GLENN PHILLIPS accompanied a group of school students on a trip to the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz as part of their studies into the effects of war
MORE than 200 students from across Wiltshire, including Royal Wootton Bassett, were given a stark lesson in the brutality of war when they journeyed to the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
The students had to apply for a place on the trip, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Olivia Jones and Sophie Peart and teacher Sarah Miles from Royal Wootton Bassett Academy were on the trip and, as they waited to board a 5am plane at Exeter, Sarah said: “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and to get the opportunity.”
Olivia added: “I wanted to get a deeper insight after covering that period of history. Being there is more valuable than just reading the textbooks.”
Her friend Sophie, another taking History A-level, said: “ I have an interest in the Holocaust after reading about it and hearing about it from survivors. There are still gaps that I don’t know about or understand. This trip will make my knowledge more complete.”
Royal Wootton Bassett Academy pupils Livvi Jones and Sophie Peart with teacher Sarah Miles lighting memorial candles
As we walked into the camp we were surrounded by avenues of vast brick barrack buildings, barbed wire fences and hard trackways studded with lumps of rock. Renata ushers us into one of the blocks.
In a small quiet voice, without drama, she explains the process of arrival for the prisoners and the photographs which line the walls. The Nazi aim was to dehumanise their victims.
On arrival all clothing, shoes and possessions were confiscated. Stripped naked, they were made to take showers, and had all their hair shaved off. Striped prison uniform and wooden work clogs were issued, photographs and details taken down. Later on we see photos of the prisoners and their details. Most of them lasted about two weeks.
Renata takes us in to another block with an ominous sign on the wall, Extermination. In here there is an architect’s model of a gas chamber and crematorium, reminiscent of a Roman bath complex you might find in an archaeological museum.
There are also hundreds of empty cans of Zyklon B gas. We are by now completely silent, with only the soft click of cameras and our guide’s small voice audible.
After the tour of the camp there is a short journey to Aushchwitz’s sister camp at Birkenau.
There was an opportunity to climb the gatehouse tower, but we have to wait, only 30 people are allowed at a time up there, as the building is ageing. It is getting colder, the spring sunshine struggling against a breeze.
There was a tour of the wooden huts where the prisoners were kept and a talk at the railway depot in the centre of the camp where an old railway truck illustrates the transport in which the prisoners arrived.
The trip ends with prayers and a message of hope from from a rabbi and the chance to light memorial candles.
Student Olivia said she had been unprepared for the experience.
“It was not what I expected . I thought Auschwitz was big but not this big, I didn’t realise the scale of it,” she said.
Sophie added: “It is hard to put into words what I am feeling. Silly facts like that the victims actually paid for their tickets here. I thought the rabbi gave a positive message and insight at the end.”