As we silently walked along the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau we became acutely aware we were in the exact spot where millions of innocent people met their fate.
It’s a scene we will have seen before, the gates of death and the train tracks that millions thought were taking them to a new life, but were actually bringing them on the road to death.
But walking in the footsteps of millions of men, women and children who were met with unfathomable brutality and ultimately mass murder, it really brings home the sheer horror of the most shameful period in European history.
A group of 200 students from the north east travelled to the area as part of the Holocaust Educational Trusts’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.
Now in it’s 15th year, the project is based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, and gave the students the chance to visit the town of Oświęcim, renamed by the Germans to Auschwitz, where the Nazi concentration and death camp was located.
Before the war, 58 per cent of the population was Jewish, with a thriving community and Synagogues dating back hundreds of years. After the Second World War around 180 Jews returned to the town. The last Jew in Oświęcim, Shimshon Klueger, died in 2000, and now there are none.
Students then visited Auschwitz 1 to see the former camp’s barracks and crematoria, and witnessed the harrowing piles of belongings seized by the Nazis – suitcases with names and dates of births on them which would have been filled with their most prized possessions, mountains of spectacles, combs, 80,000 shoes, and two tonnes of human hair.
The now infamous and chilling ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work makes you free) adorn the entrance gate, mocking those who dared to believe it.
The pupils viewed the wall of death in a courtyard between the prison blocks, where thousands of prisoners were lined up and shot, and silently walked through the empty concrete shell which housed the camp’s first gas chamber, unable to comprehend the horror of what took place in the building they were stood.
Emily McCabe, 17, from Cramlington Learning Village, said: “It is something I know I will never forget, it will change my outlook on life.
“It was the personal items that belonged to the individuals that got to me. The children’s clothing really struck a chord as I have a younger brother and sister.”
Just 7km away lies the second Auschwitz camp, Birkenau, established in 1941 for the purpose of mass extermination.
The vast 200 hectare site is home to a wall of smiling family photographs of special occasions. The images of people who had hopes and dreams for the future, and whose lives were brutally cut short. These images are the people behind the numbers, and put faces to the statistics.
Emily added: “The photographs really humanised it for me, these were people who had plans, they had their whole lives ahead of them.”
Rabbi Barry Marcus then led a ceremony to remember the six million people who died during the Holocaust, and the pupils took part in a candle lighting on the train tracks.
Student Emily said she planned to share her experience with other pupils at her school.
“I really think this is something we should share,” he said.
“I think it is really important, as it’s different hearing it from someone of a similar age.”
Megan Hall, 17, from Astley Community High School in Seaton Delaval, said: “I feel quite overwhelmed by the whole experience.
“I never thought it would hit me as much as it did.
“The hair really got to me, and putting the faces to the facts makes it much more real.
“We learn so much from history, it is it is really important. It can’t be forgotten.”