Bearing witness to the truth: Bristol students visit Auschwitz
It was the scene of unspeakable horror and cruelty. Bristol Post reporter Louis Emanuel accompanied a group of school pupils from Bristol as they travelled to Auschwitz to stand on the site where so many lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis
STANDING in the lobby of Bristol Airport at 5am on a cold Thursday in March the word “dehumanised” rang in my ears for the first time. It would not be the last.
Nine hours later and more than 1,000 miles away on the platform in Poland where hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Jews were selected for work or death by the Nazis, the word took on a completely different meaning.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau stories of the industrialised process of murder of human beings stripped of their identities had become a harrowing reality.
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And for the sixth form students from Bristol with me on the government-funded Lessons from Auschwitz project, what was left of the camps had a profound impact.
“How much do you weigh?” snapped our guide as he pointed at one student beneath a carriage in which hundreds of Jews arrived at the camp. “70/75 kilos? One kilo less and you could be killed.”
Turning to another, he said: “How old are you? 17? If you were one year older you would be saved from the gas chambers.”
All 20 of the students from schools across Bristol stood frozen as the reality of what had happened beneath their feet became truly apparent.
Some held their heads down, others took a moment to glance around only to see chimney stacks in a decimated field of former barracks where prisoners were held in squalor.
All of them walked sombrely on in the tour in the knowledge they would later walk free from a place that was a living nightmare for millions.
Earlier in the day we had explored the living conditions and learned of the chilling efficiency of the processing, preparation and classification of the men, women and children entering the camps.
Millions had died there as part of an operation which wiped out around two thirds of the nine million Jews in Europe.
Seeing some of their shoes, glasses and hair, now kept behind glass in the museum part of Auschwitz, struck a chord with many of the students.
Julia Summers, 16, from Clifton High, said the personal belongings and prosthetic limbs stripped from prisoners had a deep impact.
“They are the things people should always have and the fact they were taken away from them was the first real part of the process of making them feel like they weren’t human.
“At first you see it all but it doesn’t really connect, but then it reaches you emotionally,” she said. “The big mounds of shoes were one of the most shocking things I have ever seen. There were just so many and each one was different, piled up high,” she added.
For Julia’s classmate Libby Barr, 17, some of the possessions had a personal impact.
She said: “It sounds strange but because I wear glasses, seeing those piles of them really got me.”
She added that the children’s items also touched a nerve, as did the mounds of human hair.
“The worst thing was seeing all the children’s and baby’s clothes, so small. You always hear stories about the young children and babies in the camps but it’s hard to understand until you see it.
“The mounds of hair were shocking. It just makes you realise the scale of the things they were doing here. It made me feel anxious after a while and slightly nauseous.”
Matt Mills, 16, from St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, said the feeling of being inside the death camps he had learned so much about was hard to explain.
He said: “At first they are just pictures in a book, then you see piles of hair and glasses and suddenly everything becomes more real.
“You can read about it at home but you can never quite believe it. Now we are here it’s like nothing you can explain.”
After touring both Auschwitz I, the concentration camp and Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the extermination camp, Jack Miller, 17, from City Academy, said the desolate fields of Auschwitz II affected him most.
He said: “It felt more hard-hitting when we arrived in Birkenau. There was something about the destruction that made it feel more real. You could see it in front of you instead of behind glass in a museum or another page of a book. It really made you feel for what happened.”
Gathered together at the end of the tour Rabbi Barry Marcus said it would take three years to hold a minute’s silence for all the victims at the camp. He also noted that what had the most profound impact were the things you see in Auschwitz I - the glasses, hair and clothes - but in Berkenau it is what you don’t see.
As Fraser Carmichael, 16, also of City Academy, summarised: “What the rabbi said really put things into perspective. When you see what little it left here it makes you think of what there was.”