Hard hitting. That was the overall feeling expressed by pupils from schools across West Yorkshire when they took a one-day trip to the death and concentration camps at Auschwitz in Poland.
The group, including pupils from Wakefield Girls’ High School and Heckmondwike Grammar, joined 200 students and teachers from across Yorkshire, as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
The aim of the trip was to increase pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust by taking them to the place where it happened and to show what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.
Notable figures including Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin and The Mayor of Calderdale joined schools from across the county on the trip to Poland.
Oswiecim, the town close to both Auschwitz camps, was the first point of call on the trip. Pupils took in their surroundings sand learnt about how the devastating events ofWorld War Two changed the town and the people living there. After that they were taken to the museum based at Auschwitz I, the first of the camps, which was originally an army barracks in Oswiecim.
The museum features a collection of possessions taken to the camp by the unsuspecting people who would meet their deaths there, something which hit home with the pupils.
Brushes, shoes, pots and pans, pairs of glasses and even human hair lined the walls behind glass cases, showing just how many people succumbed to the most terrible of fates.
One pupil on the trip, Jade Fearnley, didn’t know what to expect from the trip.
She said: “What stood out for me was when we walked past the room where they had all the glasses together. There were so many glasses all put together and it’s just really surreal. I wear glasses and somehow it made it so real. If it happened today it could be any one of us. They were just normal people.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, is the last stop on the trip. It is estimated that over one million people were murdered at the death camp and much of what was originally there, such as the gas chambers, was destroyed by the Nazis to hide evidence of their atrocities before the Allied liberation.
Pupils were shown what the living conditions were like and they also walked in the footsteps of those who arrived in the camps, from the luggage drop-off point to the registration area.
Another pupil, Lucinda Mann, said: “I knew when I came it was going to be hard hitting and emotional because I’ve seen video clips of what it was like but I wasn’t expecting some of the pictures of those who were brought here that we have been shown. I think I will always remember going into the gas chambers. The atmosphere was such a cold atmosphere, I didn’t want to be in there, I just wanted to get out straight away.
“You could see the scratch marks on the wall and our guide told us how when people saw the first people drop because of the gas they tried to get out but couldn’t...just awful.”
Ben Davis, said: “I’ve done a lot of research into Auschwitz before so I was expecting the trip to broaden my understanding of it, but you can only learn so much from reading and you have to see it.
“It’s been incredibly interesting and strange to see it. What has stood out for me is coming to Auschwitz Birkenhau and seeing the guard tower at the front. “I’ve seen pictures of it all my life and seeing it in real life is very strange. I don’t really know how to put it into words.”
MP Tracy Brabin said one could not overstate the importance of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and of recognising the full extent of the industrialised nature of the Holocaust.
“It’s important that everyone in our community recognises the importance of being tolerant and of celebrating our differences,” she said.
“We must always tackle anti-Semitism and racism wherever we find it. I look forward to seeing how the students will communicate their experience to their peers and their community. I hope that this will ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten and that its lessons are truly learnt, disseminated and acted upon.”
To bring the Lessons from Auschwitz Project together, pupils took part in a Next Step session and through a follow up project they will become Ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust.
They will then share their experience and knowledge throughout the community of what happened during that horrific time.