AUSCHWITZ ...AND A LESSON FROM HISTORY; Students Learn of Nazi Concentration Camp Horrors

Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), April 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

AUSCHWITZ ...AND A LESSON FROM HISTORY; Students Learn of Nazi Concentration Camp Horrors


Byline: JONNY GREATREX

AUSCHWITZ. The very name chills to the bone.

It represents one of humanity's darkest chapters and unimaginable suffering.

But when you stand on the train tracks at the infamous brick entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau it is striking how little was required to carry out genocide.

There is no huge imposing structure dominating the landscape.

All that was needed to murder more than a million Jews was a field, barbed wire fencing and a few low-rise buildings to house those kept alive so they could be worked to death.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" reads the sign above the gates - "Work makes you free".

The final elements were the barbarous will of Hitler's Third Reich - and the gas chambers, instruments of mass murder.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau camps now house a museum and permanent memorial to those who died there.

The Sunday Mercury joined 200 Midland students who visited the site as part of a long-running Holocaust Educational Trust project aimed at making sure the horrific events are neither forgotten nor repeated.

A trip to this sombre corner of Poland is both daunting and challenging.

"Standing on the tracks was a harrowing moment," said Great Barr School sixth former Jon Warner, 16, from Perry Barr, Birmingham.

"You've seen pictures of it but until you're there you don't realise it actually exists, that it did happen.

"I do history and I have to do coursework next year about a person or event, so I wanted to do it on the Holocaust.

"I wasn't anxious about coming but I admit there was trepidation. I was not sure what to expect.

"I've read about it but coming here has been more valuable, and I think it will benefit me in the long run.

"What I read had been toned down. I think there are people who want the world to be in the dark about it."

Auschwitz is at the centre of Europe, a major railroad junction with routes converging from across the continent.

The camp at Auschwitz - German name for the town of Oswiecim - was originally used to hold Polish refugees and soldiers.

But after the outbreak of war in 1939 the leader of Hitler's fanatical S, Heinrich Himmler, turned the redbrick buildings into a concentration camp, known as Auschwitz I. By October 1941 the bigger Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenhau) was operational, followed by Auschwitz III (Monowitz-Buna) a year later where prisoners worked in factories aiding German war production.

It was in the gas chambers of Auschwitz II that most people sent to the camps lost their lives.

But it is the brick barracks of Auschwitz I which house the exhibition which documents the Holocaust. They hold what, for most people, is the most diffi-cult part of their visit.

In room after room behind glass are piles of belongings - hair, suitcases, shoes and spectacles - taken from those who were sent to their death.

"The hair really stood out for me," said Leicester Grammar School pupil Stephanie Spencer, 16, from Kibworth, Leicestershire.

"If I hear someone being racist now I will get angry. I think I would say something now, rather than turn a blind eye. "Auschwitz is somewhere everyone should visit. It will give me a more moral perspective on life and make me appreciate what I've got.

"I expected it to be very cold and bleak, but it was a lot bigger than I thought. I've not got emotional but I don't think it has hit me yet."

Challenging Angus Wood, 17, from Harborne, Birmingham, who studies at St George's School, Edgbaston, found the piles of possessions challenging.

"I did not expect to see the belongings of those murdered," he said. …

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