This term, Year 12 History students Mariyah Azam and Hannah Fay were selected to take part in the national ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project, which is run every year by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, the four-part course included; an orientation seminar in Leeds where participants listened to the testimony of a Holocaust Survivor, a one-day visit to Poland which included a tour of the former German Nazi extermination and concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a follow-up seminar to allow students to reflect on the visit and the impact it had on them, and a final ‘Next Steps’ project which required students to act as ‘ambassadors’ of the Trust to help educate others about the Holocaust.
As their follow-up ‘Next Steps’ activity, the students put together a display and presentation for their fellow peers. This covered their experience of the camp and focused on the lessons to be learnt from the Holocaust: the importance of challenging prejudice and promoting tolerance.
Here Mariyah gives an account of her visit:
With a 3am start, a day’s trip to Poland, to visit the German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp of Auschwitz, was bound to be challenging; not just in terms of the length of the journey or the distance covered, but having to process all the horrors revealed at the camp. Unsurprisingly then, it was not just sheer fatigue that made for an especially hard hitting, and memorable trip.
Having previously been briefed at the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ orientation conference in Leeds, it was safe to say I was filled with trepidation – after all, a visit to the world’s most poignant symbol of the Holocaust was bound to be disturbing.
The airport was teeming with teenagers from across Northern England. The faint buzz of excited chatter lasted for the majority of the journey with the aim of the trip, perhaps, momentarily forgotten; that is, until we caught our first glimpse of the infamous aging, brick barracks which were instantly recognisable from T.V, film and textbooks.
They say hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I now understand that nothing could have prepared me for the surge of overwhelming anguish I felt upon entering Auschwitz- Birkenau. Not a single resource I had ever laid eyes on came near to an accurate portrayal of the horrific sight before me.
The sheer number of people brutally murdered at the Auschwitz- Birkenau camp is a number that incites much discussion and is impossible to ever truly comprehend. Standing in front of that infamous, daunting gate and seeing the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ translated to ‘work will set you free-’ was without a doubt, the most haunting experience of my life, never to be forgotten. The twisted sense of irony that lies behind the phrase has the ability to make anyone lose faith in humanity.
It is estimated that 1.1 million Jewish men, women and children died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz’s existence – more than the total number of British and American losses in World War Two combined.
During the tour we saw the most unbelievable photographs and exhibits and were presented with numerous heart-breaking facts. But it was seeing the mountain of almost two tonnes of human hair, behind the glass display cases, that was the most devastating. The complete and utter dehumanising of innocent people: men, women and children, and the capacity of a human being to inflict such evil, was all reflected in those glass cases. cried then.
As a rule, I don’t cry much. It takes a lot to make me cry.
I thought I had been prepared for the trip, I could have sworn I was. I now realise I was extremely naïve; no amount of planning could have prepared me for what I was saw.
“I knew I was going to see the hair.” I told my mother, “I knew, but- but there was just so much.”
When the tour of Auschwitz had been completed, we took a short coach journey to the Birkenau camp. It was there that I was able to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the violent extermination process – more than by seeing pictures on the internet, reading about it in books, or even hearing about it from the Holocaust survivor at the orienteering seminar. It is just too difficult to imagine and nothing can prepare you …….. nothing like being there yourself and appreciating the fact that when it is dark and cold, you can walk out of there and leave, without a second thought. They couldn’t. That was an incredible feeling and I think we all left Birkenau with a sense of gratitude and silent vows that our generation will not, and cannot, allow such atrocities to occur again.
In the evening, there was a memorial service attended by over 150 students who united in a prayer, that echoed into the night, and lit candles that fought against the dark.
‘Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for you are with me;
Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.’
I have been asked by family and friends, even teachers, for my thoughts and feelings about the visit – but every time I try, I can never find the right words to describe how I felt standing in the death camp, crying a prayer with dozens of other teenagers.
I have come to realise that Auschwitz cannot be described, it can only be experienced.