Derbyshire teenager Maddie Freeman recently took part in a trip to the former Holocaust concentration camps at Auschwitz after winning a writing competition at school.
Maddie, a student at Brookfield Community School sixth form, joined the Lessons From Auschwitz (LFA) group to help raise awareness of the Holocaust horror.
The 17-year-old who is studying English, history and politics, described the trip – which included visiting two concentration camps in Poland, meeting a survivor and a memorial service – as ‘eye opening’.
She said: “The trip greatly changed my perceptions on the Holocaust and my views on the people that were involved – both victims and perpetrators.
“Many people would ask me if I had a good time when I went to Auschwitz, but it’s a hard question to answer. Visiting a death camp where more than six million people were killed was a hollowing and depressing experience, but it was also enlightening and eye opening.
“I felt a sense of privilege to be able to learn about not only what happened at Auschwitz, but to also learn about the people who were persecuted there as individuals with real lives and real stories rather than just statistics.”
The group set off to Poland where they spent the first day visiting Auschwitz.
“I had many ideas in my head about what the trip was going to be like, what I would feel and what I would learn – but nothing had come close to the real experience,” said Maddie.
“I had many preconceptions of what I thought it was going to be like, but it becomes almost impossible to describe the feeling of walking through the gates of Auschwitz – to walk upon the same ground that millions of victims walked upon only decades ago.
“We were told individual stories behind each victim, shown photographs, listened to stories and examined different belongings such as pairs of shoes, pots and pans, or keys they had brought with the hope of returning home.
“There was also piles of hair that had been preserved in order to show people that these victims were real humans, just like us.
“Most interestingly, we were shown that the perpetrators were just like us also. To many these people are inhumane monsters. But in reality they were just normal human beings that made monstrous decisions.
“We visited the house of one of the Nazi Party members who helped co-ordinate the events at Auschwitz. He had an ordinary house where he lived with his ordinary family, and he was described by those that knew him as ‘someone you’d just pass in the street’.
“When we begin to recognise those who committed the disastrous crimes against the victims at Auschwitz as people, we begin to realise that these people exist in society today as normal human beings with a tendency to make bad decisions, people who take the lives of innocent civilians and use race, religion or sexuality as a target for hatred.”
The second camp the group visited was Auschwitz-Birkenau, much larger than Auschwitz but with less of a tourist presence, said Maddie.
She added: “It seemed much more empty and lifeless. As I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau I tried to visualise the people that were there standing around me rather than being in a desolate camp.
“At the end of the visit, we took part in a memorial service hosted by a rabbi, where we were able to reflect and respond to the events that had taken place where we were sat, and at other camps during the Holocaust.
“The rabbi inspired me when he said that it is important to not hate one another, because hatred lead to Auschwitz. It taught me that in order to stop the atrocities of the Holocaust from happening again we must learn to accept people as people just like us and that hatred towards anybody of any background is not acceptable.
“In the words of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – ‘We must learn from history what we do not learn from history’.”