STUDENTS from Stafford, Stone and Penkridge got a history lesson they will never forget when a charity took them to the place where more than a million people died at the hands of the Nazis.
The Holocaust Educational Trust has been organising school and college visits to the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland for 15 years.
On Wednesday students from Stafford Grammar School, Alleyne’s Academy in Stone and Wolgarston High School in Penkridge joined other teenagers from across the West Midlands for a one-day trip to the camp, an hours’ drive from Krakow.
I joined the teens and educators for a thought-provoking lesson that has far-reaching consequences for everyone if it is forgotten.
THE ENTRANCE gate at Auschwitz I tells entrants that work brings freedom – “Arbeit Macht Frei”. It is a cruel irony, as our guide explains, because the freedom it brought to most of its entrants was death.
I first heard the words arbeit macht frei when I was 14 in a song by Manic Street Preachers called The Intense Humming of Evil. A reflection on the Holocaust, it is not easy listening.
The industrial harshness of the music is unsettling, leaves you with a queasy feeling in your stomach. It proved an apt introduction to what I was to experience on our visit to concentration camp Auschwitz and neighbouring death camp Birkenau – often known as Auschwitz II.
The majority of those who died in the concentration and death camps, through disease, exhaustion, execution, lethal injection or gassing, were of Jewish origin. But many others who met their fate in Auschwitz – whether it was forced work, death or both – were taken there for other reasons or backgrounds, such as being members of the gipsy or Roma groups, gay or political prisoners – often those who had spoken out against the Nazi regime, or were deemed a threat.
But the Jews were the group the Nazis were most determined to erase from the world’s memory, through mass extermination.
They even wanted to remove the memorials of Jews who had died before the occupation, as our visit to a Jewish cemetery in the neighbouring town of Oswiecim showed.
Many gravestones were removed by the Nazis, and used as paving slabs. This is the first sobering thought of the day, as I watch the students reverently walk around the cemetery viewing the Hebrew inscriptions and symbols on the stones that survived.
Before the Nazi occupation of Poland Oswiecim was home to around 12,000 people – 58 per cent of them Jewish.
There were numerous synagogues and Jewish councillors serving alongside Christians on the town council.
But after the Second World War ended just a handful of Jews returned – that’s a similar figure to the entire population of Gnosall and Woodseaves (recorded in the 2011 Census) disappearing, or just over a third of Stone people never coming back to the town.
Nowadays there are no Jews living in Oswiecim. The last one was Szymon Kluger, a Holocaust survivor who returned to his home town and lived there until his death in 2000. He now rests in a beautiful memorial in the Jewish cemetery.
The countryside surrounding Oswiecim and Auschwitz-Birkenau is also beautiful. Serene trees flank Birkenau, while moments of quiet reflection are punctuated by the optimistic sound of birdsong.
Those trees were also enjoyed by the children who came here with their parents in the 1940s, we are told. The youngsters played amongst the trees while their parents waited patiently in line for the “shower” they were all to take before they moved into the camp.
On entering the “shower block” they were asked to strip. There were numbered pegs for them to place their clothes on and they were asked to remember their numbers.
The deceit only became apparent when they moved into the “shower room”. Hundreds of people, crammed naked into the room, were not greeted by water but by Zyklon B, a cyanide based gas, which stops the circulation of oxygen through the body.
Before the Nazis honed its use to murder fellow humans it was employed in pest control. But walking through the grounds of Auschwitz Birkenau it is clear that the Jews – and other victims – were viewed as pests too.
The Auschwitz I site, where we were greeted by the Arbiet Macht Frei proclamation, is more like a vast industrial estate than the forced residency of around 15,000 prisoners at a time.
Rows and rows of austere brick buildings, linked by yards where prisoners would have been forced to stand to attention in roll calls for hours at an end.
Inside the walls, since repainted, were dingy shades of brown. There were heaters, but no fuel to put in them for the prisoners shivering, sick and exhausted, during the harsh Polish winter.
The Nazis did not acknowledge humanity here. But in modern times there are poignant traces of humanity displayed in some of the buildings, which house an exhibition which educates visitors on the dark days of the regime.
There are piles and piles of hair, shaved from the heads of women entering Auschwitz, which would have been sold on to the textile industry for less than 50p a kg.
There are also suitcases, many inscribed with the names, addresses and dates of birth of their owners, taken from the camp entrants along with their identities.
The piles of fashionable women’s shoes, and men’s grooming kits, show they had no idea they were travelling to their deaths. Instead they thought they were being asked to relocate – and relocation away from the ghettoes many were forced into by the Nazis was no worse a prospect at that point - or so they thought.
It is a moving experience for us to see the names and possessions. Students who were earlier chattering as they waited to enter the site are now stunned into silence.
One lad looks shell-shocked as he views a tiny knitted jumper once owned by someone’s beloved baby son, while another is close to tears as he hears how camp newcomers were told of their fate.
The thing that hits me most is seeing the pictures, taken at the camp, of the prisoners when they entered. Those destined for hard labour were photographed, those directed straight to the gas chambers were not.
Their occupations and ages are listed, alongside the dates of their arrivals, and the dates of their deaths, sometimes just days apart. Many of the men are listed as shoe makers or farm owners and I think of Stafford, with its shoe factories of the early 20th century, and the local farmers I have met during my work at the Newsletter.
They are snapped in their prison uniforms – striped shirts and trousers for men, striped dresses for women. But despite the humiliating outfits their spirits shine out.
Some are bewildered, some are defiant. One sticks out because she is half smiling – the expression of a sunny-natured person who has no idea what is about to happen to her.
Her name is Maria Jelinkova. She is 33, just three years older than me. I think of the stylish white sandals I saw in the room before – she could have worn them to go dancing. And the pretty pink summer dress in the next room she could have donned to stroll through a park on a sunny day, perhaps pushing a pram containing her precious first born son or daughter.
Then I see the dates at the bottom of the picture and my heart sinks – she survived just two months at Auschwitz.
Another harrowing sight is Block 11 – the building where prisoners were tortured. In the basement there are tiny cells, no more than a metre square in size.
They were not intended for one person however, but four, given a punishment where they were made to stand up for hours on end, often after completing a gruelling day’s work of 11 hours or more. Death from exhaustion was all too often the result.
Auschwitz I was also where the initial experimentation, and development, of industrial genocide by gassing took place. But the final destination of many arrivals in the later stages of the Holocaust was over at Birkenau.
Through the gates led the railway track – a central destination for European rail services. Trains pulled dozens of carriages at a time, like freight carriers, and their occupants were packed in like animals for days on end, having been made to pay for their own train tickets.
On arrival at Birkenau newcomers were ordered left or right. Right led straight to the gas chambers, while left led to likely death in the slave labour camp.
There was accommodation for 90,000, but it was not designed for comfort. Prisoners slept in drafty wooden shacks, originally built for horses, and could only use the toilets with the permission of guards.
At the end of the Birkenau tour we are invited to view a display of photographs, taken from the victims on their arrival. They were treasured possessions, reminders of family and friends in happier times.
A smiling woman, possibly a bride, raises a glass of wine toasting the special occasion like so many modern-day photos you see on social networking sites. A girl, pictured with other family members, has fair hair and pigtails just like I did at her age.
It is all the faces and all the names that I take time to remember as we pause for reflection at a memorial ceremony, held in Birkenau as the sun goes down. A Jewish prayer, sung in Hebrew, brings tears to my eyes as I think of those who would have sought comfort and strength in those sacred words.
As I lay my candle on the railway track, while dozens of others to the same and illuminate the darkness, I think of Maria – a woman I have never met, but, alongside her fellow victims, I must never forget.
Putting names and faces to what is all too often portrayed as just numbers brings home how we should remember Holocaust victims as individuals. Among the “statistics” were mothers, fathers, children and friends. Ordinary people, special people to those who knew and loved them.
We must all remember the lessons we learned at Auschwitz, for the sake of the victims, our contemporaries and future generations. Most of all we must remember what happens when prejudice clouds our dealings with fellow human beings and goes unchecked.