Feature: Lessons for life from Auschwitz

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

Reporter HANNAH COLLISSON joined Hastings students on an educational visit to the World War Two concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland. Here, she explains how they reacted to the atrocities that took place there.

One thing that sticks in my mind is a photograph of a glowing twenty-something woman celebrating her wedding day with a glass of red wine.

Piles of shoes at Auschwitz

Piles of shoes at Auschwitz

We now know what she did not, that her picture is at Auschwitz because she was Jewish, and the road ahead led to the gas chamber, where she died along with more than a million others at the hands of the Nazis.

Almost 70 years afterwards, her footsteps to the gas chamber were traced, in silence, by a group of sixth form students, in memory of those who had been marched to their deaths along this same route.

Students from across the south east, including six from Hastings, took part in the Lessons from Auschwitz project, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), of which this trip to Poland was an essential part.

The aim of the project was for the young people to learn first-hand about the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, and Auschwitz, the most famous of the  German-run camps, and disseminate this knowledge among their fellow students.

Display of photographs at Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Display of photographs at Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

During part one of the project, the orientation seminar, the students were given information to help them prepare for the trip, and heard the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. The second part, was the trip itself, as the HET emphasises that ‘hearing is not like seeing’.

A seminar following the one-day trip gave the students the opportunity to reflect upon what they had seen and heard, while the final part of the project was their chance to think creatively and come up with ways of engaging their fellow students.

On the day of the trip, the first stop was at the Jewish cemetery in the small Polish city of Oswiecim (Auschwitz in German), on the outskirts of which are the famous camps. The purpose of this was to remind the group that the atrocities did not take place in a vacuum, there was a chain of events, and decisions made that led to the deaths of millions.

Before the Second World War, 7,000 of Oswiecim’s population of 12,000 were Jewish. This was a real community, one now frozen in time, as the last Jewish resident of this town died 12 years ago.

Hastings students with MP Amber Rudd. Picture Yakir Zur

Hastings students with MP Amber Rudd. Picture Yakir Zur

Throughout the day, Alex Maws, head of education at the HET, was keen to re-humanise the victims, encouraging the group to think in terms of individuals.

This was driven home as we crossed the threshold of former concentration camp Auschwitz I, originally established as a prisoner of war camp in 1941. Passing beneath the famous Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free) sign at the entrance, a thoughtful silence fell over the group.

Seventeen-year-old Minna Ventsel, a second year IB student at Sussex Coast College, was struck by the piles of human hair, shoes, and other possessions, displayed behind glass. “It was just so hard to imagine that all of these things once belonged to individuals, who had everything taken away from them just because they were Jewish.”

The final stop of the day was Birkenau or Auschwitz II, the extermination camp, which became the place that most of the Jewish prisoners were brought to. When people think of Auschwitz, they are often imagining Birkenau, with vast expanses of barbed wire, and the railway line which brought the victims directly to the gas chambers, of which piles of rubble and stone steps are all that remain.

The trip has thrown up many ideas for the Hastings students who have risen to the challenge of communicating the lessons that can be learned from what happened at Auschwitz, to people who do not necessarily feel connected with the events.

Hermione Hawkins, 17, and Billie Kotting, 16, AS level history students at Helenswood, are going for visual impact, and have put together a short film that they plan to show to the school. It features footage that they shot on the day, as well as interviews with themselves before and after. Billie said: “It was so much to take in, I didn’t know how to feel at the time. The film shows our journey as well as mirroring the journey the Jews would have made from the first to the second camp.”

Holly Belcher, 18, and Hannah Woolcott, 17, A Level students from William Parker Sports College, plan to pose the question “If the same thing happened, here, today, what would you do?” to their fellow students.

Holly said: “What struck me was that I didn’t know the story of each individual victim, and the guards were individuals too - how did they come to be in that position?”

Minna Ventsel and Jack Everitt, 17, IB students at Sussex Coast College thought that the best way to engage people would be to make links to contemporary themes such as bullying.

In a memorial service for the victims of the Holocaust, led by Rabbi Barry Marcus of Central Synagogue, at Birkenau, he said: “I hope that the experience today will make you aware of what can happen if we are not alert and doing our jobs as human beings.”

He left us with the thought that holding a minute’s silence for each one of the victims would take three years.