James Cracknell joins students from Waltham Forest on a visit to Auschwitz
How could one sum up a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a former death camp in Poland where around 1.2 million people were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War?
Waiting to board a plane back to London, Eduard, a history student from Chingford Foundation School, told me that it wasn’t really possible. “There are not enough words in the English language to explain the suffering those people went through,” he explained.
I had been invited by the Holocaust Educational Trust to join Eduard and several other students and staff from two schools in Waltham Forest on a trip to Poland in November. In total around 200 people – an entire plane full – travelled with the charity for this humbling and moving tour, as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
We were given tours not just of the twin camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but of the nearby town of Oświęcim, where the former majority Jewish population was persecuted and nearly entirely eradicated more than 70 years ago.
At the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, based at the original Auschwitz camp that the Nazis converted from army barracks into a centre for murder and slavery in 1940, myself and the students were joined by a Polish guide. She showed us displays that included two tonnes of human hair removed from Holocaust victims shortly before their deaths in the gas chambers, as well as piles of shoes and empty suitcases marked with the names of their deceased owners.
Another exhibition contained an 8,000-page book listing the names of all the known victims of the Holocaust. The visit to the museum was concluded with a tour of the last of the gas chambers to be left standing, with the others having been destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to cover up their crimes.
The best known image of Auschwitz is that of a snow-covered railway leading to a watchtower under which victims would pass in trains before being sent either to immediate death or to be worked to death. This watchtower is in fact the entrance to Birkenau, the second death camp at Auschwitz that the Nazis never actually finished building, such was their murderous ambition.
Birkenau was the single largest site of mass murder during the Holocaust. At its peak there were some 90,000 enslaved people living there in hundreds of shabby wooden buildings, only a few of which are still standing today. It is in one of these buildings that Rabbi Raphy Garson explains to our group the horrific living conditions that these prisoners – freezing, starving, and ridden with disease – would have endured.
Our trip ends with a reading ceremony in the gloom of darkness, a power cut at Birkenau leaving us with only the lights of students’ mobile phones. They take turns to read poems before pausing for a moment of silent reflection.
Afterwards Emily, another student from Chingford Foundation School who joined the Lessons of Auschwitz tour, tells me: “Being there brings a whole new sense of the Holocaust and what it means. You don’t fully appreciate that until you have seen it for yourself.”
Emily and Eduard’s teacher, Alex, said that the chance for them to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau was “really valuable” and that they would now act as ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust, helping to share their experience with other students and taking leading roles in the school’s service on Holocaust Memorial Day in January.
The Lessons from Auschwitz Project is in its 17th year and has so far enabled 33,000 students and teachers to visit the death camps, aiming to increase knowledge of the Holocaust through its motto; ‘hearing is not like seeing’.
For more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust and its Lessons from Auschwitz Project: