As Britain remembers servicemen and women killed in conflicts over the past century, HuffPost UK visits the former death camp at Auschwitz with a group of sixth formers, who find the scale of the human suffering and destruction hard to comprehend...
It’s the hair that gets to you. Anyone can visit Auschwitz now and see it; on display in a room next to a model of a gas chamber and crematorium is the greying hair of 40,000 women - cut off after they were gassed and before their bodies were burned.
Germans used the hair of their victims to make cloth and even, according to our guide, stiffen the collars of Nazi soldiers.
We’re visiting the camp with 250 sixth formers, representing 125 schools, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz project. In groups of 10, we trawl through what’s left of the camp, now a memorial site, each with a tour guide and volunteer educator.
Not many of them know much about the Holocaust, or have studied it formally. Molly, a 17 year old from Kent who wants to study history of art at university, says she went because of the “phenomenal” opportunity.
“I’d never had a history project on the holocaust. For an opportunity to actually experience history first hand is phenomenal and I didn’t want to be stupid and let that go.”
What made it real for Molly was the hair: “I can still picture it in my head. They actually saw the hair as more valuable than the people. That’s really people’s hair.”
If the hair doesn’t get you, it will be the shoes. For some, the piles and piles of the victims’ shoes displayed in glass cabinets help bring home what happened. Others in the group are moved by other artifacts; the suitcases, carefully labelled with names and dates of birth and carefully packed to ensure they were not over a certain weight.
Auschwitz is now a museum. Tourists can visit the network of sites that compromised the largest Nazi death camp, paying for headphones and guided tours. The main tourist season runs from April-October, while it’s not so cold. A general tour, lasting for three-and-a-half hours, costs 250 zloty, or nearly £50. Profits go to the museum and to maintain the site.
Beyond the gates at Auschwitz One lie a sprawl of brick buildings house what’s left of the first camp. We trawl round them, inspecting the evidence of what happened here. There are photos, and plaques translated into English and Hebrew. The papers of Jewish, or Polish or Romany people transported here to be killed are exhibited in glass cabinets, photos of people arriving at the camp adorn the walls. For Lorna, the history teacher leading our group alongside the guide, it’s about “re humanising” the victims of the Holocaust.
Outside the entrance, coach-loads of tourists are greeted by a fast food shack. It’s early November, and not so busy; aside from our delegation there are only three more coaches in the car park.
Traipsing around with our headphones, it could almost be like any other school trip - until you reach the rooms where just a fraction of the belongings of the last of the camp’s residents, the stuff that was not destroyed, or sold, or re-used by the time it was liberated, are on display.
For some of the students, it’s too clinical to really connect with at the time. Bleary-eyed from a 4am start, 17-year-old Ben says the atmosphere meant he still could not appreciate the enormity of the number of people killed.
“You feel more from being there, but I thought it was very museumy. Even when you’re there you don’t have a perception of the scale of the people who were killed.I thought there would be something like a parachute representing every person who was murdered. The hair and the shoes are crazy. Birkenhau was much more eerie because it was quiet.”
Our Polish tour guide has been working here for a decade. After growing up in the nearby town Oświęcim, she grew up in the shadow of what had happened her and became more interested in Auschwitz when she first visited the camp on a school trip aged 14. Does she enjoy it? “It’s not fun, no, but my job means something.”
The guides are, in her words, “well-compensated” because of how emotionally demanding the work is. Some cannot handle the reality of working there and quit - others have done the job for 20 years. When she first started, she had nightmares that she was a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Standing in front of what remains of a gas chamber destroyed by the SS during the final months of the camp, she says the nightmares have gone, but the sadness of her job: explaining the brutality, and the efficiency of mass murder, stays with her.
Whether you visit Auschwitz or not, it is impossible to comprehend the scale of death that happened there. Seventy years on in Birkenhau, the scent of death has gone. The only signs left of the 1.1m people that were murdered are the ruins of the gas chambers, or the piles of shoes displayed behind glass. The cold and discomfort we feel, wrapped in our winter coats and scarves, is nothing compared to that of a half-starved inmate in pyjamas.
Two days after the visit, and Molly still feels drained. “There was definitely an emotional impact there. But it’s playing on my mind now I just keep thinking that we’ve been in those gas chambers where millions have been murdered.
“When I was there I felt like I needed to cry but also that I couldn’t because I felt so emotionally drained. It was really surreal experience, even now it feels like a bit of a dream.”
And while she says it did feel like a museum, it was like no other: “In Birkenhau felt like you were there, especially when it was dark and we were walking back through the camp and doing the walk that the Jews would have done before they got murdered.”
As for Ben, he says he doesn’t know what to say to his friends who have texted him to ask how it was. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can’t really say that I felt any overwhelming emotion there. I think when I got home and actually thought about the day it was quite shocking to think what I had just done. The whole day was a bit crazy really. It’s so difficult to explain how I feel now.”
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