Hackney schools visit Auschwitz to learn about horrors of Holocaust
12:00 18 October 2016
Sixth-formers from four Hackney schools took a trip to Auschwitz as part of a campaign to ensure the terrible lessons of the Second World War are remembered by this generation. The Gazette was there.
There are no Jews in Oswiecim today, the Polish town once known to the Germans as Auschwitz.
Having arrived six centuries ago, Jewish people made up a majority of the settlement’s population in 1939.
They are gone now because almost every single one of them became a victim of the invading Nazis – raped, enslaved, starved, shot, hanged, gassed, abandoned – after they converted their town into the global capital of human slaughter during the Second World War.
Between May 1940 and January 1945, an estimated 1.1 million people – 90 per cent of them Jews – were murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, the equivalent of 20 packed-out Olympic Stadiums of confused toddlers, anxious mothers and exhausted fathers.
Remembering this cataclysm, which was part of a killing campaign that cut short 11 million lives, is one of the main aims of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).
On Thursday, October 13, the trust took nearly 200 students from across London’s schools – including Stoke Newington School and Sixth Form, Urswick School, Haggerston School and Our Lady’s Convent Roman Catholic School – to Auschwitz for a one-day trip designed to pass on the lessons of the Holocaust.
“I didn’t really know how to act,” said Zachary Marks, 16, from Stoke Newington School and Sixth Form.
“I just had this feeling of complete disgust.”
The students were flown into Krakow airport in the morning before taking a coach to Auschwitz’s old Jewish cemetery, the concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and finally the Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II).
At the cemetery, the students – aged between 16 and 18 – were shown how the ancient Jewish community in the town had lived “side by side” with their Catholic neighbours for centuries.
“One of the town’s two synagogues was right next door to the church,” Andrew Date, an educator at HET, said.
“Before the Jews became victims, they lived very normal lives – it’s crucial to remember that.”
Mr Date also stressed how at the beginning of the millennium, there were two attacks on the cemetery – which is locked and guarded by a high fence – during which swastikas were painted on the gravestones.
At Auschwitz I, the students were told how the prisoners were transported to the camps – often being tricked into buying a “ticket” to begin what they thought was a new life – and then tattooed, photographed and robbed.
Soon, however, the number of arrivals grew to such a high level that photographs were abandoned and newcomers murdered within hours of their arrival. Seeing enormous piles of hair – shaved from women’s and girls’ heads as they arrived, much of it still plaited – hit many of the students the hardest.
But for 16-year-old Dylan Jones, the most striking moment was when he saw the mugshots of child prisoners.
“The pictures had the date they arrived, whether they were Jewish or not, and when they died,” he said.
“Two of them I saw were 16 – my age – and that really brought it down to me,” the Stoke Newington School and Sixth Form student added.
Later, at Auschwitz II – the enormous camp where tens of thousands of people could be murdered every day – the students saw the rooms where prisoners were gassed before being burned in crematoria.
After walking around the death camp, the students were gathered around Rabbi Barry Marcus – the pioneer of HET’s one-day Auschwitz tours – as he delivered a sermon on the lessons to be learned from the slaughter.
“‘The valley of the shadow of death’ in many ways describes the world we are in right now,” he said after reading Psalm 23.
“If we observed a minute’s silence for each of the people killed here, we wouldn’t speak for two years.”
He added: “They were born into the wrong faith, and that was why they ended up here.
“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”