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Local students travel to Poland for a day of learning and reflection at Auschwitz

Six million murdered. The so-called “final solution” of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to eradicate Jews from Europe. The biggest genocide in the history of mankind.

“The scale of it doesn’t hit you until you’re here. This place is massive. I just can’t comprehend how or why this could have happened.”

Such a response is not uncommon upon stepping foot into Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time, the backdrop for the murder of 1.1 million victims during the Second World War.

The infamous 'work sets you free' sign at the entrance.
The infamous 'work sets you free' sign at the entrance.

Moyo Amoo-Peters, 17, a sixth former at Dartford Grammar School, was one of 200 young people from across Kent and the south east who visited the infamous Nazi complex with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) last week.

Her first impression of the main death camp is testament to the impact such a trip can have.

For colleague Tom Penny, 17, the experience hits home even harder. He has already studied the Holocaust extensively throughout his time at school, but no amount of reading or essay writing could prepare him for seeing the site first hand.

“We get given figures and explanations in text books but it can’t prepare you for what you actually see when you get here,” he said.

“You can relate to it more when you’re here because you see the human side of the people who died. I think this is the hardest part and the day has made it harder to study because now it’s more emotional.”

Dartford Grammar School's Tom Penny and Moyo Amoo-Peters, both 17.
Dartford Grammar School's Tom Penny and Moyo Amoo-Peters, both 17.

These reflections come towards the end of an emotional day walking through history at both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz 1.

“Auschwitz 1 didn’t seem capable of housing people for very long, whereas Birkenau is much bigger and you could envisage people being here for ages,” said Tom.

Moyo’s thoughts are similar: “I thought Auschwitz 1 looked like a village,” she says.

“You can almost see why people might have thought they were going there for a better life.”

A memorial at a Jewish graveyard just outside the complex.
A memorial at a Jewish graveyard just outside the complex.

Our guide through Auschwitz 1, Michal Jarnot, told us of the cold, stark reality of what the Nazi’s victims experienced upon arrival.

“They were brought in and sent one of two ways; you could go left to be put to work or right to go to your death,” he said.

“Women and children would be kept together so that they did not panic before they were killed. But even the ones sent to work sometimes only lasted a few days and the gas chambers could kill 2,000 people in 15 minutes.”

Perhaps the saddest tales are those of the Sonderkommando; Jews forced to work at the camps. Michal spoke of how they were the ones tasked with clearing the chambers and cremating the bodies.

Museum guide Michal Jarnot leads our group through Auschwitz 1.
Museum guide Michal Jarnot leads our group through Auschwitz 1.

The Nazis worked hard to remove all evidence of their mass murder, but what remains provides a chilling reminder of how cruel humanity can be.

This human side of the Holocaust is what HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project focus on. The trust’s chief executive Karen Pollock said the project allowed young people “to learn about the Holocaust in a way they cannot in the classroom”.

To hear of the genocide is one thing, but to see it for yourself is something else entirely. The group’s first tour of Auschwitz 1 showcases the merciless, industrialised brutality of it all.

Pairs of shoes and glasses are piled high and name tags on suitcases belonging to victims show the range of people who had their lives taken from them.

Suddenly the death count, six million, is more than just a number.

Our group comes to a Jewish memorial at Birkenau.
Our group comes to a Jewish memorial at Birkenau.

HET Educator Zoe Bowden sees the human side of the Holocaust as the basis for its most important questions.

At the outset of the day, at a bitterly cold Jewish Cemetery in the town of Oswiecim, she tells students of the impact the Nazi’s crimes had on normal, peaceful families. The chill in the air exacerbated by the horrors that took place on the very ground we stood upon.

“One of the key questions is whether we start at the end at Auschwitz-Birkenau, or at the beginning, with the communities,” she said.

“That’s something that the victims of the Holocaust did not have, a void that can never be filled. It’s what remains of a community and of little villages that are no more. They were taken from these places and robbed of their lives.”

So many lives were touched by the Holocaust that stories documenting the atrocity are almost infinite.

“It’s a new history that’s developing all the time because a lot of it is passed on by word of mouth, so new stories and discoveries are always emerging,” said Zoe.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of these stories is that they were borne out of what Zoe describes as “rational choices.”

“It was planned and organised by people who made rational choices,” she said.

“These people were not monsters; it was human beings who did this. One of the issues to think about is what brought them to that.”

The views from the watch tower.
The views from the watch tower.

It almost seems like an impossible question to answer, certainly an idea that’s difficult to process. Maisie Hammond, 17, from Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, describes it as “incomprehensible”.

“It’s incomprehensible, you can’t really piece it together until you’re actually here,” she said, as our group makes its way through Birkenau.

“I think the most eye-opening moment was when we were going through the gas chambers. It was really harrowing to be in that environment, knowing that so many people had died in that same place.”

Classmate Charlotte Hampshaw, 18, said: “Being in the same place that so many people died, it’s hard to get your head around at the moment.”

“We learnt about the Nazis and what they did for coursework in Year 8, but coming here and learning about the Jewish individuals before the war puts a different perspective on it. It’s surreal.”

Auschwitz 1.
Auschwitz 1.

Speaking to students shows that the project is succeeding in educating the next generation as to what happens when racism, intolerance and anti-Semitism is allowed to thrive.

The day ended with a poignant candle lighting upon the train tracks running through the centre of the complex, and an impassioned speech from London rabbi Andrew Shaw.

It was a fitting way to end a day of education and reflection, one that those who attended will never forget.

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