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Camden pupils visit Auschwitz for a lesson they will never forget

PUBLISHED: 16:46 27 January 2016 | UPDATED: 00:56 08 February 2016

Emily Gray (second right),  a student at South Hampstead High School, surveys the entrance to Auschwitz I concentration camp (Picture Credit Yakir Zur)

Emily Gray (second right), a student at South Hampstead High School, surveys the entrance to Auschwitz I concentration camp (Picture Credit Yakir Zur)

Yakir Zur - YZ Photography

As ceremonies take places across the borough to mark Holocaust memorial day 2016, we reflect on a visit made by sixth formers from Camden to Auschwitz, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.

The pile of shoes taken from prisonersThe pile of shoes taken from prisoners

Subdued and thoughtful, secondary school students from Camden and Barnet 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 students 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.

Group of sixth formers from Regents College and Le Swap schoolGroup of sixth formers from Regents College and Le Swap school

As they walk through an iron gate emblazoned with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes

you free), A-level history students from South Hampstead High School, in Maresfield Gardens, 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.

Emily Gray said:“ I think coming here should be compulsory for every school-it’s only once you come here that you can understand it. Just seeing it makes you realize how scary it is. It’s the whole philosophy, everything based on evil and a plan to dehumanise Jews”

She believes the lessons are essential for the Syrian refugee crisis. “It makes you think of immigration that’s happening now and being here is a big lesson of how not to deal with other people.’’

AuschwitzAuschwitz

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.

After the students walk through a gas chamber, which at the peak of 1944 claimed the lives of 2,000 prisoners an hour through the use of the noxious chemical Zyklon B, and the “reception” area where new arrivals had their clothes and belongings taken, their heads shaved and a number stamped onto their skin, they are faced with a wall of photographs.

They are the family photographs of prisoners before the war, at parties, on a beach and at happy occasions.

Ionia Sofer-Yadgaroff said: “It’s been very moving. It’s become all the more real than learning about it from a history textbook.’’

Ionia, whose own parents had fled the persecution of Jews in Iraq in the fifties said: “You always hear the number six million, but seeing hair, shoes, objects. It makes you realise it’s six million individuals.”

“This is a lesson on how not to repeat history.”

A two-minute coach journey away at Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp, students from La Swap sixth Form college and Henrietta Barnet school are walking in the bitter cold between row upon row of drafty wooden dormitories used to house up to 800 prisoners in disease-ridden conditions, often three or more to a bunk.

The students are shocked 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.

Eden Lunghy, from La Swap, said: “The horror of this can never come across in text books. It is so real when you come here and see for yourself.”

Her classmate Ahmad Habbouchi added: “It is so bad that humans did this to other humans.’’

Walking along the ominous train tracks stretching for miles through the centre of the death

camp, students are asked to imagine the feelings of prisoners who stepped out of the cramped, squalid cattle wagons to find themselves in Birkenau.

One 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.”

A two-minute coach journey away at Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp, students from Le Swap sixth Form college and Henrietta Barnet school are 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.

The students are shocked 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.

Edun Lunghy, from Le Swap, said: “The horror of this can never come across in text books. It is so real when you come here to see for yourself.”

Her classmate Ahmad Habbouchi added: “It is bad that humans did this to other humans.

After walking along the ominous train tracks stretching for miles through the centre of the death camp, 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.

They were then shaved, deloused and their names replaced by numbered tattoos in a process which was said to “dehumanize” them.

The final room 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.”

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