Walking in the footsteps of the dead at Auschwitz

Katharine Willett, Will Telford and Sarah Young from St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Picture by James Willoughby.
Katharine Willett, Will Telford and Sarah Young from St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Picture by James Willoughby.

Reporter James Willoughby joined students from the North East, including pupils from Cramlington Learning Village and Bedlington’s St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy, on a day-trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, in Poland, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project.

It is the most powerful of history lessons, walking in the footsteps of the dead, setting foot in a place synonymous with suffering, brutality and mass murder.

Each visitor affected in their own way, trying to comprehend how such atrocities can be committed, attempting to work out what drives humanity to unimaginable depths of hatred and destruction.

Words, perhaps, can’t do it justice, simply because they are unable to convey the true horror of the Nazi German death camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau – graveyards of an incomprehensible scale and stage to one of the grimmest chapters in history.

More than a million Jews were slain at these hell holes, while thousands upon thousands of Poles, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war were also murdered here.

It’s a shocking statistic which makes a mockery of the Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) sign above the gates of Auschwitz I; a cruelly ironic motto, almost taunting those who dared to believe it.

But the true horror lurks beyond the camp’s entrance. One of the most disturbing aspects is the vast collection of prisoners’ personal belongings on show. A mass of shoes, hair, artificial limbs, glasses, suitcases and children’s possessions are just some of the items on display. It is sickening.

Evidence of evil is everywhere. Take Block 11, for example. The camp jail was a place of terror. For some time it held the special unit of prisoners employed to burn the bodies of the dead. In the basement were punishment cells where prisoners were subjected to death by starvation and suffocation.

The nearby gas chamber and crematorium, where thousands were exterminated, is chilling. A specially-built Death Wall, used for execution by shooting, is further evidence that murder would have been all around. Today, tributes are placed in front of the structure.

Death, suffering and brutality was not confined to Auschwitz I. The huge site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is 3km down the road. It’s overwhelming in size.

The site’s entrance, the gate house, is foreboding and the notorious train tracks pass through it. Trains rolled through this gate, day and night, bringing thousands of victims to be gassed at the four Birkenau gas chambers.

Inside the camp is the railroad siding where unfortunate souls exited from the trains and the selection process took place; those fit to work were allowed to live, until they inevitably died of disease or overwork. The others were sent to one of the four gas chambers at the far end of the camp.

Despite the gas chambers being nothing more than ruins today, they still provide a gruesome insight into the unimaginable atrocities which occurred here, just over 70 years ago.

The horror of Auschwitz was not lost on the students who made the trip to Poland last Thursday.

Among those to visit were Annya Henderson, Charlotte Burn, Daniel Newberry and Jack Stokoe from Cramlington Learning Village, and Sarah Young, Will Telford and teacher Katharine Willett from St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy in Bedlington.

Daniel, 18, described it as harrowing but insightful, while Charlotte, 17, admitted that she cried her eyes out during the day, adding; “You just can’t comprehend what went on.”

Annya, 17, said the true power of Auschwitz had not yet sunk it, while Jack, 17, described the day as a great experience.

Will, 17, said that he has been left with more answers than questions, but admitted the trip made him appreciate how lucky he is, while Sarah, 17, described Auschwitz as eye-opening.