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Students visit Nazi concentration camps

By David Parker

The infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign which translates as 'work will set you free'.
The infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign which translates as 'work will set you free'.

Students who visited notorious Nazi concentration camps have told how the experience changed their lives.

Sixth-formers from Tuxford Academy and the Sir William Robertson Academy, Welbourn, went to the town of Auschwitz, Poland, on a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.

The trust’s regular visits aim to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust — Hitler’s planned extermination of the Jewish people — during the second world war.
Up to six million Jews are estimated to have been killed.

The trust said its Lessons From Auschwitz project aimed to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and highlighted what could happen if prejudice and racism became acceptable.

It organises visits to concentration camps Auschwitz One and Auschwitz Two (Birkenau) where more than a million people were killed.

Tuxford Academy pupil Simonas Alks-nevicius, 18, of Newark, who went on the latest trip, said: “I wanted to visit and get a first-hand experience.

“It is different to reading books about it because you are actually there.

“There is a room full of hair that was removed from the prisoners. It was life-changing to see.”

Simonas said it was shocking to see that concentration camps existed and what the human mind was capable of.

“We went inside a gas chamber and it was hard to imagine being one of the victims,” he said.

“The trip has changed my perspective on the way I thought about the Holocaust.

“It made me think about what actually happened and why humans wanted to do that kind of thing.”

Emily Andrew, 18, of Newark, a pupil at the Sir William Robertson Academy, said the visit was thought-provoking.

She visited the town of Auschwitz and went to the site of a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis.

Emily said: “It was astonishing that there wasn’t any trace of the synagogue. In a town that previously had an integrated Jewish community, now absolutely no Jews live there.

“That showed me, even 70 years on from the Holocaust, that it was still having an impact on people’s lives.”

Emily said she was apprehensive about going to the former camps, which are now home to a museum documenting the history of the site.

She said she was shocked at how close the town was to the camps — and how close people were living to it.

Emily said: “Stepping on the ground made me feel overwhelmed. It made me realise how lucky we were not only to be able to enter the camp but, more importantly, to exit as few people actually did during the Holocaust.

“I was astonished at how compact the camp was considering how many people were kept there.”

Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Emily said visiting the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau made her realise how important it was that nothing like the Holocaust happened again.

“There were remains of some of the gas chambers that were in operation at the time, but that the Nazis had tried to destroy when they knew they were losing the war,” she said.

“That showed me they knew what they were doing was wrong but still continued.

“I thought visiting the camps would make me cry, but I was naïve to do so as it was more important to take in what happened and ensure that it never happens again.

“The visit showed me that, although we visited the camps, the Holocaust was much wider than that.

“We shouldn’t neglect studying pre-war Jewish life as it shows us that what was lost was more than just lives — it was communities and culture.

“I would recommend a visit to Auschwitz. Although it is an upsetting experience, it is thought-provoking and the more people that learn about it and learn how discrimination isn’t acceptable, the less chance there is of another mass genocide.”

"This is one moment in my life I’ll never forget."

Rebecca Parker, a pupil at Sir William Robertson Academy, Welbourn, writes about her visit to Auschwitz.

Visiting Auschwitz was an opportunity of a lifetime and an experience I’ll never forget.

Myself and my fellow student Emily Andrew took part in the Lessons From Auschwitz project organised by the Holocaust Education Trust.

We took part in a preparation seminar educating us on the Holocaust, listening to an Auschwitz survivor and what we should expect from Auschwitz.

Visiting Auschwitz is something you can never fully prepare for.

The nights before the visit my mind was filled with questions. How would I feel? How big were the camps in real life? What should I expect?

When we first arrived in Poland we headed to the town of Oswiecim and visited the grounds of the Great Synagogue.

When looking around you would have never have guessed there was anything previously built there, with trees and grass covering the whole patch of land.

At this point I felt it hard to imagine the capacity and how there was once an immense Jewish community in Oswiecim. Today, there are no longer any Jewish communities living in the town. 

Next we headed to Auschwitz 1.

A big misconception is that Auschwitz is just one camp. In fact, it is a large network of camps within a very small radius.

You would recognise the sign reading ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ from history books which means ‘work sets you free’.

When first walking through those gates you get such an uncomfortable and saddening feeling, from knowing the crimes that had taken place there.

This was really it. Listening to our tour guide through our headphones our ears were filled with the horrors and immense inhumanity these people went through.

Looking around the vast blocks of buildings, they strangely still remained in very good condition, however everything was so close together which surprised me.

The weather was bright and sunny, which felt wrong for a place of killing and horror.

Around 1,100,000 people were murdered in Auschwitz, 90% of them being Jews.

We headed into multiple buildings, seeing photographs of prisoners and the belongings of just a small number who were brought to the camps.

Only when I saw the human hair did it really did start to hit me.

When we talk about the Holocaust we discuss the groups of people and forget they were individuals like you and I.

These innocent people were stripped of their lives and futures just because of their religion. When we entered the room of shoes, I was speechless. The vast array of shoes piled on each side shook me to the core. This was all so real and not a picture in a history textbook.

I felt so overwhelmed and emotional but had no time to fully acknowledge what I was witnessing. 

We walked on to visit the death wall where escapees or non-conformists would be lined up and shot. This was extremely hard-hitting for me.

Finally, we carried on to the crematorium. At this point I felt utterly emotional and speechless at how something so horrific and inhumane could have happened in such a secluded area.

Lastly, we were taken to Auschwitz Birkenau, just a few minutes drive away. On arrival you instantly see the gates and the great brick structure seen in photographs and books.

Along the ground, however, you see the railway tracks that stretch along the centre, far into the distance of the camp.

The railway lines were key to the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, transporting 1,200 prisoners a day to Birkenau in cattle carts.

The structures at Birkenau consisted mainly of wooden huts although most were burnt down at the end of the war to hide the evidence.

Today all that remains are the chimneys dotted across the acres of land.

Birkenau was eerie. Unlike Auschwitz 1 it was empty.

Throughout my time at the camps I barely saw any wildlife, the only forms of life being the visitors that wandered the rocky grounds.

We briefly toured the camp, exploring the remaining buildings and ruins of the crematoriums.

It was hard to grasp a sense of capacity — to picture the amount of people was impossible.

As night fell we had group prayers with the Rabbi and began to light candles.

Hundreds of us began to place our candles along the railway track of Birkenau.

This is one moment in my life I’ll never forget.

Words cannot express how beautiful and touching it was to be part of this in remembrance for those who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

We proceeded to the coaches to begin the long journey home, beginning to reflect on what we had learnt.

Visiting Auschwitz is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I feel unless you have visited such a place you will never fully understand what the camps are really like.

Now, as an ambassador of the Lessons From Auschwitz project, I feel strongly about educating others on the Holocaust and keeping the memory of it alive.


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