SIX million people were killed during the Holocaust of which 1.2million were at the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Kate Gould joined 200 students from South London on a day trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust to these camps and to see the work being done to keep the horrors of what happened there f
IT'S more than 70 years since the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau near the town of Oswiecim in Poland were liberated by the Allies.
The camps are perhaps the most potent and recognisable reminder of the Holocaust - the systematic extermination of groups deemed by the Nazis to be not worthy of living - Jews, criminals, Poles, Russians, Roma and prisoners of war.
Although the exact figure is not known, it is estimated that six million people perished during the Holocaust of which 1.5million were children and of which 1.2million were killed at Auschwitz.
And they came to these camps on a lie - despite being told by the Nazis to bring their posessions as they were going to be evacuated to a better place, most were gassed or executed.
So to stand under the gates at Auschwitz with the famous Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) in iron writing over the top of it, is somewhat overwhelming.
In fact nothing can prepare you on a visit to Auschwitz and its sibling Birkenau - the camps where unimaginable horrors to human beings took place between 1940 and 1945.
I was invited to go on a day trip to see the camps by the Holocaust Educational Trust on Thursday of last week. I went with about 200 students from schools across South London as part of the Trust's Lessons From Auschwitz project.
The project aims to increase the knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust on the premise that "hearing is not like seeing".
As well as the visit to Poland it also includes seminars and workshops for the students - aged between 16 and 18 - to share and pass on their experiences of what they have seen at first hand.
And so it was that after a ridiculously early start we arrived at Auschwitz I, somewhat bleary eyed to step into the place where so many died.
It was a very sombre moment to step over the threshold. It was snowing, bitterly cold and there was an eeriness to it.
Now a museum complex, still surrounded by three rows of barbed wire, Auschwitz I comprises rows of buildings which house artefacts from the war including clothing, pots, pans and even hair that were seized by the Nazis, as well as the gas chambers and crematorium.
During our visit our guide Marta Kadluczka took us to some of the many rooms full of these personal posessions.
We saw a mountain of 40,000 shoes, many of which were beautifully made, colourful and stylish, a cabinet of prosthetic limbs including many for children, one of brushes, combs and shaving brushes, another full of colourful pots, pans, kettles and other kitchen staples, one full of spectacles and one of luggage, all marked with names and dates.
And then there was the hair - a huge mound of it behind glass, some of which was made into clothes for the Germans.
We also saw the empty gas cannisters which contained the infamous Zyklon B gas. Marta told us how those arriving at the camp gates were told to strip off for a shower but instead were taken to the chambers into which the gas was piped. It was a slow and agonising death with those inside frightened, scrambling to try and escape and not being able to. To be standing, free, in the place where so many lost their lives felt almost disrespectful.
While many who arrived at the camps were gassed some were kept as prisoners to work in the camps, cleaning out the latrines or cooking in the kitchens.
Conditions in the camp were beyond dreadful and in most cases deadly as even those who were kept as prisoners were susceptable to disease or starvation - or worse, torture, beatings, hanging, medical experiments or being shot at the "death wall".
Many slept on the bare floor, a few fortunate souls had straw to sleep on or slept three to a bunk, but the sanitary conditions were abysmal and there was no privacy.
All vestiges of human dignity were systematically stripped away in the most ruthless way possible, designed to degrade and destroy. Man's inhumanity to man at its worst and in a place where there was no limit to how badly and inhumanely people were treated.
In the corridors we saw photographs in frames of just a few of the many prisoners who were judged to be of use to the Nazis - complete with their names, dates of birth, the dates of when they arrived and of when they died.
The statistics of people surviving an average of three months in these attrocious conditions was made much more tangible.
For me though it was seeing a broken doll in a cabinet surrounded by clothes belonging to children and babies that made my whole being ache with sadness and anger.
In short, seeing all these things that belonged to human beings made it all horribly real. Like I said, nothing can prepare you for what you see and how you feel. It was chilling - and it wasn't just the weather.
Normally chatty teens were left silenced by the things they saw and we walked through the buildings and the corridors within them in silence.
We were equally quiet as we stepped into the gas chamber and for many it was too much to take in.
After that it was a short journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. If you think Auschwitz is big, Birkenau is staggering in its size. It was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex and was made up of nine areas, each surrounded by a barbed wire fence.
Entering through the main gate the infamous railway track disappears into the distance.
It is utterly vast and at its height we were told that 90,000 prisoners were kept there at any one time. Now most of it has been razed to the ground with only chimney stacks remaining.
However there is one row of huts that have been kept. It was here we were told that hundreds were crammed into these tiny, claustrophobic buildings in living conditions that are beyond comprehension.
A long bench with holes in it turns out to be a mass lavatory where men were given but a few seconds at specific times twice a day to use. Dysentry was rife as were diseases and rats. It is simply impossible to fully appreciate the conditions that these people had to suffer.
By this time, the weather was getting worse, it was snowing, there was an arctic wind blowing and we were all shivering with the cold. The only way to keep ourselves going was to keep moving. So we walked in sombre silence down alongside the railway track where so many were herded into wagons, one of which remains stationary, lonely on the track, and taken to their deaths.
We followed the track to the end of the line where we saw the remains of two gas chambers and the crematorium. We saw the ash pits, the steps leading down to the chambers and the woods beyond.
We then were taken to the last remaining building which housed a wall of photos of men, women and children, in happier times before the war. No one could have foreseen the terrors and horrors of what was to come for them and no one knows what happened to these people - were they victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau or did they manage to escape. It was an incredibly sobering moment.
Our visit ended with a short memorial service after which we all lit candles and laid them on the railway tracks.
The day was an emotionally charged one not just for me but for the students I was with.
For Fabian Smith-Williams, a history A level student at Haberdasher's Askes in New Cross said it was an experience he said he would never forget.
He said: "I've studied history for seven years and how the Nazis dehumanised the Jews but this is something else. This is the reality of what happened.
"I'm shivering with five layers of clothes right now and can't imagine what it must have been like in this weather for the people who were here who had their shoes and clothes taken from them."
Fellow student Mo Carpenter said: "It was harrowing to be here and it's hard to grasp that it actually happened."
Zavina Eguakun, a student at La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls School in Clapham said: "It opened my eyes to a lot of what went on. Even though it happened a long time ago there are still issues today and we need to be more aware.
"The room with the hair was the most poignant for me - that really got to me. It just looked so ruthless because these were real human beings."
Her fellow student Niamh O'Connell agreed. She said: "It made it all real. You learn about it at school but coming here is a big deal.
"It makes you realise how many people were killed during the Holocaust and helps you understand that it happened and we need to learn from it. It doesn't matter what colour or religion you are, everyone should be treated fairly."
Natasha De Stefano, a history teacher at Bishop Thomas Grant School in Streatham said everyone should have an opportunity to come on such a trip.
She said: "This is my sixth visit and every time I come I notice something slightly different. This time it was the artificial limbs for babies and children. I'm an auntie and it really affected me.
"I think it's also about seeing the photos of those who were here and trying to find the individual.
"It's such a valuable project that the HET runs and I think it's extremely beneficial for the students who are able to come.
"It makes it all real and gives a fresh and real insight into what went on. Being here, seeing it and hearing the stories is an incredible and extraordinary experience that you can't get just by reading about it in class.
"Both my students today have got a lot out of today and it's made them think about the issues in history and modern day problems. It's been a great opportunity for them."
Student Alex Baxter said: "I feel it's life changing. You can see the scale of the horror of it. Being at Birkenau was the worst bit. To see how big it was and what the conditions were like was awful."
Fellow student Laura De Costa Videira said: "I got a more a more visual image of how people suffered. You can't tell from the figures but seeing the objects brought it to life and put it all in a different light. It was harrowing but it gave me a different perspective on it and a better understanding of what happened so I'll remember this visit forever."
Auschwitz I was primarily a concentration camp which held around 15,000 prisoners. It was initially used for Polish political prisoners but later housed Soviet prisoners of war, "anti social elements" and prisoners of many nationalities.
Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, was the main death camp. It was built in 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, 3km from Oswiecim.
It is impossible to give precise figures for the numbers of people sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. However estimates suggest they included 1.1million Jews, 140,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma gypsies and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.
At the end of 1944 with the Red Army approaching, the Auschwitz administration began to remove traces of the crimes that took place there by destroying documents and buildings.
Between August 1944 and January 1945 120,000 prisoners were evacuated to camps in Germany.
The remaining 7,650 prisoners were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.