The moment history became real for South Holland pupils

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The warm mid-afternoon Polish sun was setting over the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp as young people from South Holland walked a dusty track to where more than one million Jews were murdered in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War.

Tired, hungry and emotionally drained after a chilling one-day trip to see “what can happen when people are fearful of other cultures”, this was the moment history became real.

A single cattle wagon was abandoned on the railway line at the Birkenau camp as a reminder how prisoners were packed for days with no room to sit, no food and little water only to be brutally herded for selection on arrival,

Along the track, Emma Howell, of Spalding High School, broke the silence: “We must be walking the same steps they did. This is far more real than I ever imaged.”

Those sent to Auschwitz faced hard labour, many dying within months from starvation or disease. It was in Birkenau where camouflaged gas chambers lay in waiting.

Now only the twisted ruins of the gas chambers destroyed by the Nazis days before liberation remain and birds sing overhead to show, contrary to myth, life goes on and the devastation is being replaced with hope.

In one of the displays in the selection centre was a set of keys.

An educator from the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) told the group, which included four students from Spalding High School and The Deepings School, the keys were a symbol of hope from a prisoner who had locked up his house in the belief one day he would go home.

That person never returned home but, in a candle-lit ceremony at the end of the railway line that passes through the famous main watchtower, Rabbi Barry Marcus told students they were the new hope for the future.

He said: “Prisoners died in the camps because they were different. It’s what can happen when people are fearful of other cultures.

“This divide is happening in our own communities today. Who will be first to bridge it?”

Later, Rabbi Marcus said the lessons learned from Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp could be used to unite communities in towns like Spalding with its large immigrant population.

He said: “When communities like the ones in Spalding are divided just one small thing can spark unrest. Tolerate, but do not hate. If we cannot conquer the distance between cultures we have failed.”

Emma, her friend Eleanor Smith from Spalding High School, and Dan Cerski and Ava Rangolam from the Deepings School, have now returned to the area to act as HET ambassadors and spread the word about the lessons they have learned.

The students were among more than 200 from across the East Midlands on the trip.

At the Auschwitz 1 labour camp they walked under the arch promising ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work will set you free), paused in horror at the piles of hair, shoes and suitcases on display in the former barracks, and visited the courtyard where prisoners were shot and the crematoria.

This was in stark contrast to the first coach stop – the cemetery at Oswiecim –where the trip’s educators had tried to show the normality of life for the Jewish residents before their extermination.

Now the town living in the shadow of the death camps has built up a new thriving community.

Dan Cerski, of the Deepings School, said: “They can rebuild it and make it colourful, but what happened will never be forgotten.”

Student Eleanor Smith

As soon as I heard my school was being given the opportunity to have two students become ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) I knew I would seize the opportunity.

Going to Auschwitz has been something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember due to the intense interest I have had in the holocaust and the wars since I was young.

One of the main reasons it appealed to me was because it gave us the chance to spread the word of our experiences we would gain whilst out there.

I believe that it’s so important that the horrors aren’t forgotten.

Now, having been there, I am unable to put the experience into words. It is one of the most view-converting and life-changing experiences of my life.

I feel so privileged to have been chosen to represent the HET and am honoured to carry on spreading the word of the horrors that happened there.

Student Emma Howell

For me, the lessons from the Auschwitz programme has served as an unparalleled educ-ational experience.

While the statistics of the Holocaust never cease to shock, it was the relentless displays of

human hair, children’s clothing and lost photographs that truly personified the gravity of this devastating act of genocide.

These intimate and relatable showcases exposed the corruption of the perpetrators and begged the question; why?

This was a unanimous opinion shared among the group and the vast majority of the world. And yet, what proves to be more shocking can be summarised through the mantra of our LFA educators; ‘We learn from history, that we do not learn from history’.

While a resounding disgust overlooks the events of the Holocaust, it is not an act unique to its kind. Rwanda, Bosnia, Uganda - all unexplainable acts of genocide. I, therefore, feel my trip to Auschwitz was not only educational, but an essential life lesson. I urge everyone to extend their knowledge in the hope that one day we will learn from our mistakes.