Auschwitz: Nothing can prepare you for the horrors you will see

PUBLISHED: 15:00 21 March 2013

Nailsea School's Bethany Pitt delivers a reading by Primo Levi during the Birkenau memorial service.

Nailsea School's Bethany Pitt delivers a reading by Primo Levi during the Birkenau memorial service.


STUDENTS from schools across North Somerset recently joined a learning expedition to infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The trip was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which aims to share the horrors of yesterday to help today’s generations understand the dangers of prejudice and racism in the modern world.

A-level students from Clevedon, Nailsea and Backwell schools were among those making the long trip to Poland – and SIMON ANGEAR of the Times went with them…

IT HAS been nearly 70 years, but still nothing grows – it’s as though nature itself is offended by the atrocities which occurred, and has turned its back on the land for good.

Birkenau was the largest of the three Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz, a sprawling instrument of misery and death described as the ‘negation of beauty’, by former prisoner Primo Levi.

It was purpose-built for one thing; murder on an industrial scale.

It succeeded to such a degree that even now, close to seven decades later, the name of Auschwitz still stands unparalleled as a global watchword for tyranny and persecution.

Experts estimate 1.3 million people perished there during World War Two - ordinary people who were gassed, beaten, starved, shot or worked to death by their Gestapo oppressors.

It survives today as a monument to those atrocities; the original Auschwitz camp as a museum, and Auschwitz II – Birkenau – intact as it was after the Soviet liberation in January 1945.

And while many would argue the camps would be better left to decay and fall, the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) believes it can now serve as a positive influence.

The HET believes that by facing and understanding the wrongs of the past, we can learn lessons today – and put an end to prejudice and intolerance in the future.

That is the thinking behind its ambitious Lessons From Auschwitz project, which aims to take two students from every school in the UK to visit the camp.

Last week, a dozen teenagers from North Somerset were among a 200-strong South West group who faced the horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau firsthand.

One teenage student summed up the feelings of many of us when she confessed afterwards: “I thought I was prepared for what I would see – but I wasn’t.”

And that’s the point.

Nothing can properly prepare you. Many of the students were able to reel off facts and statistics they had digested in readiness for the visit – but that did little to ease the shock many felt when they entered the camps.

After all, it is relatively easy to read about the millions of families torn apart and condemned to death in the gas chambers.

You can read how women, children and people judged too old or infirm to work, were stripped, shorn of their hair, corralled naked into shower rooms and murdered.

But books are just words. They can teach us much, but they can’t help students feel – really feel – the malevolent echo of history, made tangible inside the dank and claustrophobic gas chambers.

They can’t convey the horror of being confronted with two tons of human hair – piled seven feet high across an area almost the size of a five-a-side football pitch – knowing it was cut from people who would probably have been dead minutes later.

And no written words can stir the emotions like the mountains of abandoned family treasures preserved in the Auschwitz museum, or the walls of photographs rescued from the Nazi furnaces and displayed in remembrance nearly seven decades later.

Bethany Pitt, of Nailsea School, told the Times that it was these family mementos which helped translate the mind-boggling statistics into relatable people.

She said: “I think the most important thing was the last thing we visited; a display of hundreds of pictures of some of the victims from their lives before.

“It put everything else into perspective – all these people had had lives.”

All day long, overheard snippets of conversation revealed expectations had been shattered by the reality.

Nailsea School’s Aaron Provis said: “I will always remember going into the gas chamber – the atmosphere, and knowing so many people had died in there.

“When you get told about this in history lessons, it is just statistics – when you actually see it, that’s when you really understand.”

The sheer scale of the camp at Birkenau left a clear impression on many.

Auschwitz itself, a converted army barracks, was surprisingly small, but Birkenau, designed by the Nazis with genocide in mind, was vast.

Even from the elevated vantage point afforded by its infamous guard tower straddling the railway tracks into camp, the brick chimneys of the prisoner huts stretched as far as the eye could see.

At its peak in 1944, Birkenau contained 90,000 people, all housed in absurdly overcrowded wooden cattle sheds, usually infested by rats and riddled with dysentery, and offering scant protection against the harsh Polish winters.

It was hard to imagine how anyone could cling to life for so long in such a place.

And of course, few did survive.

Hundreds of thousands starved, died of exhaustion or disease, were hung, shot, or beaten, or perished in medical experiments – yet still nine out of every ten who died were claimed by the gas chambers.

It was during a dusk memorial to those many victims, staged amid the ruins of a crematorium destroyed by Nazis desperate to hide their crimes as the Russian army moved in, that the number of deaths was brought into stark focus.

Emotional students were told that had the ceremony included a minute’s silence for each person who perished on or near that spot, we would have stood mute for nearly three years.

It was a startling fact which visibly impacted on everyone present.

The hope now is that students who made the trip will do just that, by imparting the message of Auschwitz to their peers in a way that a textbook never could.

Each will be required to return to their school or college and deliver their own Lessons From Auschwitz to help combat prejudice in their own world.

HET chief executive Karen Pollock said: “The Lessons From Auschwitz project is such a vital part of our work because it gives students the chance to understand the dangers and potential effects of prejudice and racism today.

“The project encourages them to act on what they see and learn, and the inspiring work they go on to do in their local areas demonstrates the importance of the visit.”

Harrison Barzotelli, of Clevedon School, told the Times he is looking forward to sharing what he had learned with classmates.

He said: “It was an amazing experience – it helps you to understand things in a way which books and teachers can’t do.

“These places would have been very intimidating for people there at the time, but even now you feel the pressure.

“I have taken a lot of pictures, and can help explain to people exactly what it was like and exactly what I was feeling at the time I was seeing these things.”

It remains to be seen whether HET’s lofty goals of a world free from prejudice are a realistic hope, but it’s clear the Lessons From Auschwitz learned by these students will not be easily forgotten.

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