Norwich students' Auschwitz visit

Sarah BrealeyIt is a day trip unlike any other. Last week teenagers from Norwich schools were among those who made the journey to Auschwitz, to learn about the Holocaust at first hand.Sarah Brealey

It is a day trip unlike any other. Last week teenagers from Norwich schools were among those who made the journey to Auschwitz, to learn about the Holocaust at first hand. Sarah Brealey reports.

The sun falls chilly and bright on the gates of Auschwitz, with its famous lie: Arbeit Macht Frei.

Work makes you free, it says, but that was never the case in Auschwitz, and overwork was one of many ways in which people died.

For the Norwich students it is the first time they have seen this image, famous from their textbooks and television screens.

Twenty people made the long day trip from Norwich to Auschwitz last week, in a group of 200 from across the region. The Norwich sixth-formers came from Hellesdon High, Hewett School Norwich High School, Norwich School, Notre Dame and Taverham High - two from each school. Also there were some teachers and Norwich North MP Chloe Smith.

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The visit was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which aims to send two students from every school to Auschwitz, with the help of government funding. Students had already heard the personal story of a Holocaust survivor at a preparation session, and they can discuss their feelings at a follow-up session. Afterwards they are expected to spread what they have learned in the community, whether through school assemblies, teaching younger students, putting on an exhibition, or creating artwork.

Auschwitz has an air of permanence, with row after row of two-storey red brick buildings. They were built as army barracks but converted for imprisonment and death. At a boundary there are four barbed-wire fences and a high wall topped with more barbed wire. Watchtowers stand guard.

Near the entrance is the spot where the camp orchestra played as the workers marched in and out, morning and night. The music was supposed to make them work faster, and also give an illusion of humanity which could be used for propaganda purposes.

Many of the buildings are used for displays about the Holocaust. There is an urn, full of ash in grey layers. These are human ashes, which were scattered on land around the site. It is a sight to make the blood run cold.

At first the prisoners slept on a little straw spread on the concrete floor. Later there were thin straw mattresses. Between 700 and 1,000 people slept in each building. The students were shown toilets, basic and few in number, though an improvement on the open pits that existed in the earlier days of the camp.

And then there are the personal belongings: a case of baby clothes, from knitted jumpers to bootees, and thousands of pairs of shoes. There are pots and pans, perhaps 500 of them, and hairbrushes and combs in the thousands. And these are just what was left behind when Auschwitz was abandoned with the Russian army on the way. A whole heap of glasses, rusty now, lie tangled together like undergrowth.

Many of the victims are unknown. Their arrival was never recorded if they went straight to the death chambers. A small percentage had their photographs taken, and some of these pictures line the walls of one building, dressed in striped pyjamas, giving a face to the suffering. Their dates of arrival and death are recorded, often a couple of months apart, maybe less, sometimes more than a year. A couple of frames have a spray of artificial flowers tucked behind them, presumably by some descendant.

Over the wall of Auschwitz you can glimpse the tops of lorries speeding past, a disconcerting reminder of the 21st century and a very different world.

After Auschwitz concentration camp the next stop is Birkenau, the adjoining death camp also known as Auschwitz II. It seems more fragile, less solid. The barracks for prisoners here are wooden buildings, some built as stables. Some of the site is in ruins, including the gas chambers which were destroyed by the Nazis, to cover up the evidence when they knew they would have to evacuate the camp. The rubble is still there, along with the railway line which brought prisoners right into the camp, from where they could go straight into the death chambers.

The day finished with a service of remembrance at Birkenau, with readings from students and an address from Rabbi Barry Marcus, who came up with the idea of sending students to Auschwitz as a day trip. One of those who gave a reading was Munya Chawawa, 17, a Notre Dame student from Framingham Pigot.

Students lit candles in memory of the dead and placed them on the infamous railway line, as dark fell over the death camp.

t See video of Auschwitz and students talking about the experience at

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What they said:

Katie Lister, 17, a Norwich High School student from Costessey, said: 'Seeing it from the watchtower and seeing the scale and how big the camp was, you begin to understand how six million people could have died. It is so eerie and moving.

'Now I am here I still cannot completely comprehend it, you cannot put into perspective what has happened here.

'I thought the pile of suitcases were the most moving thing, with Jewish stars on them.'

Danielle Warne, 17, a Hellesdon High School student from Taverham, said: 'I thought I would be upset and emotional, but I am more shocked I think. It is not like anywhere else. It is incredible in a weird way.

'It puts it into perspective when you see it. It is just a number at first, but then you see the cases and you see the shoes and you realise it is real people. I had read that you can see the shoes and the combs and things but I never imagined that there would be that many. They say to look behind the objects to the person. I looked at the glasses and thought, someone died in those.'

'It is surreal. It really is true, seeing is not like hearing it. I am so glad I came. I really want to come back and see more of it.'

Tom Large, 17, a Taverham High School student from Horsford, said: 'It makes you think about the people who did it. They were just ordinary people, the kind who go down the pub every night. But would I do something different? If someone pointed a gun at my head and said I had to do it, I probably would.'

Hannah Royal, 17, a Norwich High School student from Framingham Pigot, said: 'We have been saying we are cold, and yet we are well wrapped up. They were in pyjamas and clogs in the middle of winter.

'When we were in Auschwitz, in the gas chamber, I could see the scratches on the walls. That is something I will always remember.'

Munya Chawawa, 17, a Notre Dame student from Framingham Pigot, said: 'There is no human emotion for me which can capture what I felt today. It is beyond that. You just have to be here to experience it - then you can understand.'

Stuart Kennard, 17, a Taverham High School student from Costessey, said: 'When we were in Auschwitz we saw a room that hundreds of people slept in and you couldn't believe it.'