.
They see Auschwitz’s base camp, where the gates marked ‘arbeit macht frei’ – work makes you free – subjected prisoners to untold suffering.
The museum also contains terrible reminders of the brutality Jews faced, with exhibits showing human hair shaved from victims as well as of mountains of precious family heirlooms which were seized.
Later, they visit Auschwitz–Birkenau, the extermination camp where prisoner bunkers are situated, as well as the remains of the massive gas chambers and crematoriums where so many thousands died.
They see the chilling watchtower at the entrance and the railway platform where children were torn from their parents and decisions on life and death were made.
Matthew Cullen, 17, from St Mary’s Catholic College spoke of his experience after visiting in November.
He said: “The sheer size and bleakness of Birkenau was the most shocking thing for me.
“It brought home the number of people who were actually killed in the Holocaust.
“I’m so glad people can go and spread the message to others.”
Classmate Amy Baxter, 17, added: “Seeing the hair in the museum was horrible, there was so much it really put the scale of the Holocaust into perspective.
“It is hard to believe the victims were simply seen as commodities.
“What happened must never be forgotten, and spreading awareness will hopefully prevent it from happening again.”
The theme for Holocaust Memorial day this year is Speak Up, Speak Out to create a safer, better future. And for Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy who accompanies tours on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust, being aware of the suffering of other is key.
He said: “Through technology we’ve closed up all manner of distances.
“We’ve walked on the moon, but we’ve not yet managed to close up the distance between human beings – that’s the challenge we face.
“Have humanity, be aware of people’s pain and feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
“You will see differently, think differently, feel differently.
“If we are more sensitive to each other, we can make the world a more tolerant place.”
Gazette editor David Helliwell reflects on a moving end to his day at Auschwitz
IT was as dusk fell at Auschwitz-Birkenau that a sense of tranquillity seemed to fall.
After spending the day trying to take in the scale of what we were seeing, many appeared stunned to silence.
A death camp at night would be a strange location to describe as beautiful. But there was a stillness about the setting, and solemnity in the occasion that gave space to pause and contemplate the horrors of what had taken place.
The Holocaust Educational Trust visits end with an outdoor memorial service held next to the destroyed remains of crematoria II. As we waited for other groups to join, some sat with friends discussing what they’d witnessed, others were silently huddled against the growing cold.
A number of teenage visitors did readings and then the most moving version of Psalm 23 – The Lord Is My Shepherd – that one could ever wish to hear.
Whatever faith, believer, non believer, it was surely impossible not to be moved by the words and imagery.
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For thou art with me’
To how many souls had those words offered some comfort in this place where the shadow of death loomed large?
After a moment’s reflection, a rabbi gave a rousing sermon warning against allowing such evil to ever rise again. In some ways it was unnecessary, the preceding hours and the quiet reflection had been more powerful than the spoken word.
We trooped away, placing our individual candles flanking the rail track that runs through the heart of the camp.
After that, there was just the long walk back through the dark to the main gates and the outside world. A walk that so many were never able to make.