Video: East London students learn about the horrors of the holocaust on trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau
- Credit: Archant
Human hair, piled higher than the heads from which it once fell, spans the length of a 50 metre long room in clumps and pigtails.
Nearby, a mangled heap of innumerable spectacles are on display, stripped from their wearers along with suitcases — many of which still bear the painted names of the families who carried them.
Beyond, a long corridor holds enough shoes to fill two lorry loads, some big, some child-sized, some plain, while others hint at a taste for fashion.
These are what remain of the 1.2 million people, most of them Jews, who were slaughtered with ruthless efficiency and cruel indifference at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi death and concentration camp in Poland, 70 years ago.
Those arriving at the camp by train routes from across Europe were first separated from their families.
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The weaker were gassed to death, sometimes within hours, while the stronger were robbed of their belongings, shaved, tattooed with a number which replaced their name and put to work.
But these remnants, now on display to the public, are “just a drop in the ocean”.
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An estimated six million Jews — of which 1.5million were children — perished under the brutal Nazi regime.
Helping younger generations of Britons to understand the truth behind the startling statistics is the work of the Holocaust Educational trust (HET), which takes two students from secondary schools around the UK on a bi-annual trip to Auschwitz.
On Thursday, it was the turn of students from St Angela’s and Bonaventure’s Sixth Form Centre, Newham, and St Paul’s Way Trust, Tower Hamlets, to get a sense, in just a day, of the atrocities that took place over nearly five years from 1940.
Joining them on this brief but no less powerful journey to the dark heart of the Nazi regime was Rabbi Barry Marcus of London’s Central Synagogue, Westminster, who first began the idea of one-day trips to the camp.
“The Holocaust stands on its own in terms of man’s inhumanity to man,” he explained.
“It is the most heinous crime ever committed in human history. There’s nothing that even remotely begins to compare.
“This was chasing people across an entire continent and bringing them to their death only because they were Jews.”
The Rabbi, who has been on all but one of the more than 100 trips led by the HET, said anti-Semitism continued to survive in Europe and said remembering the Holocaust served “as a warning to what man can descend to”.
Auschwitz, which is the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim, has become synonymous with the large scale death and destruction of the Jewish people.
However, it was once home to a thriving Jewish community that settled there close to 600 years ago and by 1939 made up more than half of the town’s population.
Within a year of the outbreak of war, Nazi forces had decimated this long-standing heritage and destroyed the town’s acclaimed Great Synagogue.
Under the orders of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, a concentration camp was set up in the area which eventually grew to become the separate camps of Auschwitz One and Auschwitz Two (Birkenau).
A third prisoner of war camp known as Auschwitz Three, or Monowitz, was also established where some downed RAF pilots were held during the war.
For seven years guide Anna Skalska has been describing the conditions of life at the two main camps to visitors.
She told the students how hundreds slept on three-tier bunk beds in wooden structures originally made to house about 40 horses at Birkenau and that many prisoners did not survive for longer than a couple of months.
Those not fit to work were sent to the gas chambers, often just hours after arriving from what could have been as long as two weeks travelling by train in carriages normally used for transporting cattle and with just enough room to stand up.
“The Holocaust was the extermination of entire nations,” said Anna.
“Jewish people were exterminated but also the Nazis tried to get rid of other races like Slavs and Gypsies and many others after trying to terrorise them first.”
She said passing the message on to younger generations was vital “not to let it happen again.”
She added: “We have to remember what happened in the past otherwise we will not be able to learn from it.”
Also there to engage young minds was Jewish HET educator Louise Heilbron, a former teacher who has been working with the trust for some 15 years.
She said students’ reactions to seeing the full extent of the Nazi’s punishing regime ranged from one extreme to the other, adding: “Some are very quiet, some are very chatty.
“We have tears, sometimes there are lots of questions, sometimes people don’t say a word – every sort of reaction you could possibly imagine.”
Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, and found 7,650 prisoners who had been left behind by the fleeing SS camp guards.
The crematoria, where bodies of the dead were routinely burned, had been destroyed under commands from Himmler in a bid to hide the evidence of the mass murders.
At a candle-lighting ceremony, by a stone memorial to the dead, students held a minute’s silence in memory of those who perished.
A parting reminder of the scale of the atrocities, should one be needed, came from Rabbi Marcus who told the solemn crowd that a minute’s silence for each victim would take three years.
But he spoke of his comfort in seeing young people showing an interest in what happened and being prepared to give up their time and energy to share with others about “the brutal results of what happens when you allow your intolerance to roam wild and be unchecked”.