MOST of the students admitted to being nervous as they boarded the aircraft to Krakow for a visit to the notorious Second World War death camps in Poland, not knowing how they would react to the horrors that awaited them.
But all felt it was important to go and see for themselves.
The first stop was Oswiecem, where the concentration camp was located, and where before the Second World War 58 per cent of the population was Jewish.
Over the course of the war, their number went from 50,000 to zero.
Group educator Alasdair Richardson said: “It is important to remember that these large numbers of people you are hearing about are not just numbers, they were individuals with families and trades and businesses.”
As we approached Auschwitz I there was a collective shudder as we looked at the infamous metal sign above the entrance: Arbeit Macht Frei (translation: work makes you free).
In a small, quiet voice, our guide Renata Koszyk explained the process by which the Nazis dehumansied 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.
In another block there was an ominous sign on the wall – Extermination. In here there was an architect’s model of a gas chamber and crematorium. There were also hundreds of empty cans of Zyklon B gas. We were by now completely silent, with only the soft click of cameras and our guide’s voice audible.
Another block contained displays of personal possessions. There were vast piles of suitcases, each with a name and address, a room full of kitchen pots and pans – the victims were told they were coming here to start a new life and a new job, with a new house. They even had to pay for the ticket here.
We saw a heap of spectacles and a mountain of shoes. There was another room behind glass containing nothing but mounds of human hair, two tonnes of it from around 25,000 people, that would be turned into cloth.
One more place to see – the prototype gas chamber and crematorium. We strolled to a miserable-looking low-rise brick building, half covered in turf. Up in the ceiling were the holes where the gas crystals were poured onto to their unsuspecting victims. Through a passageway was a crematorium, walls and ceiling blackened with age and soot; a rusting oven door.
We moved on to Birkenau Auschwitz II, where there was an opportunity to climb the gatehouse tower.
The wooden huts, about 45m long by 17m wide, housed between 700-1,000. There were rows of three-tiered wooden bunks on concrete floors. At the far end was a communal latrine, a double row of around 200 holes in a long concrete slab over a pit.
Jake Rylands, a student at Matravers School, Westbury, said: ”It was seeing the personal possessions that affected me most, the men’s prayer shawls.
“I felt sick when we were in the crematorium.”
Olivia Jones, a student at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, said: “It was not what I expected. I thought Auschwitz was big but not this big, I didn’t realise the scale of it.”
Her schoolmate Sophie Peart said: “It’s hard to put into words what I am feeling. Silly facts like that the victims actually paid for their tickets here. But I thought the Rabbi gave a positive message and insight at the end.”