Norfolk and Suffolk children visit Auschwitz

It is a name which evokes horror and death - Auschwitz, the most famous of the Nazi concentration camps.

For most it was the personal possessions that made it real. The hairbrushes, the combs, the suitcases left behind by those who died. And the shoes - the shoes, first maybe a hundred pairs, piled together in a case, then a long room with one side piled high with shoes, and then, even more horror, the other side, each pair belonging to someone who was killed.

For teenagers who had learned about the Holocaust, suddenly they were experiencing it, or as much as is possible, 65 years later.

Around 30 Norfolk and north Suffolk students travelled to Auschwitz this week as part of a group of 200 from across the east of England. The visit was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which aims to send two students from every school to Auschwitz, with the help of government funding.

Two went per school, from schools across the region, as well as teachers, Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, EDP columnist Iain Dale, and Hugh Stanners from the Norfolk Traveller Education Service.

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The group travelled first to Oswiecim, the town after which the concentration camp was named - it is the Polish equivalent of the German name Auschwitz. Once its population was 58pc Jewish, but now there are none. A few returned after the war, but most found it unwelcoming

and left.

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Half the group stopped at the Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, which had to be specially unlocked for the visit. Nearly all the graves are pre-war, but the most recent is that of Shimon Kleuger, the last Jew in Oswiecim and the only one for 20 years or more until his death in 2000.

The students heard a reading from Asher Weiss, a native of Oswiecim who returned in 1947 to help restore the cemetery, whose stones had been scattered and destroyed by the Nazis. He wrote: "We gathered, arranged in order, and noted down the tombstones, which had been used to pave the streets on which the murderers trod with their defiled boots. We made every effort to bring them to the cemetery and to record them as a sacred memorial."

The other half of the group visited the only remaining synagogue, which was only preserved because the Nazis used it as a munitions store. It has since been turned into a museum. They also looked at a small grassy field in the town centre, once the site of the Great Synagogue, which was burned to the ground.

Next was Auschwitz, with its infamous gates which read: "Arbeit Macht Frei". It means work makes you free, but that was never the case in Auschwitz, and overwork was one of many ways in which people died.

For the Norfolk students, it is the first time they have seen this image, up close, famous from textbooks and television screens.

The whole place has an air of permanence, with row after row of two-storey red brick buildings. They were built as army barracks but converted for imprisonment and death. At a boundary there are four barbed-wire fences and a high wall topped with more barbed wire. Watchtowers stand guard.

Near the entrance is the spot where the camp orchestra played as the workers marched in and out morning and night. The music was supposed to make them work faster, and also give an illusion of humanity which could be used for propaganda purposes.

Many of the buildings are used for displays about the Holocaust. There is an urn, full of ash in grey layers. These are human ashes, which were scattered on land around the site. It is a sight to make the blood run cold.

At first, the prisoners slept on a little straw spread on the concrete floor. Later there were thin straw mattresses. Between 700 and 1,000 people slept in each building. The students were shown toilets, basic and few in number, though an improvement on the open pits that existed in the earlier days of the camp.

And then there are the personal belongings: a case of baby clothes, from knitted jumpers to bootees, then the shoes. There are pots and pans, perhaps 500 of them, and hairbrushes and combs in the thousands. And these are just what was left behind when Auschwitz was abandoned with the Russian army on the way. A whole heap of glasses, rusty now, lie tangled together like undergrowth.

Many of the victims are unknown. Their arrival was never recorded if they went straight to the death chambers. A small percentage had their photographs taken, and some of these pictures line the walls of one building, dressed in striped pyjamas, giving a face to the suffering.

Their dates of arrival and death are recorded, often a couple of months apart, maybe less, sometimes more than a year. A couple of frames have a spray of artificial flowers tucked behind them, presumably by some descendant.

For Alex Dimminger, 17, from Diss, a pupil at Notre Dame High School in Norwich, the visit had a personal significance. His own great-grandfather lived an hour's drive from Auschwitz, in the Sudetenland area annexed by Germany, and was arrested by the Germans.

He said: "He was a professor and arrested by the Gestapo because he said Hitler should not underestimate Churchill. He was arrested and my grandmother was interrogated about why she wasn't a member of the Nazi party. He was released but he was heavily leaned on to stay quiet."

His grandmother was sent away from the rest of the family, to Czechoslovakia. She is still alive and now lives with the family in Diss.

As the students discussed whether ordinary Germans knew about the mass murder, Alex said: "My great-grandfather knew what was happening, but he couldn't do anything about it.

"It is interesting to look at what happened here, only an hour away from where they grew up. It really is an opportunity, something I have always wanted to do."

For the sixth-formers who took part, the relevance of what they learned in context with today's world was clear.

Matthew Holland, 16, a Thetford Grammar School student from Barnham, near Thetford, said: "It gives you an experience to draw on if you ever experience things like anti-semitism. I think it is important for people of our generation to get its relevance."

Ollie Gill, 17, another Thetford Grammar student who lives in Wattisfield, near Diss, said: "It definitely does what it sets out to do; seeing it is so much more than reading about it. You can really identify with it and get a sense of the scale."

He added: "We had touched on the Holocaust in history in years 9 to 11 - it is something everyone knows about - but you never really get a sense of the enormity of it like we did today. Its relevance hasn't changed

at all."

Read tomorrow's EDP for an account of the visit to the Birkenau death camp later in the day, and how students reacted to their

visit. You can see video of Auschwitz and students talking about the experience at

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