CLUTCHING our candles in the dusk of an early October evening, we slowly made our way along the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
With the so-called gates of death visible in the distance, we were acutely aware that we were in the exact spot where more than a million people had ended their final journey over half a century before.
A group of 200 or so teenagers from north east schools had just attended a ceremony by the Holocaust memorial at the infamous death camp after spending a day learning about one of the most shameful periods in European history.
I was fortunate enough to join them on a Holocaust Educational Trust-organised day trip to Poland last week as part of the organisation’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.
That morning, after an hour-long coach journey from the airport at Krakow, we arrived in the town of Oswiecim – or Auschwitz, as the Germans renamed it.
More than half of the town’s population was once made up of Jews, but after the war, very few survivors returned, and its last know Jewish resident, Holocaust survivor Shimshon Kluger, died in 2000.
We were shown his grave in Oswiecim’s Jewish cemetery, where gravestones – removed to pave the streets of the town – had been returned to the site.
The students had all attended an orientation seminar prior to the trip and met a Holocaust survivor to prepare them for what they were to see.
At the Auschwitz museum, we were shown the conditions in which prisoners – not just Jews, but also political opponents, the disabled, homosexuals and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis – were kept.
We were led through the death chambers and shown photographs of families – taken the moment they were separated from each other on the train platform.
We had been warned that the day would be both physically and emotionally exhausting and that we might all react differently to things that we would see.
Around 1.2 million people died here. The sheer scale of that slaughter is difficult to comprehend, and it is easy to get lost in the numbers.
For me, what brought home the sheer horror of what happened here was entering a room containing a huge glass display housing almost 2,000kg of hair cut from the dead. There were displays of children’s pigtails and plaits still bound together with hairbands.
For others in my group, it was the wall of death in a courtyard between the prison blocks, where thousands were lined up and shot, or the collection of children’s clothes and shoes.
Later in the day, we travelled the short distance to the second, bigger camp of Birkenau – or Auschwitz II.
By the ruins of the crematoria, we were shown photographs of bodies being burned at the same spot where we stood.
We were taken to an exhibition of hundreds of photographs found among the belongings of those tricked into the gas chambers in the belief there were going to have a shower, before being slowly suffocated.
The photographs were poignant displays of family occasions – happy, smiling people celebrating births, weddings and birthdays – which put faces to the statistics.
They helped give everyone food for thought at the ceremony led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, during which he urged us all to pass on the message to never forget what happened here.
Speaking to me after the trip, student Liam Lavery said he planned to share his experience with fellow pupils back home at Ashington High School.
The 18-year-old said: “I think it was possibly the biggest experience I’ve had anywhere. It was absolutely horrendous, the worst place I’ve ever been in my life.
“What got to me the most were the kids’ barracks. That was horrible.
“I just can’t stop thinking about it – what I’ve seen there, how bad it was.
“I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t realise quite how bad it was.
“And the selection point – that was horrendous. It was such a fine line between life and death.”
Liam’s father, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery also went along on the trip to Poland.
He said: “It was a harrowing experience. It’s something I think that everyone who gets the opportunity should go and see – to learn about the history of how it happened and how it can possibly happen again.
“It was only 70 years ago, and that’s quite frightening. I had, of course, read about it and felt I was fairly clued up on the subject, but to actually be there in Auschwitz-Birkenau – to realise they were actually in the process of building another two huge extermination camps – is just so frightening it’s unbelievable.
“I think this is a great scheme that should be extended so that even more young people get the opportunity to see it.”