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Shadow of death all around as Redbridge students visit Auschwitz

PUBLISHED: 16:30 18 October 2016 | UPDATED: 08:15 19 October 2016

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign, 'work sets you free', still looms large over Auschwitz I. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign, 'work sets you free', still looms large over Auschwitz I. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA

PA Archive/Press Association Images

There are no Jews in Oswiecim today, the Polish town once known to the Germans as Auschwitz.

Students gathered at the main entrance to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Picture: grahamsimages.com Students gathered at the main entrance to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Picture: grahamsimages.com

Having arrived six centuries ago, Jewish people made up a majority of the settlement’s population in 1939.

They are gone now because almost every single one of them became a victim of the invading Nazis – raped, enslaved, starved, shot, hanged, gassed, abandoned – after they converted their town into the global capital of human slaughter during the Second World War.

Between May 1940 and January 1945, an estimated 1.1 million people – 90 per cent of them Jews – were murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, the equivalent of 20 packed-out Olympic Stadiums of confused toddlers, anxious mothers and exhausted fathers.

Remembering this cataclysm, which was part of a killing campaign that cut short 11 million lives, is one of the main aims of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).

A general view of the gallows at Auschwitz I camp. The gallows were built in 1947 to hang SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA A general view of the gallows at Auschwitz I camp. The gallows were built in 1947 to hang SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA

On Thursday, the trust took almost 200 students – from schools including Chadwell Heath Academy and Mayfield, Woodbridge and Trinity Catholic schools – to Auschwitz for a one-day trip designed to pass on the lessons of the Holocaust.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Kishen Sedani, 17, of Chadwell Heath Academy.

“We have to be conscious in our actions because if we don’t learn from this, from history, then who are we going to learn from?”

The students were flown into Krakow before a coach drove them to Auschwitz’s old Jewish cemetery, the concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and finally the Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II).

Piles of shoes taken from Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Piles of shoes taken from Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

At the cemetery, the students – aged from 16 to 18 – were shown how the town’s ancient Jewish community had lived “side by side” with Catholic neighbours for centuries.

“One of the town’s two synagogues was right next door to the church,” said Andrew Date, an educator at HET. “Before the Jews became victims, they lived very normal lives – it’s crucial to remember that.”

At Auschwitz I, the students heard how the prisoners were transported to the camps – often tricked into buying a “ticket” to begin what they thought was a new life – and then tattooed, photographed and robbed.

Soon, however, the number of arrivals grew to such a level that photographs were abandoned and newcomers murdered within hours.

Students at the Auschwitz I camp. Picture: grahamsimages.com Students at the Auschwitz I camp. Picture: grahamsimages.com

Seeing the piles of hair – shaved from women’s and girls’ heads as they arrived, much of it still plaited – hit the teenagers hard. But for Kishen, the most affecting moment was walking inside a gas chamber.

“I could feel a presence,” he said. “I could feel the sorrow and death.”

Georgia Adkins, 17, also from Chadwell Heath Academy, called the experience “a complex one”.

“It was very informative and emotional, but I found it wasn’t what was seen and heard that affected me the most, but what was unseen and unheard at the time and after.”

Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

The students finally gathered around Rabbi Barry Marcus as he delivered a sermon on the lessons to be learned from the slaughter.

“‘The valley of the shadow of death’ in many ways describes the world we are in right now,” he said, after reading Psalm 23.

“If we observed a minute’s silence for each of the people killed here, we wouldn’t speak for two years.

“They were born into the wrong faith and that was why they ended up here. Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

A general view of the 'Death Wall' where prisoners were shot at Auschwitz I camp. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA A general view of the 'Death Wall' where prisoners were shot at Auschwitz I camp. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA

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The concentration camps

- Germany’s first concentration camps were set up soon after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January 1933, to house real and perceived opponents to the Nazis.

- In 1937, there were four formal camps – Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Lichtenburg. Rudolf Höss was one of Dachau’s early trainee guards. He went on to command the Auschwitz camp system.

- At the time of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, there were six concentration camps in the “Greater German Reich” including Ravensbruck, the Nazis’ largest women-only camp.

- There were also female guards, including the “beautiful beast of Belsen” Irma Grese, hanged for her horrific crimes. Survivor testimony indicates many prisoners found the women to be “as monstrous as the men”.

- Chelmno was the first killing facility to begin “operations”, in December 1941.

- The war’s final year saw huge numbers of prisoners die due to starvation, exposure, disease and mistreatment. Thousands suffered brutal winter marches as the Allies’ advance led to camp evacuations.

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