“HAND in hand we followed the crowd. An SS non-commissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand.
“He gave the order: ‘Men to the left. Women to the right.'
“Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words.
“Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother.
“I had not time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand: we were alone.”
Those are the haunting words of Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust who, as a young boy, was taken to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp.
He would eventually leave the camp alive. But his parents, his sister, and more than a million others would be killed there.
One million Jews, 64,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and around 12,000 victims of other groups – murdered.
Who were these people? How did such a crime against humanity happen? How many others had to turn their heads or willingly collaborate in the process? And how do we ensure that in the future, the mantra ‘never again’ becomes more than just words?
These were just some of the questions going through the minds of 200 students from across the South West last month as they stood on the same spot where Elie Wiesel had been so cruelly parted from his mother more than 70 years ago.
Among them were Jess Bacon and Ella Peters, both 17 and in year 12 at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy.
They had applied and been selected to take part in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, a Holocaust Educational Trust initiative that has so far taken more than 31,000 post-16 students and teachers to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The camp itself was made up of three main parts with many more sub-camps located nearby.
Auschwitz – used mainly as a concentration camp. Birkenau – the extermination camp, site of the largest gas chambers and crematoria. And Monowitz – a slave labour camp built around a nearby chemical factory.
But the students’ first visit was to none of these; instead it was to the town of Oswiecim – forever transformed by the Nazis’ decision to build a concentration and death camp within minutes of its once bustling market square.
Before the invasion, it was a mixed community. Jews lived and worked alongside Catholics, indeed on the eve of war they numbered 8,000 – more than half the population.
“This town was a model of integration,” explained Trust ‘educator’ Alasdair Richardson. “These people lived side by side.
“These visits can become all about looking at how people died. I think it’s also important to look at how these people lived.”
This was a theme that was to run through the day. Thinking about the victims - and indeed the perpetrators too - as individuals not statistics, knowing their names, their stories, seeing their faces, understanding the journeys that had brought them to the camps, ‘re-humanising’ them.
“The visit to the square in Oswiecim made me realise how integrated Jews were into the community, and how when they were deported it affected everyone else too,” said Jess.
“I was surprised how close the camp was – it was almost part of the town.”
And what of those people who watched their neighbours rounded up and marched from the town?
“It’s so difficult,” said Ella. “You’d like to say that you would have helped your neighbours, but you just don’t know – nobody can be sure.”
Auschwitz camp looks different to how many expect - once a small Polish army barracks, its buildings are substantial, made of red brick and two storeys high with roads and pavements running through in a grid formation.
The barbed wire fencing, the watch towers and the entrance gate marked with the words ‘arbeit macht frei’ might at first seem at odds with the rest of the scene.
But as the students went inside the buildings the scale of the tragedy that occurred there became very real indeed.
Human hair, shaved from the heads of prisoners, now piled high, two tonnes of it, knotted and tangled behind the glass in one room.
In another they saw hundreds of shoes – most lost their colour long ago, but among them were tiny little pairs, their size painting a haunting picture of how young those who wore them must have been.
Suitcases, piled high. Pots, baskets, glasses, other possessions taken on arrival and never returned.
But why bring your belongings to a death camp? Of course these people, many of them families, had no idea of the fate that awaited them.
Ella recalled how her emotions built up as she moved from room to room, how she struggled when confronted with a blurred image taken on a smuggled camera and with a model of a gas chamber in operation.
“I almost cried,” she said. “But I felt angry at the same time.”
As morning passed into afternoon the visit moved on to Birkenau – the extermination camp located just a short distance away.
The students walked through an archway beneath the main guard tower and along railway tracks that dissect the camp while revealing the systematic efficiency with which it was run.
Fields stretch for as far as the eye can see on either side –they’re full of long single storey buildings, many now destroyed by fire or the elements with just their remains left to tell the story.
“Going to Birkenau after visiting Auschwitz was difficult,” said Jess.
“I thought Auschwitz was big, so seeing the vastness of Birkenau, and how industrial it was, was shocking, especially when we learnt that there had been plans to expand its size to more than double.”
The buildings were dark inside, even on a bright afternoon, damp and cold and cramped – prisoners who had been spared death for the time being would be housed inside, on top of each other, slowly starving.
Holocaust survivor Mayer Hersh described them as “skeletons walking around in striped pyjamas - people with their heads down, awaiting death.”
“Birkenau was so vast, I just couldn’t process it. It was almost hard to imagine what happened there,” said Ella.
It is a common feeling – the scale of the horror is such that it can be hard to find a way to make it real.
More difficult still to relay the significance of what you have seen to those back home – fellow students, friends, even family members.
But for the 200 students who visited Auschwitz last month that is part of the challenge they now face.
They are tasked to return to their schools and share what they have learned with their peers and the wider community – a weighty responsibility on young shoulders.
“I don’t think we can ever fully get across the scale of what happened, not completely, but we have to do it as much as we can,” said Ella.
“We feel really determined for our project now – after that experience we definitely need to do it justice.”
Some students will organise assemblies, others will make websites or videos, some will arrange for holocaust survivors to visit their schools.
By doing so they become Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassadors – committed to educating others, in their schools, their communities and beyond, about the importance of learning the lessons of the Holocaust and of recognising its continued relevance today.