Brent pupils travel to Auschwitz to learn lessons of the Holocaust
- Credit: Archant
As ceremonies take places across the borough to mark Holocaust memorial day, we reflect on a visit taken by sixth formers from Brent last year to Auschwitz in a bid to learn first-hand about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Subdued and thoughtful, secondary school students from Brent file past glass cabinets overflowing with leather shoes, reading glasses, combs, clothing and suitcases; all of them come to an abrupt stop in a room filled with human hair.
They have travelled over one thousand miles to Poland to spend a day walking through the barracks and barbed wire fences of Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where an estimated 1.1 million Jewish and persecuted people died in gas chambers and hard labour at the hands of Hitler’s Nazi guards.
Many suppress tears while others look on dumbfounded as they are told the mass of hair- some still in plaits and pig tails- was shaved from the heads of murdered women and girls before they were sent for “processing” in crematoria built for the systematic extermination of Jewish people between 1940-1945.
There is silence when they are shown material woven from human hair and used in Nazi factories as hessian.
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As they walk through an iron gate emblazoned with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free), A-level history students from the Swaminarayan school in Neasden explain why they wanted to come here along with 200 students from across London as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ programme.
Ria Mehta and Adi Ladhani, both 17, tell me: “We learn about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany from text books, but we needed to come here and see it for ourselves, and for our own lives rather than just for exams. We will take back what we’ve seen to our friends.”
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Ria continues: “For me seeing all the hair was the most moving thing- I feel like I pride myself a lot on my hair and thinking about those women who had no idea what was going to happen to them, I just can’t imagine how awful it was.”
The students are led by educators from the Holocaust Educational Trust and Rabbi Garson from the Ohr Yisrael Synagogue in Elstree for a tour of exhibitions, photos and thousands of personal objects seized from Jewish, Soviet and Roma prisoners who were “disposed of” in the death camps.
Before the students enter a gas chamber- which at the peak of 1944 claimed the lives of 2,000 prisoners an hour thanks to noxious chemical Zyklon B- they are asked to reflect not only on the victims of the camp but also the mentality of the SS guards who held the power of life and death.
Philippa Megitt from the Holocaust Educational Trust says: “the biggest challenge for us is to remember the humanity of the victims but also the humanity of the perpetrators- to understand in our own way what led them to this.”
A two-minute coach journey away at Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp, Javelle Gerrald, 17, from St Gregory’s school in Woodcook Hill, Kenton is walking in the bitter cold between row upon row of drafty wooden dormitories used to shelter up to 800 people in disease-ridden conditions, often three or more to a bunk.
She reflects on the hatred that drove German dictator Adolf Hitler to precision design camps for the “extermination” of other human beings.
“I don’t really understand how one man’s ideology can consist of wiping out a whole religion. You don’t really fathom it until you’re here,” she says.
The students are taken aback when they are told that Birkenau’s crematoria- also known as ‘killing factories’- were able to kill and incinerate the bodies of up to 22,000 people a day at the height of Hitler’s calls for a “final solution to the Jewish question” in 1944.
Charlotte Jennings, 16, from St Gregory’s RC High School, is gathered with students around concrete banks of open latrines where prisoners would have 30 seconds to relieve themselves per day. She says: “I can’t believe a human did this to other humans. There was no compassion for anyone, not even babies.”
Walking along the ominous train tracks stretching for miles through the centre of the death camp, Adi Ladhani is asked to imagine the feelings of prisoners who stepped out of the cramped, squalid cattle wagons to find themselves in Birkenau.
He tells me: “It would have just been fear. No other thoughts- just pure fear.”
“But then these SS guards were also acting out of fear. They hated and feared something they could not understand.”
Haider Moosa, 16, and Christopher Ryan, 16, both from Ark Academy in Bridge Road Wembley, are walking in the shadow of the notorious SS watch tower of Birkenau.
They remark on the double lines of electrocuted barbed wire fences which were often used in suicide attempts by desperate and starving inmates.
Haider says: “I’m so glad I came here- it’s made me realize there were six million individual people, six million lives like ours.
“When they got up in the morning they didn’t know if they were going to make it to the end of the day. It must have been a parallel universe.”
Christopher, who can’t shake the image of clothes taken from babies and toddlers before they were herded into gas chambers, says: “We all need to learn from their mistakes- we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s so hard to comprehend.”
“The difference for us is that here we don’t feel impounded-we feel free.”
The students then follow the tour through a ‘reception building’ where prisoners were brought for ‘selection and assessment’ by camp doctors before being forcibly stripped of their clothing and possessions, shaved, deloused and their names replaced by numbered tattoos in a process which was said to “dehumanize” them.
The final room reanimates the group-it is filled with thousands of photos of Polish Jews who died along with their family members in gas chambers just meters from where the students are standing.
The images of vibrant men and women playing sports, wearing costumes and hamming up for the camera give students an insight into the pre-wartime lives of people like themselves who died in the holocaust- a process of “rehumanizing” countless victims.
The day is brought to an end by a ceremony of poems read by students, prayers and traditional Jewish song led by Rabbi Garson.
In a moving address, Rabbi Garson reminds the students of their new role as ‘ambassadors’ for the Holocaust Educational Trust.
He tells them: “The Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers here. It started with words; the words of one man against the Jewish people and the indifference of others to the consequences.
“This consequence of this indifference is our responsibility.”
The students will attend a follow-up seminar with the Holocaust Educational Trust in the coming weeks to discuss their experience and plan ways to communicate what they have seen to fellow students, friends and relatives.
Just before they leave, assembled around the twisted iron and crumbled red brick ruins of a blown out gas chamber, the children listen to a letter secretly written on smuggled paper by a prisoner of Auschwitz.
It describes the grinding hardship and unimaginable “hell” of life there, but is full of hope that his message will some day be read by a citizen of the “free world” who will learn from his bitter experience to make a better future.
Asked who the letter is addressed to, the students reply in unison: “Us.”