Auschwitz is cold. The biggest camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was built by the Nazis on farmland the size of seven villages, and the high barbed wire fences are little shelter from the unforgiving Polish winds. Thick white mist cloaks the place, and within five minutes of stepping off the coaches our bones are aching from the chill.
History We must never forget.
By Chloe Lambert
Recreated here with kind permission from the Wandsworth Borough News (originally printed November 14th 2007)
In thick woollen coats, scarves, and hats, a group of South London school children silently survey the site where 1.3 million people perished.
They flew here as part of a national scheme that sends two children from every school in Britain to visit Auschwitz, to see for themselves the incredible atrocities that took place under Nazi Germany just 60 years ago.
The children look out across the remains of 300 wooden stables in which as many as 90,000 people were kept by 1944. Most were burnt down by the Germans as the Nazi empire collapsed, but their layout in a grid of perfect lines, can still be seen.
“Look at all that land,” says 16-year-old Hamza Zaveri from Ernest Bevin College. “Think how many crops could have been grown there. Instead..this is architecture designed for extermination.”
Aristides Bernard-Grau, a sixth former from Graveney School in Tooting, says: "It renders you speechless. To think someone, somewhere planned all this and thought - this is how it's going to happen."
We are taken along a muddy track into one of the barracks, and the biting cold follows us in. Each barrack was meant for 52 horses, but the Nazis kept 200 people here, we are told - two to a bed in wooden bunks.
Birkenau means 'where birch trees grow'. The bare branches of the trees make black silhouettes on the horizon at the back of the camp. There, at the end of the railway line, is the harrowing sight of the shower rooms, the shaving rooms and the gas chambers.
We walk along the railtrack and stop at the point where cattletrucks carrying thousands of Jewish families arrived, having been promised a new life with land and jobs. Instead, here their fates were sealed by the flick of a Nazi doctor’s hand. Fathers and husbands were sent to work and mothers, children, the elderly and the ill were marched the other way, to the end of the railtrack. The children follow in their steps, to a place where no one returned from.
We are deep inside Auschwitz now, the sun is setting and the sky is turning a thunderous dark grey. Looking back we can see the gloomy orange lights of the towering entrance.
The group wanders the dimly lit rooms where so many thousands spent their last moments.
In the last one, they find a huge display of photographs, taken from the Jews by the Germans when they arrived here. The youngsters are fixated on the pictures, which show smiling groups of teenagers by rivers and parks, couples on their wedding days and newborn babies.
“It’s fascinating,” one girl whispers to her friends. “They had lives, they had families before all this.”
Outside, Graveney pupil Shahailya Stephenson stands in the cold and reflects. “I always thought the Nazis were inhuman and had no heart, but this made me realise they were human,” she says. “They had been brainwashed. It’s frightening. If you teach people from a very young age to think a certain way, they will believe it.”
It is late afternoon now and we gather together as a group next to the crematoria under the pitch black sky. The young people read poems out loud, and for a minute close their eyes and pay a silent tribute to all those who died here. Each child lights a candle and places it on the railtrack as we walk back out together, some in pairs, but many walking alone, staring down.
Then we are back in the warmth of the coach, whizzing past the brightly lit windows of Polish homes.
Abdussalam Wali, 16, Ernest Bevin pupil: “It’s a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve learned that everyone had their own story. They weren’t just statistics and numbers. The perpetrators and the victims were just like us. We learn science, chemistry, biology and technology and pretend it’s going to save us but most of the time it’s used as a bad thing.
Hamza Zaveri, 16, Ernest Bevin pupil: “This is history, but history has repeated itself in Darfur and in Bosnia. Without understanding your history you don’t know where you came from or where you’re going. It’s made me think about standing up to your oppressors.”
Sadiq Khan, Tooting MP: “As a father with two young children, I was particularly disturbed by the numbers of children killed in Auschwitz. The meticulous planning and construction of concentration camps and death camps, less than 65 years ago and on our doorstep, demonstrates to me not just the evils of Nazism, but the importance of honouring the memories of the victims by never forgetting this man-made holocaust. I am afraid that events more recently in Bosnia and Rwanda show that there is still a great deal to be learnt.”
Jim Knight, Schools minister: “Nothing can really prepare you for the vastness of Auschwitz and the dreary darkness that it sits in. There was a quote on the wall of one of the buildings that read 'those who forget history are doomed to repeat it'. That is why we fund these trips to Auschwitz and why the Holocaust is a compulsory part of the history curriculum in schools.”
Shahailya Stephenson, 17, Graveney pupil: “The deceit, to tell someone they were going to a new life, is incomprehensible. But it’s almost inspiring. It made me think about studying, and why I’m doing it. We do it to make sure things like this never happen again.”
Aristides Bernard-Grau, 19, Graveney pupil: “ I think I'll wake up tomorrow a changed person. I came here a blank page and left with lots of moral questions in my head. It makes you ask, what is the human heart capable of?”
Auschwitz was established by the Nazis in 1940 in the suburbs of Oswiecim, Poland. The mass arrests of Poles under their regime meant local prisons were full beyond capacity, and Auschwitz initially functioned as one of many concentration camps.
The location was chosen because of its central place in the German empire, and soon the Nazis expanded Auschwitz to an enormous scale and deported people there from almost all of Europe. It was composed of a main camp, Auschwitz I, where 15,000 prisoners were kept, and the larger Birkenau camp which was built in 1941. Here the Nazis built large extermination apparatus, used to murder large numbers of people and dispose of the bodies. Many others were forced to work in extremely harsh conditions and died from exhaustion, starvation and beatings.
The overall number of victims of Auschwitz in the years 1940-1945 is estimated at between 1.1m and 1.5m people. The majority of them, and above all the mass transports of Jews who began arriving in 1942, died in the gas chambers.