RESPONSIBLE for the horrific deaths of 11 million people, the Holocaust remains the most sobering phase of history.
Students from Solihull and Coventry schools journeyed to Auschwitz and Observer reporter Shaun Reynolds joined them to see how the tragic events of the 1940s are still remembered.
“You didn’t visit Auschwitz, you visited Auschwitz in March 2016.”
I will never forget those words spoken by Rabbi Garson at the concluding service following a truly sobering day touring the concentration camps.
Home to millions of people during World War II, we all know the outcome of the holocaust – the pain it caused, the separation of families, the killing of men, women and children of all ages.
But it’s not until you stand in the footprints of those innocent people who were killed because of their race, belief, or way of life, that you grasp maybe just one per cent of the feeling that prisoners felt when stepping off the train.
The irony of stepping off that train, onto the platform, and inhaling your first drop of fresh air in days.
Standing on the platform, I look to my left and see an endless train line – running deep into the woods that helped the Germans disguise the true purpose of Auschwiz.
I look to my right and see the iconic building that shadows the death camp – looking forwards and backwards just fields, fields as far as the eye can see.
It’s near impossible to describe the day, the place, the feeling of standing in a spot where millions of people were once murdered.
There I was, strolling through a place that could be renovated into a nice town, a place of construction, but instead it was – and continues to be – the world’s most infamous town where millions of people were separated, murdered and used.
We first visited a graveyard in the Polish town of Olse, just a few hundred yards from Auschwitz I.
The entire graveyard is dedicated to residents from the town who lost their lives in the holocaust.
Shockingly, I was informed by history teacher Phil Shail that each headstone doesn’t reflect the person buried underneath – as the Germans used the headstones to build in the town.
It was eerie. Eerie in the sense that you knew the fate of those who died, eerie because of the trees, the low mist. It was quite remarkable.
Designed in blocks, we then visited Auschwitz I – based in the sleepy Polish town of Oswiecim, a town home to 17,000 prior to the holocaust, reduced to just 7,600 when residents were forced to leave their homes.
Now a museum, Auschwitz I is something I will never, ever, forget.
Prior to arrival, prisoners were shown images of a ‘swimming pool’ with green grass, flowers and beautiful countryside in the background – a lie which clearly worked.
Little did they know this swimming pool’s only purpose was to extinguish any fires that broke out – and lying directly next to the ‘pool’ was endless amounts of fencing, barbed wire and lookout bases to stop any prisoners escaping.
Pictures of prisoners that were killed are plastered over the walls – some lucky enough to live a couple of months, others days, the majority just hours.
A huge chamber of shoes, pans, glasses, possessions dominate my vision – it’s shocking, jaw-dropping.
I could tell some students were incredibly hesitant to enter one of the gas chambers, a place where thousands of innocent people were killed.
Chillingly, it took the Germans two days to kill the first innocent group due to a lack of knowledge in knowing how much Zyklon B to add to the chamber.
From killing hundreds in days, the Germans tweaked the quantity of Zyklon B pellets used and could now kill thousands in minutes.
We entered, and you felt an incredible sense of what those entering the chamber would’ve felt – though obviously nowhere near as terrifying or shocking.
A concrete bunker it was, just a room with plain concrete walls, a plain concrete ceiling and very claustrophobic.
For me, though, the most poignant moment came when strolling past some old ruins – that turned out to be another gas chamber.
It was incredibly boggy in the surrounding areas and my walking boots were put to the test.
However it wasn’t the ruins of building or the dampness of the land beneath my feet but simply a rose – one single white rose.
It wasn’t even propped up, not a drop of water to feed on – but it lay there next to the steps that guided hundreds of thousands of prisoners to their premature death.
A touching service was then followed by the lighting of candles – unfortunately the blowing wind put pay to the sight of candles lining the railway tracks which we all wanted to see.
But who was responsible?
“Nobody,” said Rabbi Garson, as he listed people who were following orders at the site.
“The man that waved past the first train, he’s not responsible.
“The man that unloaded the luggage, he’s not responsible.
“The man that poured the Zyklon B into the chambers, he’s not responsible.”
And he’s right.
The visit had a dramatic impact on all of us.
It’s a place of reflection, a place to remember but most of all – a place and experience to never forget.
This is what some of the pupils had to say:
Solihull School student Joseph Gilyead said he felt unnerved when walking through the gas chambers and described the day as sobering.
He added: “It was difficult to know what to expect, however I found the experience very moving.
“As I walked through the gates of Auschwitz two, the scale of the site just overwhelmed me.”
Lydia Jones Brown, also from Solihull School, said: “I’ll never forget when our tour guide said ‘If there had been grass on the floor then the prisoners would have tried to eat it’. That comment reinforced the horror of the holocaust.
“I don’t think anyone truly knows what to expect before visiting, it’s nothing you can imagine or anticipate – but I think this is a good thing.
“No photo can capture what it feels like to stand where millions were killed.
“Nothing compares to seeing millions of shoes once worn by innocent people discriminated against for their religion or other factors.”