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Trafford students visit Auschwitz death camp in one-day excursion
STUDENTS from a number of Trafford schools visited Auschwitz death camp last week, a moving and insightful trip on which I was fortunate to join them.
The excursion was organised by the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’ and has so far taken more than 18,000 UK students to visit the camp as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz (LFA) project.
The ambitious one-day excursion began with a 7am flight from Manchester to Kravow, during which students were in high spirits despite their early start.
Although there were only two pupils from each school, in Trafford’s case: Altrincham College of Arts, Sale Grammar School, St. Ambrose College, Stretford Grammar School and Wellington School, students mingled easily with each other in a theme of good nature which was echoed throughout the visit.
We were first taken to the town of Auschwitz which had a population that was 58 per cent Jewish pre-war, but now, starkly, does not have a single Jewish resident.
The group was taken to the site of what was the town’s thriving Jewish quarter, which no longer exists and was significantly quiet, which gave us the opportunity to reflect on how an entire community’s memory could have been obliterated if it was not kept alive through initiatives like LFA.
After a visit to the town’s last surviving synagogue, we were taken to Auschwitz I, the first and smallest of the site’s three camps.
Auschwitz I was built before the war as a Polish army base, and was taken over by the Nazis shortly after the outbreak of the conflict and turned into a work camp.
The camp has been restored to the extent that it was hard to imagine it as a site of extermination, until we were taken inside to rooms, sickeningly large, filled with human hair, shoes and personal effects.
We were then taken to the second, and much larger camp, Auschwitz II or Birkenau.
As our trust educator aptly put it: “Auschwitz is about what’s there, Birkenau is about what isn’t.”
We were shown inside wooden baracks, originally constructed to house German army horses, which housed more than 400 prisoners in cramped and squalid conditions during the peak of World War Two.
Much of the huge camp had been destroyed by the Nazis as they fled the approaching Soviets at the end of the war, but I and many of the students in the group were struck by the massive scale and organisation of a place designed to exterminate more than 1,400 people a day.
At the end of the trip when I asked Ted Mahon, 18, of Saint Ambrose College, if Auschwitz was what he expected it to be, he said: “It was probably as solemn as I expected it to be, especially when we saw all the shoes and the hair, but nothing can really prepare you.
“It should never be forgotten how the Jews were persecuted in order for it not to happen again.”
Fellow group member, Sam Gilmour, 17, of Trafford College, said: “Films and pictures don’t portray it exactly how it is and when we learn about it at school, it’s more about the Nazis than what happened in the death camps and we don’t get to see it throught their [the Jews] eyes.”
Students will now go back to their institutions and play an ambassador role, outlining to others what they have seen and fulfilling the HET’s aim to keep the holocaust at the forefront of young people’s minds.
Karen Pollock, HET chief executive, said: "The trust’s 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.”
Visit het.org.uk for more information.