Julian Flanagan logo

The Auschwitz schooltrip, The Daily Telegraph Magazine

‘They enter Auschwitz I, Miss Martin pushing the empty wheelchair over stony ground.’

Tuesday, 8.15 a.m. In a Gatwick departure lounge 35 teenagers wait for flight BA2774 to Krakow. The boys stand around in trainers; the girls sit, legs stretched out in boots. This afternoon they will visit Krakow and the Wieliczka salt mine, then tomorrow, Auschwitz.

In 1991 the Holocaust became part of the GCSE History syllabus; schoolchildren study it from Year 9. It is also often studied as part of religion and citizenship, and for the past two years the government has paid for two pupils per secondary school to visit Auschwitz. The Holocaust Educational Trust runs the visits, for up to 90 pairs of pupils a time.

Sandhurst Comprehensive in Berkshire is different. It organises its own annual Auschwitz trip for as many Year 11, 15 and 16-year-old volunteers as want to go, the culmination of a Holocaust citizenship programme that begins in Year 10. There have been seven trips so far, led by assistant head teacher Sam Hunt, 40.  Last year she was honoured with an Anne Frank Award for her work in schools on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Volunteers are rarely turned down. Hunt says, “The most troubled people can get the most out of it.” Apart from its educational and memorial value, the trip promotes the message ‘Don’t be a bystander – stand up to bigotry and bullying’ and acts as a catalyst: in the past, returning pupils have established a school Amnesty International branch, worked with the Jewish disabled charity Norwood Ravenswood, and raised thousands of pounds for the Rwandan genocide survivors charity Surf. Supporting Miss Hunt on this year’s trip are Helen Starr, 29, the Head of Religious Studies, English teacher Kylie Hobbs, 24, Citizenship co-ordinator Vicky Martin, 25, and Martin Surrell, 52, a senior education adviser.

The flight is called. A wheelchair appears for Hollie Ball, which she rejects (as she will for the entire trip). Despite having cerebral palsy, which makes walking difficult, Hollie walks off arm-in-arm with friends. On the flight, magazines and chatter pass between pupils. I ask one, Lana Clarke if she is nervous. “I don’t know what to think,” she says.

There is an overcast sky as Sandhurst’s coach glides through wooded hills towards Krakow. Helena Ellison explains why she has come. “I like to see what has happened in our world to make it how it is,” she says. “Like the power of Hitler. He put the Jews into concentration camps. You can’t treat people like that because of their religion. We are all equal.”

Ben Partner says, “I thought it would be a good experience, knowing what Auschwitz is like.” Is he apprehensive? “Kind of, because it’s, like, a big thing.” Stephen Parkinson is, too. “Loads of people died there. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Keep to the pavements, please,” Miss Hunt calls. The pupils are among the peeling pastel walls of Kazimierz, Krakow’s former ghetto, gaining a sense of pre-war Jewish culture: the pillared Torah ark and carved wooden decoration of the Remu’h Synagogue, where the boys tentatively put on yarmulkes (“Settle it on the back where the hair gel isn’t,” Miss Starr advises); Kazimierz’s former hub, Szeroka Street, where pupils study a black memorial stone to the 65,000 local Jews killed in the Second World War.

The group is joined by the Israeli historian Gideon Greif. A leading authority on Auschwitz and a friend of Miss Hunt’s, Greif, 57, is researching in Poland. He will guide the trip, a reassuring presence, outlining in his thoughtful baritone the sweep of the Holocaust and, at Auschwitz, detailing the intimate reality. Miss Hunt gives him a laudatory introduction, and Greif praises her back. “We love her!” one of the children shouts.

At the Wieliczka salt mine, pupils walk through dazzling chapels carved from the rock by miners over centuries. The mine’s tunnels can feel claustrophobic, its stairways vertiginous. Miss Starr takes the hand of the nervous Natalie Cooper. Daniel Banham, towering and stubbled, looks after Catherine Wagland. Ascending in the rattling lift, Natalie hugs Catherine. It sets the pattern for Auschwitz.

The coach approaches the friendly, functional Krakow Novotel. A pupil shouts, “There’s another coach, there might be some hotties! Oh they’re adults. Never mind.” After supper, pupils and teachers meet outside their rooms, the pupils’ bright pyjamas and dressing gowns transforming the formal, brown-carpeted corridor. Miss Hunt reminds them to get a decent sleep and not to watch “dodgy channels”. Small cards are handed out bearing the words of the Anne Frank Declaration. They are for the following day, which, Miss Hunt warns, will be draining.

Wednesday, 9.35 a.m.  The coach heads west from Krakow through undulating, hedgeless fields to Oswiecim, the town Germans called Auschwitz. At an avenue of high trees Miss Hunt stands, facing the pupils. “You are going to visit the site where an estimated one and a half million people were murdered. I want you to think, ‘What does it mean to me as an individual, and how I behave towards other human beings?’ We will be with you throughout, we are not going to leave you.”

She announces the itinerary: in the morning, Auschwitz I, the site of slave labour barracks and the camp’s first gas chamber; in the afternoon, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), opened in 1942 to house slave labourers and vast gas chambers; in the evening, Oswiecim Youth Meeting Centre.

As they see the orderly brick barracks of Auschwitz I from the coach, the students quieten. Parties of Euro youth crowd the 1950s reception building. Sandhurst’s teachers marshal their pupils through the melee and out. There, fifty yards on, is the Auschwitz gate, its mocking sign, Albrict Mach Frei (Work makes you free).

Gideon Greif puts his hands together as if praying. He emphasises that not only Jews were killed here but mentions that, as a Jew, “The fact that I am standing here is a mistake of the Germans.” No one laughs. “Now we shall proceed.” They enter Auschwitz I, Miss Martin pushing the empty wheelchair over stony ground.

The wide, long barrack rooms that housed slave labourers now hold Holocaust exhibits. Greif describes how trainloads of Jews were selected on arrival for either gassing (“around 75 per cent”), slave labour or – particularly in the case of twins – for experiments. Twins Melissa and Georgia Laurie are at the front, attentive. The pupils still stand with teenage languor but their faces have changed. Stephen looks at a picture of children being led to the gas chambers with melancholy eyes.

Greif leads the group from barrack to barrack to look at simple displays of devastating intensity. The whole side of one room is a glass cabinet of human hair banked in grey clouds. Hollie, Hannah Oakford and Miss Martin quietly begin to cry. Throughout the day, whenever someone cries, someone else comforts them. Behind the crowd, Sam Wade walks slowly up and down, head lowered, only glancing sideways at the hair.

The displays continue: a mound of spectacles like wire wool; a room of tangled crutches and false limbs; a massive cabinet piled with suitcases, their owners’ names diligently scripted on. In a corridor between tumbled mountains of shoes, Miss Hunt holds a weeping girl. In a room detailing experiments, by a display of baby clothes – a white pinafore with stitched flowers, a sturdy pair of first shoes – Holly Jervis sobs, hand to her mouth. The pupils emerge into daylight, stunned.

Greif points out the villa where the camp commandant Rudolf Hoess lived with his wife and children. Two hundred feet beyond is Auschwitz’s first gas chamber. It is squat, faced in grey cement, with a stubby chimney. The pupils file in, staying close. The chamber is cramped, industrial, the walls dark and ceiling low. In the next room are waist-high, open-mouthed ovens for burning the dead.

Walking towards the coach, I ask Sam Wade why he wouldn’t look at the displays. “I just wanted to pray,” he says. “I’m a Christian so I went to the back and prayed. I prayed that the families could almost forgive the Germans.” Pupils file past towering weeping willows. Ian Roper sits on a kerb. He looks shattered. What he has seen is “too hard to put into words”.

At Birkenau there is no reception area, just the original long gatehouse with one arch for vehicles, one for trains. A barbed-wire fence more than a mile long runs across the front of the camp. There is an indelible stillness.

Up in the gatehouse, the children look across the plain of Birkenau in late-afternoon sun: acre upon acre of slave labourers’ huts, vast barbed-wire enclosures where stood yet more huts and, beyond, the birch trees that gave Birkenau its name, where the gas chambers stood.

Miss Hunt lays flowers on the railway tracks and, although a Christian, silently says Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Greif leads the pupils to a wooden hut. Along the sides are densely ranked wooden bunks, wide enough for two people but which held five or six; down the middle is a low concrete latrine with 67 holes. “There was no privacy, no water to clean yourself,” Greif explains. “Some work squads could only go once every 10 days.” The girls look sick.

It is growing cold, and the sun is beginning to set. The pupils walk alongside the railway track and reach ‘the ramp’, halfway between the distant gatehouse and birches. “This is the exact place where the selection took place,” Greif says. They turn and peer about, trying to take it in, then walk towards the birches.

In late 1944, the SS blew up Birkenau’s gas chambers to try and hide their crimes from the advancing Soviet Army. The pupils gather at the remnants of Gas Chamber Three, now a long brick-lined trench with steps down. A question for Greif comes from the twilight: “How many people could get in?” “Over 2,000 in the gas chamber, it was 50m long,” he replies. “There were railings here to help old people get down.”

Kelsey Palmer and Melissa, one of the Laurie twins, walk through the birches. Melissa speaks quietly, with great expression, “Very emotional to see life being taken away. And the German Nazis trying to take away their traditions was very sad. And the experiments I found unbearable to learn about.”

The group reaches ‘the sauna’, where slave labourers were processed. Each pupil chooses someone from a display of family photographs of Holocaust victims and lights a candle in their memory. They sign a visitors book (‘You will never be forgotten. Ian, England’).

When night falls the pupils’ torches light their way back through the birches to the far side of Gas Chamber Two, while the teachers prepare a remembrance ceremony. Chamber Two is now slabs of buckled, fractured concrete above the basement pit. Melissa stands, floods the Chamber with the silver light of her camera flash, and moves on. An inscription stone reads: ‘To the memory of the men, women and children who fell here in the Nazi Holocaust. Here lie their ashes. May they rest in peace.’

The teachers and Greif stand, their backs to Chamber Two. The pupils sit facing them. A train whistles in the night. The teachers give readings on the themes of remembrance, belief, hope, and unity against evil. Greif finishes with a Jewish prayer for Holocaust victims that ends, “May they rest in peace and let us say, amen.”

Miss Hunt begins the Anne Frank Declaration: “Because prejudice and hatred harm us all, I declare that I will stand up for what is right…” – some pupils join in, others search for their cards with torches – “… and speak out against what is unfair and wrong. I will try to defend those who cannot defend themselves.” All are now making the declaration. “I will strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference, in which everyone is treated fairly and has an equal chance in life.”

The pupils light candles, then walk silently along the dark railway track to the gatehouse. On the coach, Georgia Laurie talks about the almost symbolic figures she chose from the sauna photographs: “I think they were brother and sister. There are a series of pictures of them as babies, as toddlers, as children, growing up at different events like birthday parties, the park. It was a perfectly ordinary child’s life and all of the men and women and children killed at Auschwitz, they all went through that childhood.”

The pupils need a treat. Miss Hunt announces, “It’s been a privilege and I’d like to thank you for the sensitivity you have shown.” Pause. “How would you fancy a stop in Lidl?” There are whoops and applause. The pupils hurry from the coach to the bright lights of the shop. “Get out of the alcohol aisle!” Miss Hobbs shouts. Danielle Mercieca puts a bag of Teddy’s Hit biscuits on the checkout. “They are still children, but they want to be old,” observes Miss Starr, stationed firmly by the cigarettes.

The International Youth Meeting Centre in Oswiecim was set up in 1986 as a forum for education and reconciliation. It is a relaxed place of high-beamed ceilings and tiled floors. Between mouthfuls of rich soup, the pupils fill the dining hall with noise.

After supper, I talk to Hollie Ball about the trip. Why she won’t use the wheelchair? She speaks quickly, emphatically. “Everyone else had to walk, so I thought I should. I’m an individual but with a wheelchair, equal to everyone else. If I wasn’t here with my friends I would have to use my wheelchair. They support me. They realise without asking me.”

How hard had Auschwitz been, given the Nazis’ treatment of disabled people? “That’s the most difficult part of it, to accept that,” Hollie says. “Mr Greif said they used to have to crawl, without their legs. I’m not that disabled really but I wouldn’t want – they wouldn’t want – to be seen differently. And yet they were.”

In the hectic meeting hall, I talk to some of the boys. What affected them most? For Ben it was the barbed wire: “That was quite traumatic because once in, they knew they were stuck.”

“All the shoes – when you see the possessions it makes it more personal, you see the names on the bags” says Ross Pollendine.

Stephen’s eyes widen in emphasis: “The suitcases,” he says, “they labelled them so carefully, because the Nazis told them they’d get them back. It was mean, tricking them.”

Tom Tyson says quietly, “It was quite disgusting, the colour of the hair, because it makes you realise how old some of them were.”

An expertly raw Jewish folk band ends the evening with music that swoops between melancholy and joy.

Back at the Novotel, Cristal Cole and Linda Gabriel talk over the day in the calm lobby. “I feel quite privileged to have seen it,” Linda says. “We can tell everyone how horrible it is.” Could Auschwitz ever be forgiven, I ask. “I don’t think so,” she says slowly. “The people involved, like the commandant, they lived there and saw it every day”, says Cristal. “They had their kids there,” says Linda.

Thursday, 8.30 a.m. As the pupils check out of the hotel, Greif, looking drained, leans against the reception desk. What does he try to achieve as a guide? “To get not sympathy but empathy, for the suffering of the Jews. Not only the murder. The humiliation, the soul suffering. To make them understand.” Most of his family escaped Europe before the war, but not all. “In 1943 my great-aunt was deported to Auschwitz and murdered.”

The pupils stand in the lobby, bags piled up, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Farnaz Ladani, 16 today. Miss Hunt says some last words: “I’m getting old now, I know, it doesn’t look it, but you are the new generation. I would ask you to make an active contribution to the world, to make it the one you want to live in. Be the change that you want to see in the world. Thank you for coming on this visit.”

22 January 2009

Powered by Netfirms