‘You can’t read it in any textbook’: Camden teens visit Auschwitz death camps ahead of 70th anniversary

Auschwitz-Birkenau and the infamous railway line. Picture: Yakir Zur

Auschwitz-Birkenau and the infamous railway line. Picture: Yakir Zur - Credit: Archant

Between 1942 and 1945, the network of forced labour and extermination camps known as Auschwitz was at the centre of the Nazi Party’s so-called “final solution”, the mass extermination of Jewish people across Europe.

Ellen Cusack and Millie Kersey, of La Sainte Union School, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur

Ellen Cusack and Millie Kersey, of La Sainte Union School, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur - Credit: Archant

More than one million Jews were murdered on an incomprehensible scale in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with thousands of others, including Poles and Roma travellers.

All that remains of those underground killing bunkers are two piles of collapsed concrete, the result of their destruction by Nazi officers days before the camp was liberated nearly 70 years ago in January 1945.

“Keep the memory alive” is the theme for January’s Holocaust Memorial Day to commemorate the anniversary – as it was on October 1, when sixth-form pupils at Camden secondary schools made the trip to Poland to see first-hand the place where unspeakable atrocities were committed during mankind’s darkest hour.

“To see the conditions they were living in, you can’t read that in any textbook,” said Ellen Cusack, of La Sainte Union School in Dartmouth Park. “We need to remember the victims and understand that they were humans,” the 16-year-old, of Cromwell Avenue, Highgate, added.

Efe Calim, of UCL Academy, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur

Efe Calim, of UCL Academy, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Picture: Yakir Zur - Credit: Archant


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Her friend, Millie Kersey, 16, also of La Sainte Union School, said: “Until I came here, I didn’t realise the extent of it. Even coming here, we will never fully understand what those people went through, but coming here provides a better understanding.”

Ellen and Millie were among more than 200 students from across north London who were flown into Auschwitz by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), which has provided partly government-funded trips to the camps for sixth-formers since 1999.

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Family photos

The infamous gate at Auschwitz I greeting visitors with the motto: Work makes you free. Picture: Yak

The infamous gate at Auschwitz I greeting visitors with the motto: Work makes you free. Picture: Yakir Zur - Credit: Archant

It is the trust’s view that “hearing is not like seeing”, a motto upheld by the pupils as they walk in solemn silence around foggy Birkenau and Auschwitz I, the first camp opened by the Nazis.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of HET, said: “The Lessons from Auschwitz Project is a vital part of our work, allowing young people to learn about the Holocaust in a way they cannot in the classroom.”

The group was first taken to Osweicim, translated as Auschwitz in German, a town whose Jewish population has gone from nearly 60 per cent to zero since the Second World War.

From there they journeyed to Auschwitz I, passing through the infamous gate with the camp motto immortalised in steel: “arbeit mach frei”: work makes you free.

Human hair from women shaved on entry, tiny pairs of children’s shoes, blue pans used for Kosher cooking, and other personal items belonging to victims are piled high in exhibits at the former army barracks taken over by the Nazis in 1940.

Millie, of Grafton Road, Gospel Oak, applied for the trip so she could share the moving experience with her Jewish Palestinian-born grandma, who is physically unable to make the journey herself.

“Seeing everything like their sets of keys just shows these were normal people and how this can happen to anyone,” she said.

As the group arrived at the foreboding entrance to Birkenau and walked along the railway line which took cartloads of people to their deaths, the tour guide spoke about the topsy-turvy world of the camps, where cleaning toilets became a privileged job because it meant shelter from the cold during the freezing -25C winters.

One barrack revealed a display of family photos showing couples on their wedding day, grandparents sleeping in chairs and children smiling, brought into the camps among the small collections of treasured possessions by Jewish victims.

They resonated strongly with Efe Calim, 18, of UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage.

“They lived similar lives to what I have,” said Efe, of Harrow Road, Maida Vale, said. “The trip has given me a more intimate view of what actually happened, rather than just seeing it in a book.

“A scene in a film can be changed, but you can’t change the conditions that were here.”

The trip ended with a candle-light vigil led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, of Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street.

He told the students: “The way forward is to educate, and that’s why your presence here is so important.”

As part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, pupils will now attend a follow-up seminar to reflect on their experiences.

n For more information, visit het.org.uk.

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