Leatherhead student's experiences of Auschwitz
9:00am Saturday 10th November 2012 in News
Last month Nicholas Rogers from St Andrew's School in Leatherhead accompanied Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and 200 other students on a visit to Auschwitz.
It was the 100th trip organised by the Holocaust Education Trust, whose Lessons From Auschwitz programme aims to take two students from every 6th form and college in Britain to the notorious camp in Poland so they can spread the word about what they experience there.
Here he shares his memories of the trip and the important lessons he learned there.
"Sixty years have passed since the horrors of the Holocaust shattered the hopes and dreams and took the lives of around 11 million individual people. But it is as important today as it was in the 20th Century to understand one of the biggest genocides in history. As George Santayana said: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it".
What one firstly must understand is that the Holocaust is not just limited to the death camps, such as Auschwitz. The camps were the culmination of long standing anti-Semitic feelings in Europe which the Nazis heightened dramatically when they came to power.
When the Second World War commenced in Europe, many plans were devised to deal with the Judenfrage or, ‘Jewish Question’. Most involved deporting the Jews to distant places, such as Siberia or even Madagascar. However, limited success in the war led the Nazis to come up with one Final Solution to the Jewish Question - mass extermination.
This did not start with the death camps, instead groups of men called the Einsatzgruppen hunted down Jews, herded them together and then shot them. A million Jews died at their hands, most horribly in the Babi Yar Massacre where 33,771 Jews were murdered in just two days.
Elsewhere the Jews were crammed into ghettoes which inevitably led to the formation of concentration camps. Most infamous of the concentration camps was Auschwitz I, which was within sight of the place most associated with the Holocaust, the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On my trip, we didn’t go straight to the two camps, but actually to Oświęcim, which was the town inside the Auschwitz area. Before the Second World War, 58 per cent of the population had been Jewish, with a vibrant Jewish community. Today not a single Jew remains.
The thing that really hammered home the meaning of this was that we were told this information standing in a grassy field. As it turned out, we were standing where the Great Synagogue had once stood. It had been completely destroyed, along with its Jewish population. This really helped me to understand that the Jewish victims were just ordinary people. This in turn changed my understanding of the 6 million murdered Jews from a statistic into a rehumanised group of real people who had been lost.
After leaving the town, we were taken to Auschwitz I where thousands upon thousands died from malnutrition, overwork and mistreatment. The punishments in the camp were awful. One involved being forced to stand in a small space inside a stone column with three other prisoners with no movement sometimes for days until the victims died.
However, the two most moving parts for me were at the beginning and end. Passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates which chillingly translates as ‘Work will set you free’ we were taken to a room with one wall entirely encased in glass. Behind it was two tonnes of human hair, which had been shaved off by the Nazis to be turned into fabric.
The second, simply awful part of the experience at Auschwitz I was the completely intact gas chamber and crematorium which I walked through. Although extremely hard to explain emotionally, physically the entire room was so cold, in all senses. I agreed with others in my group that the room had even smelled cold, it was that overwhelming. After this we left for Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp. This was immediately harrowing as the infamous gate-tower came into to view. It was from the top of this tower that I understood how big 430 acres of land was, for the camp stretched farther than the eye could see.
We were then given a tour, which included the blocks and the toilet facilities. 180 toilets were made for over 5,000 people, who would have between 8-15 seconds to use the open, stone toilet with four other people before being forced out. The accommodation blocks had three tiers of bunks with two people forced to sleep in each. Those on the bottom two layers would be at constant risk of being killed by exposure from the discharge of those in the bunks above every night, who did not have the strength to wait till morning.
Moving on, we arrived at the train ramp. From here, all prisoners were pointed either "links" to the left and the gas chambers or "rechts" to the right and labour until death. Although the gas chambers were mostly destroyed, the sight of where hundreds of thousands had perished was still overwhelming.
It was not until after we had left Poland and Auschwitz that I realised the full significance of the journey through such a distressing place. Despite the monstrosity of the Holocaust, genocide has continued to occur. It is hard to understand how, after the world became aghast at the nature of the Holocaust, genocides such as those in Rwanda and Darfur were able to happen. The killing in Darfur ended just two years ago, after the deaths of almost half a million people.
People need to understand the atrocity that was the Holocaust, and learn a vital lesson from it. If we do not learn this lesson from history, genocide will repeat itself."