Close-up of a death camp

26th January 2001 at 00:00
A visit to Poland's concentration camps provided a 16-year-old Scot with a new insight. Paula Cowan reports.

As fifth-year pupil Jill Harkins of St Luke's High, Barrhead, wrote her essay on "The Importance of Remembering" for a competition organised by East Renfrewshire, she had no idea that it would end up taking her, as prizewinner, to Auschwitz.

Very early one Sunday morning in November, Jill arrived at Glasgow airport to join her companions for the day, who mostly were from the city's Jewish community. Many had lost relatives in the Holocaust and a few were children of survivors.

Arriving in Poland at midday, they had only a few hours of winter daylight to see the camps at Auschwitz. They were guided around the site, then buses took the group to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

"I don't think I was prepared for how emotional the visit to Auschwitz would make me feel," says Jill. "When I was there I put myself in the place of the people who were brought here. I tried to imagine what it was like, going in and never coming out. I realise that how I felt was just a fraction of what the actual people must have felt. It really made me feel sad.

"Looking at the collection of 43,000 shoes, thousands of combs and suitcases, made it even harder for me to understand why one group - the Nazis - wanted other groups of people to die. I thought of the people who were the owners of these belongings. I wondered i they knew that they would be remembered like this.

"It was not what I expected. I thought that Auschwitz-Birkenau would resemble a modern museum. I certainly did not expect to see the gas chambers or anything like that. Leaving it unchanged makes it all the more frightening because it is as if you were there at that time in history."

Jill knew little about Auschwitz before she went. "It would have been better had I known more," she says. "I had learnt something about the Holocaust in second-year history. I remember that we watched a video and what I saw at Birkenau was exactly like the camp in the video. It hit me that this was not a film but real.

"I made friends with a girl called Jude and I realised that Jewish people are still suffering today. We tend to think only of the people who suffered and died, but what of Jewish people today who, like my friend, imagine that it could have happened to them if they had been alive at that time? I had been unaware that Jewish people feel this way.

"I will always remember the gas chambers: a small room, not that wide, with vents at the top for the fumes. The next room contained the ovens. There was an atmosphere. Nobody in the group talked or looked at anyone. We were all silent and shocked.

"The day was a valuable experience. I've seen what I wanted to see at Auschwitz.

"Now I want to find out more about the Holocaust, but I won't be going back."

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