Freezing conditions served as a reminder to hundreds of student visitors at the Nazi death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau of the brutal conditions millions were forced to suffer.
The trip, organised by the Holocaust Education Trust for south London sixth formers left many contemplating lessons for the future as well as the horrors of the past.
Many said nothing could have prepared them for what they saw: displays showing thousands of discarded shoes, mangled glasses, suitcases still imprinted with past owner’s names.
Reporter Pippa Allen-Kinross was invited by the trust to share in their experience at the site where 1.1 million people died, including one million Jews.
The teenagers, who were chatting and laughing as we got off the coach, were stunned into silence as they walked through the gate emblazoned with the infamous words ‘arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free) at the entrance to the Auschwitz I camp.
There was a palpable sense of horror as we were led into a room where huge cabinets lining the walls were filled with human hair, before being shown the rows upon rows of prisoner photographs where the shaven heads and haunted eyes were joined by a date of death.
Hannah Finlay, a student at Sutton’s Nonsuch High School for Girls, said the sight of the hair would stay with her for a long time.
She said: “Crimes like this are so evil and dehumanising. It’s so harrowing, but it’s also humbling.
“It makes you determined to stop this sort of thing happening again.
“Without knowing and learning about this sort of thing, it could easily happen again.”
After walking through a gas chamber and crematorium, the students were taken to the extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where they stared wide-eyed at the railway track leading through the gaping hole of the entrance. This, we were told, was quite literally the end of the line.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo: Yakir Zur
By this point the light was fading and the temperature was well on its way to dipping below -10 degrees, but we were joined by Rabbi Garson who told the teenagers that, in Birkenau, we needed to “redefine our language”: you cannot assume you know anything of evil or fear, of feeling hungry or cold, once you pass the infamous watchtower.
The camp, which is considerably smaller than in 1944 when it held more than 90,000 prisoners, still stretched out far into the dusk in front of us.
We were led into draughty wooden dormitories that once housed up to 800 people, often more than two prisoners sharing each tiny, filthy bunk.
Then we followed the train track to the camp to the ruins of a gas chamber and crematorium, destroyed with dynamite by the Nazis before they fled in 1945, where up to 2,000 prisoners an hour could be killed using the noxious chemical Zyklon B, a cyanide pesticide invented in the 1920s.
Our guide, Katarzyna Wróbel, explained how the prisoners would be made to strip naked and taken into the gas chamber, which masqueraded as a shower room.
Those stood directly under the showerheads would die almost instantly. Those further away would suffocate slowly, climbing over bodies as they tried desperately to escape.
Taylor Tumbridge, 16, from Carshalton Boys Sports College, said: “Standing here and seeing how vast it was, you couldn’t even see the end of the camps. As far as the eye can see is an area designed to kill people.
“It’s important to realise that. Not just that it happened, but the sheer scale of it.
“You can’t get that from a photo.”
As darkness fell, Rabbi Garson held a memorial service in front of a wall displaying hundreds of pictures, found in prisoners’ suitcases, showing life before the camps.
The wall of photographs. Photo: Yakir Zur
He paid tribute to the 1.1 million people estimated to have died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which one million were Jews, as well as the millions of others who died around Europe during the Holocaust.
Before we placed candles on the train track and begin the cold walk back to the coaches, Rabbi Garson warned students of the dangers of silence and complicity in acts of evil, and he asked them to think of the hundreds of thousands of innocent people who have been killed in Syria.
At a time when hate crime linked to Islamophobia has risen almost 65 per cent in London over the last year, when anti-Semitic hate crimes in the UK are at a record high, and when the British Government has voted to reject plans to take in 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian child refugees, the importance of his message was not lost on the students.
And, with the President of the United States trying to reinstate a ‘travel ban’ on seven predominantly Muslim countries while releasing a statement on Holocaust Memorial Day which purposefully did not mention the six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, preserving the lessons of the past seems as important as ever.
Riyana Vadgama, 16, from Greenshaw High School in Sutton, said: “You just can’t comprehend how it happened. I know what happened, but I don’t understand it. I can’t accept it. It feels like it should have been impossible.
“This was a significant part of history. They violated so many human rights, rights that are still being violated today. Persecution is still happening.
“The fact you can make these connections shows what happened here is still relevant. It’s still important, and it shouldn’t be forgotten.”
The trip on Wednesday, February 8, was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, and also included students from The John Fisher School in Croydon, Wallington High School for Girls, Orleans Park School in Twickenham, The Holy Cross School in New Malden, Croydon College, and the Bexley, Greenwich and Bromley campuses of the London South East College.