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VIDEO: Slideshow of New Mills School trip to Auschwitz

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Before the Second World War, there were 6,000 Jews living in the southern Polish town of Oświęcim and about 3 million nationwide.

Now, there are no Jews left in Oświęcim and only around 6,000 living in Poland.

Nazis killed approximately 1.1 million Jews at three camps in the town, which they named Auschwitz.

The Holocaust Educational Trust invited more than 200 year 12 students from the East Midlands, including two from New Mills School, on a day trip to the infamous Polish town on Wednesday.

The aim of the trip was to show pupils what happens if intolerance goes ahead unchallenged.

The tour brought to life the horrors of the Holocaust and was harrowing, chilling and unforgettable.

We visited Auschwitz I, the camp which was used to house mainly non-Jewish prisoners, including Polish political and religious opponents of the Nazi regime, gay men, Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as Soviet Prisoners of War, and was founded as a museum in 1947.

We were allowed to enter a former gas chamber and we were told that unsuspecting Jews were instructed to strip as they were told they were entering a shower room for disinfection.

They were even told to remember the number above their peg where they hung up their clothes.

Once they realised the horrifying truth, mothers tried to reassure their children that everything was going to be alright, while others scrambled to escape the locked cells and imminent death.

We saw thousands of pairs of shoes and items of clothing, combs and shaving brushes, pairs of glasses, toys and prosthetics that were all confiscated from prisoners on arrival and poignantly, house keys and shoe polish.

Many of those who arrived at the camps, were unaware of the impending genocide or slavery and had been asked to leave their homes and pack up their lives in 20 minutes.

Most shockingly we saw the hair of 40,000 prisoners, which was shaved off by guards under the pretence of delousing. This is image that stuck with most visitors and some students were visibly moved.

We were shown where prisoners were tortured in the basement of block 11, where many were made to spend the night in standing cells, or starved to death or suffocated.

We were also shown the death wall where many Polish prisoners were shot and the gallows where inmates were hanged for all to see, if anyone was discovered to have escaped.

Students saw where camp commandant Rudolf Höss was hanged at gallows on site in 1947 and learnt of Dr Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, who experimented on identical twins and dwarfs and sterilised young women.

At Birkenau, the purpose built extermination camp and the main centre for Jewish and Roma and Sinti or gypsy prisoners, we went inside the wooden stables which slept 700 at a time.

We also saw the wash blocks, which were serviced by the most modern toilets in Europe as the Nazis were concerned about the spread of disease to SS guards and neighbouring towns.

Oświęcim was chosen because of its central location in Europe, its high percentage of Jews, 60 per cent, and it excellent rail links, due to it being a coal mining centre.

We saw where the railways were extended to right outside the gas chambers, where arrivals were selected for extermination or labour. Auschwitz was the only camp, where both happened.

The weak, such as the women and children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled were selected to be gassed on arrival.

After doors were shut, SS men dumped the Zyklon B pellets in through vents in the roof or holes in the side of the chamber. The victims were dead within 20 minutes.

Sonderkommando wearing gas masks then dragged the bodies from the chamber. The victims’ jewellery and any dental work was extracted so the gold could be melted down.

The corpses were burned in the nearby crematoria, and the ashes were thrown in the river.

At their peak, the camps were frighteningly efficient. Between May and July 1944, almost 450,000 Jews, were exterminated using , at a rate of 12,000 a day.

Our tour guide Dorota explained that survivors of Auschwitz often gave talks on their experiences of working in the kitchens, which is how the majority survived as they had access to extra food.

Those who were selected to work as sonderkommando never spoke of their experiences.

Our day ended with a service at the memorial momument, built in 1967, led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who said if we were to hold a minute’s silence in honour of all those who died at Auschwitz, we would be stood there for more than two years.

Nicholas Leverton and Joel Stasiuk, of New Mills School, were chosen to attend the trip for AS level history essays they’d written.

Nicholas said: “Everything seems to be aimed at humanising the Holocaust. At school, we learn about the figures about how many people died but being here and seeing victims’ glasses and shoes makes it feel more real.”

Joel agreed, saying: “It’s still pretty over whelming. I think it’s strange seeing it as a tourist attraction though, with people posing for photos smiling.”

 

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