VIDEO: Sussex students visit former Nazi death camp

Sitting on a wooden table alongside an array of family photographs and rusted jewellery, a set of house keys belonging to a man who believed he would be returning home.

For the millions of people who got on the train heading for Auschwitz-Birkenau, many did not know they were travelling to their death.

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Instead, they were simply told to pack a suitcase of their most treasured belongings - items that now provide a haunting reminder of the innocence of those who were murdered at Auschwitz.

On the eve of National Remembrance Day in Poland, students from schools across Sussex travelled to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust to see for themselves the place where unspeakable atrocities were committed during some of the darkest moments in world history.

The first stop of the day was to the town of Oswiecim, where once 58 per cent of the population was Jewish. Now, not one Jew lives there.

Rabbi Andrew Shaw delivered a moving speech inside the town’s single Synagogue, reading lyrics from a song called The Man From Vilna.

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“We ran as one towards the shul, our spirits in a trance, and we tore apart the barricade, in defiance we would dance.

“But the scene before our eyes shook us to the core - scraps of siddur, bullet holes, bloodstains on the floor.

“Turning to the eastern wall, we looked on in despair, there’d be no scrolls to dance with, the holy ark was bare. Then we heard two children crying, a boy and girl whom no one knew, and we realised that no children were among us but those two.”

The words resonated with those inside the room, for it reminded us that the horrors of those days didn’t stop with those who died, but lived on with the few survivors.

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The group then headed to Auschwitz I, where nothing could prepare them for the awful sights inside.

Here, the people behind the statistics and figures were laid bare - their photographs lined the corridors, with faces bruised and eyes hollow, and their clothes and shoes, dirty and torn, dumped in lifeless piles.

Perhaps most sickeningly was one room containing a mountain of human hair - hair that had been shaved from every man, woman and child who came through the gates of Auschwitz and hair later used to make clothes for German civilians.

It was just one of many acts undertaken to strip all prisoners of their identity, removing all characteristics until all that differentiated one man from another was a number tattooed on his body.

Next stop was Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stepping through the gate, we were greeted with a dazzling, blood-red sunset - but while the colour may have been appropriate, its beauty was not.

For this place was the main extermination centre. It was the place where decisions were made as to who would be kept on to work and who would be sent to die.

Though, those who were ‘lucky’ enough not to be sent to the gas chamber would often not last much longer in the camp, where they were starved in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.

Walking through the soulless brick blocks, it was hard to imagine a life where cleaning latrines was considered a luxury, but that’s what it was.

As darkness enveloped the site, which was larger than any of us could have envisaged, the group gathered for an emotional service.

With lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes, we listened to poignant readings and prayers before observing a minute silence and reflecting on the reality of what we had witnessed that day.

You can learn the numbers - six million Jews died in the Holocaust, more than one million of which were at Auschwitz - but it’s not until you walk alongside the railway line or through the gas chambers you can even begin to imagine the true extent of the horror that took place on that soil. It’s not until you see the belongings and the faces of the mother, father, sister, daughter, son, grandfather, neighbour and friend that you can comprehend the suffering and loss experienced by so many. There are no words that do it justice.

The day finished with each student lighting a memorial candle and placing it on the end of the railway line, spreading light and hope in one of the world’s darkest places. Through sharing their experiences of the day, those students will take one step towards ensuring such atrocities are never repeated.

The Holocaust Educational Trust was established in 1988 with the aim of educating young people from every background about the Holocaust.

The Trust works in schools, universities and in the community to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust, providing teacher training, an outreach programme for schools, teaching aids and resource material.

The HET’s Lessons From Auschwitz Project is open to post-16 students from across the country. The trip to Auschwitz on November 10 included students from a number of schools in Sussex.

East Sussex: ARK William Parker Academy, Bexhill College, Hailsham Community College, Michael Hall School, Ringmer Community College, Uckfield Community Technology College.

West Sussex: Bishop Luffa School, Burgess Hill School for Girls, Hazelwick School, Imberhorne School, Muntham House School, St. Paul’s Catholic College, The College of Richard Collyer, The Regis School, The Weald School, Worthing College.

Photos by Yakir Zur.

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