Making tracks into the Holocaust horror

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
400 Scottish pupils visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland to learn from the past

Original paper headline: Making tracks into the horror that was the Holocaust

Warm autumn sunlight pushes its way through the trees and falls in splashes on our coach as it nudges slowly onwards. Around us, the Polish town of Owiecim is beginning a new day. People wait at bus stops, a woman walks her dog and old men gather in the shade to chat.

Standing in stark contrast to this hearty dose of normality, however, is Oswiecim's history. Following the Nazis invasion in 1939, it became known as Auschwitz. Just a few kilometres away are the camps where more than a million Jews were exterminated. The Vistula river which flows through it was turned into a dumping ground for human ash.

Before the Second World War, around 12,000 people lived in Oswiecim; 58 per cent Jewish. Today, the population is over 40,000, but there are no Jews.

In 2000, Shimshon Klueger, the last remaining Jew, died. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery, one of the few Jews whose gravestone actually marks the spot where he has been laid to rest. During the war, the cemetery was ransacked and the gravestones removed. Some ended up as slabs to pave the streets. The stones that have been recovered are laid out in rows or cobbled together as makeshift monuments to the dead.

This cemetery is the first stop on the Holocaust Educational Trust's one- day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau for pupils, and is important, says Alex Maws, head of education, because it shows that before the war Jews led normal lives and died normal deaths. "We want to humanise and personalise the story of the Holocaust," he explains.

The trust, funded to the tune of pound;214,000 by the Scottish Government, has run the Lessons from Auschwitz project twice this year for some 400 pupils from Scotland.

Auschwitz-Birkenau refers to three different camps with three different purposes - Auschwitz I, primarily a concentration camp; Birkenau (or Auschwitz II), the main death camp; and Auschwitz III, a labour camp. Auschwitz I opened in 1940 and later that year the first gas chamber was built, but it became redundant when Birkenau opened in 1942. The gas chamber at Auschwitz I is the only one left intact - the Nazis destroyed the others at the end of the war.

The pupils visit Auschwitz I and Birkenau. Many of them describe the experience as "surreal". In long lines, we snake past windows looking onto rooms that contain vast piles of human hair (7 tonnes was discovered after the camps were liberated), 40,000 pairs of shoes, glasses, combs, basins, jugs - all of which once had owners, all of whom are unlikely to have survived.

Outside again in the sunshine, as tourists in brightly coloured T-shirts and shorts with cameras slung round their necks mill around, Anna our guide says: "Now you will see the execution wall where thousands were killed, and we are going to see block II, the so-called death block."

Surreal is the right word.

"We are getting the facts, but we'll have to digest them before it hits us," says Katy Rodger, an S6 pupil from Dundee High.

"I'm in shock; I want to cry, but I can't," says Ashley Norrie from Morgan Academy in Dundee.

Anna continues: "Around a million people were killed at Auschwitz, 90 per cent of them were Jews. But because about 70 to 75 per cent of new arrivals were taken straight to die without being registered, it is difficult to know the true figure."

Throughout the visit, pupils are encouraged to think of the victims as individuals with ambitions, dreams, families. This is relatively easy for Sophie Craik, whose grandmother could have been among them. "My great- grandparents were Polish Jews," says the S6 pupil from Dundee High. "I'm lucky they had the foresight to get out of Poland. I suppose I owe them my life really."

They ended up in the UK. Her grandfather, meanwhile, was German. "My grandfather's story has made me see that not all Germans were Nazis," she continues. "He did not believe in what they were doing; he was drafted in to the army from the Hitler Youth. It makes you see how normal people can be put in terrible circumstances."

Sophie's grandfather was captured by the Allies, eventually ending up in Fife. He met her grandmother in Dundee after the war. "The fact that they got together just highlights the futility of the war," says Sophie.

We move on to Birkenau - a German translation of the Polish Brzezinka, which stemmed from the plentiful birch trees. The camp covers 400 acres, with a railway line cutting straight to its heart. The only real sign of trees is towards the back of the camp, where they were used to shield the gas chambers and crematoriums from sight.

Men were held in wooden barracks designed originally to house 52 horses, but which ultimately housed around 400 humans. In the women's section, conditions were, if anything, worse, Anna tells us.

Auschwitz I was more like a museum, says Kirsty Brown from Grove Academy in Broughty Ferry. But at Birkenau, the barracks can be seen as they were from the vantage point of the railway platform where families were separated and many members sent straight to die. "That's when I really started to feel emotional. I just imagined my mum and I being separated from my stepdad and brother - how horrible that must have been."

The journey concludes with readings from pupils and words from Rabbi Barry Marcus, who pioneered the one-day trips to Auschwitz.

As the sun goes down, he says: "For your benefit, learn from our tragedy. It is not written law that the next victims must be Jews. It begins with little things like bullying and verbal abuse - that was at the very core of what ended up here.

"Let us resolve to try and be just a little bit more sensitive to each other and to deal a little more sweetly with each other. In this way, we make our world a better place than we found it."

Eyewitness account

The day the second batch of 200 pupils from around 100 Scottish schools visits Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is 65 years since Jewish inmates attacked the SS with makeshift weapons, overpowered them and blew up crematorium IV.

It has special meaning for the pupils - the week before, they had met Kitty Hart-Moxon, who escaped execution for the attack. Just 12 when war broke out Kitty, a Polish Jew, was sent to Birkenau aged 15. Her last eight months at the camp were spent sorting the Jewish victims' possessions. Working next to the gas chamber and crematorium, Kitty could smell the burning flesh and watched the SS drop canisters of gas through the skylight. There would be "the sound of people suffocating", and then silence, she said.

A month before her 18th birthday, Kitty and her mother left the camp with 100 other prisoners. Only 12 survived.

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