Fife Free Press Group senior reporter Debbie Clarke joined a group of school pupils from Fife as they travelled to Poland as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the former concentration camp at Auschwitz.
At first look it is hard to imagine this was the place where hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, forced into work and tortured by the Nazis during the Second World War.
But the reality of what happened quickly hits home as you walk through the wrought iron gates featuring the slogan “work sets you free”. Ahead lies rows of brick buildings where prisoners were forced to live in terrible conditions.
Today the barracks are used to showcase exhibits such as photographs of those who worked in the camps, the prisoners’ personal items as well as the glass displays which I had heard about before I went. However, seeing what was behind the glass window first hand is very different to hearing about it.
I was moved by the mountains of suitcases which had the names of their owners painted on them and the human hair - more than seven tonnes of it - which was shaved from the women prisoners to turn into rugs.
But for me the most shocking exhibit was the shoes - thousands of them piled on top of each other. It was also the little shoes and baby clothes that triggered an emotional reaction from some of the students I was with. It is just so hard to believe the horror that took place - that the Nazis could treat other human beings in the way they did.
Trying to humanise the unspeakable atrocities which happened at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau nearly 70 years ago is one of the main aims of the Holocaust Educational Trust. Every year it runs about 17 trips to Poland for sixth year pupils from schools all over the UK. On the most recent trip I joined pupils from Buckhaven, Glenrothes, Glenwood, Madras College, Kirkcaldy and Balwearie High Schools.
The visit is part of an educational package called “Lessons from Auschwitz” which is funded by the UK government. Students are taught the lessons that prejudice in any form whether it be anti-semitism, racial intolerance or homophobia cannot be tolerated. The hope is they will then take those lessons back to their schools and spread the message across their communities.
Our first stop of the day was a Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Oswiecim - which was later renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis. It once had a huge Jewish population but today not a single Jew lives there. On visiting the cemetery we saw the grave of the last Jew from the town, Szymon Kluger who died in 2000. Afterwards we were transported by coach to Auschwitz I where our knowledgeable guide took us round the barracks explaining what had happened in the camp a few decades ago. As well as the exhibits, it was also chilling to visit a gas chamber and crematorium on site which had once been used to dispose of the bodies.
At the outbreak of war in 1939 the occupying forces moved into Oswiecim destroying its synagogues and forcing Jews out of their homes. Many were sent to labour camps but hundreds were forced to convert existing army barracks into a concentration camp.
Following their arrival at Auschwitz, the inmates were fooled into thinking they were going for a shower but as soon as they were inside the deadly Zyklon B gas was pumped into the chamber rendering it silent in 20 minutes.
Rabbi Barry Marcus told us that Auschwitz I is all about what you see, while Auschwitz II/Birkenau is about what you don’t see. By 1941 Auschwitz I was supplemented by Auschwitz II, the main extermination site. The landscape appeared barren beyond the large watchtower with the exception of the row of barracks and the railroad which had led so many people - men, women and children - to their death.
It felt very real looking at one of the cattle wagons that was used to carry prisoners and standing in the same spot where Nazi officers had separated families deciding who should live and who should die.
We were shown ruins of gas chambers the Nazis had destroyed in an attempt to cover up any evidence and you were left imagining the horror of it. We also visited a warehouse building where thousands of prisoners had once stood before being stripped of their belongings.
As well as seeing some of the prisoners’ items, found when the camp was liberated, the most poignant room for me was the last one. It had a display featuring hundreds of personal photographs - each one brought to the camp by prisoners. It brought it home more than anything else that they were ordinary people like you and I.
It made you realise that although it is estimated that between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they should be remembered as individuals and not just as a number.
Rachel Savage (16), Madras College
“I think the most important lesson from the trip is to never forget what happened.”
Caitlin Davidson (17), Balwearie High
“I found the hardest part was going into one of the gas chambers where so many people lost their lives. We are able to walk in and then walk out again and go home but for so many they didn’t have a choice.”
Pauline Abbie (16) and Dom Curran (17),Buckhaven High
“It makes you realise how important the value of human life is. You should treat every moment like it’s your last because you never know what could happen.”
Kirsty Souter (16), Madras College
“It was shocking to see the shoes and the hair and the baby clothes on display. Seeing it right in front of you makes it more real.”