Emotional excursion as pupils visit Auschwitz

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Two pupils from Campbeltown Grammar School (CGS) made an emotional visit to Auschwitz – the largest collection of Nazi concentration and extermination camps –  to deepen their understanding of history.

Emma Wilson, 16, and Shannon Ellis, 17, took part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s (HET) Lessons From Auschwitz (LFA) project. The pupils visited one of the largest sites of mass murder in the world, where more than one million Jews died. Political prisoners, Roma peoples, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also murdered.

Emma is studying for Highers in modern studies, French and biology and for a national five award in life skills and aspires to study history at university.

Shannon is studying for an Advanced Higher in English, Highers in history, French and business and a national five award in life skills. Shannon hopes to study English at university.

Shannon and Emma were accompanied by history and modern studies teacher Laura Rigney.

The pupils caught a 7am Glasgow flight chartered by HET to Krakow.

The project involves much more than the one-day trip to Auschwitz. Students attended an orientation seminar in Glasgow prior to the trip where they heard an account from a Holocaust survivor and attended a follow-up seminar after the trip to discuss what they had seen and the impact it had upon them.

Before visiting the camps themselves, pupils were taken to Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz was built.

Holocaust educator Emma Kinney, took pupils to a street in the town. Pupils were then shown photographs of what lay on the site before the Holocaust – an imposing synagogue. The synagogue was destroyed in the Nazi campaign against Jews across Europe.

Emma Kinney said the purpose of this exercise was to re-humanise the victims of the Holocaust, and to illustrate the impact it had on towns and villages across Europe.

Rabbi Barry Marcus MBE, who accompanied the students throughout their visit, said he was filled with ‘great sadness’ when he considered the destruction of Jewish life in Europe.

Pupils boarded coaches bound for the camps.

Contrary to common belief, Auschwitz is not one concentration camp, but a network of more than 40 different concentration and extermination camps. The LFA trip included tours of the two biggest camps in Auschwitz, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

The tour began at Auschwitz I. Pupils paused at the notorious ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate, and considered the experiences of the victims who passed through the gate before them.

A guide took pupils into the barracks of Auschwitz I themselves, now converted into museum spaces. Exhibits included maps, identification papers of victims and an urn containing the only salvageable ashes from victims’ bodies.

The tour moved on to show pupils the human impact of the Holocaust, such as the mounds of hair shorn from victims by Nazis, shoes taken from victims’ feet and even shoe polish found in victims’ luggage. Emma and Shannon agreed that this was one of the most affecting points of their experience.

In one of the most visceral experiences of the day, pupils were taken inside a gas chamber, where thousands of prisoners were murdered. One pupil, not from Campbeltown, was too distressed to enter the chamber and asked to remain outside.

After seeing the ‘wall of death’, where prisoners found guilty of conspiring to escape or of other offenses, were shot, and the gallows from which the Nazi officer in charge of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoss was hanged, the pupils moved on to visit Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

Birkenau was an extermination camp, where 90 per cent of victims murdered at Auschwitz lost their lives. The site is now extremely exposed, and pupils endured wet and cold conditions as they stood on the railroads which brought mostly Hungarian Jews directly to the camp.

A guide took students into one of the barracks, where about 1,000 prisoners were forced to live. Conditions were so crowded that prisoners could not lie down to sleep.

Pupils were shown the exposed ruins of a gas chamber, partially destroyed by the Nazis to conceal their atrocities.

All LFA visits to Auschwitz end in a remembrance ceremony for those who died at the camp. These ceremonies are usually held outdoors, next to the camp’s official memorial. On this occasion, difficult weather conditions meant that the ceremony was held in one of Birkenau’s bath houses.

Bath houses were used to disinfect and shower prisoners upon arrival. After enduring showers of interchangeably scalding hot and extremely cold water, prisoners were forced to stand outside naked, regardless of the weather.

More than 200 school pupils sat cross-legged on the stone floor of the building which saw such suffering 75 years ago.

Pupils listened to a talk by the education officer of the LFA project, Tom Jackson. Tom thanked the pupils for giving up their time to travel to Auschwitz, and for persevering through challenging weather.

Rabbi Marcus addressed pupils and led the ceremony of remembrance. He thanked pupils for ‘engaging so positively on such a difficult day.’ He went on to tell the students that if we were to give a minute’s silence for each of the victims at Auschwitz II – Birkenau alone, we would fall silent for two years.

The ceremony was concluded by the Rabbi performing a traditional Hebrew mourning prayer. The worn walls of the bath house echoed with poignant song.

Emma said that she found this part of the ceremony very moving: ‘That got me … I almost cried at that.’

Emma also said that she found the sheer size and scale of both camps very affecting.

The Campbeltown pupils took the prayer and ceremony more seriously than others of their peers.

At the end of the day, pupils and their teachers were able to leave the camp and make a comfortable journey home – a right denied to so many Holocaust victims.

As part of the LFA project, the girls are required to take their ‘Next Steps’, to consolidate their experience and share it with others. Emma and Shannon will deliver presentations to younger year groups about the Holocaust, and will tell house assemblies what they saw at Auschwitz.

This is the second year CGS has participated in the LFA project. Emma and Shannon were inspired to take part by the presentations of last year’s participants.

They also plan to discuss their experiences with Campbeltown’s Old Pals Club. Emma said that they aimed to ‘compare different generations’ and discuss memories and perspectives of the Holocaust.

After completing these steps, Emma and Shannon will be HET Ambassadors, and play a crucial role in ensuring that lessons from Auschwitz are never forgotten.