School representatives bring back lessons from Auschwitz
"The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."
A single line printed on the wall of a Nazi concentration camp building was enough to remind them why they were there.
As a 200-strong group of sixth form students trudged past bleak buildings and barbed wire fences it became all too apparent that this was the place where the extermination of six million Jews had begun – Auschwitz.
As part of a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, the students were taking part in a one-day visit to Poland for the Lessons From Auschwitz project. The purpose was to learn more about the atrocities committed after the German invasion in 1939.
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And while the day was long, tiring and undoubtedly emotional, the educators on the trip emphasised the importance of why the students were there – to tell people back home what they had seen and heard so the nightmare of the holocaust would never be repeated.
The first stop on the trip was the town of Oswiecim where, before the war, 58 per cent of the population was Jewish. Students were taken to a cemetery where hundreds of victims were buried, the majority of whom had no grave.
The next stop was Auschwitz One, a concentration camp where up to 20,000 prisoners were held at one time. It was here students saw rooms filled with the actual hair shaved from the heads of thousands of prisoners along with hundreds of suitcases and thousands of pairs of shoes which were taken from them when they entered the camp.
There was also the chance to walk through the gas chamber and crematoria were prisoners were told they were being sent for a shower after a long trip on the train to the camp.
Evy Tang, who attends Maynard's School in Exeter and lives in Chulmleigh, said: "You see it on films but then to walk in and have it right there in front of you, I don't know what to say."
It was then on to Birkenau, also known as Aushwitz Two, which was the only camp used primarily as a death camp. The main extermination site, housing the gas chambers and crematorium, gives a real sense of how bleak the situation was for any prisoner.
A memorial speech was given by Rabbi Barry Marcus who told the group if they were to hold a minute's silence for each person who had been killed, just at Birkenau, it would last three years.
As ambassadors for their schools, the students are now tasked with presenting what they heard and saw at Auschwitz-Birkenau to their peers.
The Lessons From Auschwitz project has so far taken more than 18,000 students from the UK to Poland with the aim of increasing knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust, said: "The Lessons From Auschwitz Project is such a vital part of our work because it gives students the chance to understand the dangers and potential effects of prejudice and racism today.
"The project encourages them to act on what they see and learn, and the inspiring work they go on to do in their local areas demonstrates the importance of the visit.
"With the support of Government funding, we are delighted that the programme is now able to reach students across the country."