Where even the birds don’t sing

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HARTLEPOOL MAIL chief photographer TOM COLLINS joined students from across the North-East on an emotional trip to Auschwitz this week.

Here he tells the tale of his visit to the Second World War death camps.

Hartlepool sixth form student Laura Murray at Auschwitz

Hartlepool sixth form student Laura Murray at Auschwitz

SEEING is believing. That’s the best way to describe a trip to Poland to visit the concentration camp at Auschwitz 1 and the main death camp at Birkenau to witness the atrocities that had occurred at these places during the Second World War.

I had been invited by the Holocaust Educational Trust to join over 200 sixth form students from across the region to visit the former Nazi camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau as part of the trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.

The small, attractive town of Osweicim was our first port of call, just an hour’s coach drive from Krakow Airport.

It was here that we were taken to the site of the Great Synagogue, which was burned down in 1939 by the occupying forces.

Then on to the nearby Jewish Centre, where a short entertaining lecture about Jewish history and practices from a rabbi in a small restored synagogue that at the outbreak of war had been previously trashed by the Nazis.

Back onto the coach for the short 15-minute journey to Auschwitz 1, which was one of the three camps built around the town.

From my point of view on the tour, this was where the real horrors began.

Described as a concentration camp, it was originally built as barracks for the Polish army but went on to house up to 20,000 prisoners.

I walked under the iconic sign that says “Arbeit macht frei”, translated to ‘work sets you free’. That sign is fixed above a gateway surrounded either side by once-impenetrable rusting barbed wire and electric fences.

An exhibition in one of the barracks shows a huge pile of hair shaved from prisoners, another exhibition shows thousands of shoes taken from the prisoners as they arrived at the camps.

There is even a pile of suitcases that belonged to prisoners, with their family names painted on so that they would not get lost during their transit to the camps.

Those prisoners who were chosen to go into the “showers” were told to tie their shoes together with their laces so they did not get lost.

In reality the prisoners would never see their shoes again or any of their other possessions for that matter.

This is where the first gas chamber, the only one still intact, opened in 1940 but closed within a year when Birkenau opened in 1942.

The Nazis destroyed the others at the end of the war.

It was a chilling experience knowing what had happened in this concrete chamber as we slowly entered it through a narrow doorway.

The former white-washed walls in the cell have blackened through the years, and the few electric lights illuminating the cold, dimly-lit chamber added to the eerie experience.

Our guide pointed out to the small openings in the ceiling where the zyklon B canisters containing the poisonous gas pellets were dropped into the chamber to kill the prisoners who had been told that it was a shower block.

The prisoners were told to strip off all their clothes and were even handed towels and soap as part of the plot.

Entering the shower block, steel doors were slammed behind them, sealing them off from the outside world.

I can barely imagine the screams of desperation from the men, women and children as they desperately gasped for air as the poisonous gas took its toll on the poor souls in the chamber.

Within 15 or 20 minutes, the barbaric killing process was complete.

The prisoners’ bodies were removed to be cremated - and the process started again.

We also took a look at the notorious block 11, which was described as a prison within a prison.

Prisoners were placed in standing cells, which were about four feet square into which four prisoners were placed meaning there was no room to sit down.

Other cells were classed as starvation areas, where no food or water was provided and the prisoners were simply left to die.

Outside this block was the firing wall where prisoners were shot.

Flowers and mementoes left by visitors had turned this into a shrine in memory of those who were murdered here.

What could be worse than this?

Next stop was Birkenau the extermination camp.

I have seen many images of this place before, but nothing prepared me for the emotive atmosphere that hit me when I got off the coach and looked across the vast wasteland where both the remains of the prison huts and reconstructed ones stood.

Over a million people lost their lives here.

A view from the watchtower, looking down on to the railway lines that brought the hundreds of thousands of Jews, is also disturbing.

This is where the “selections” took place.

Formed into long lines, the prisoners were selected into those who could work and those who would be sent to be gassed.

A barbaric and cruel method.

How did people deal with their conscience when deciding who should live or die? I will never know.

From every train that arrived at the site, three quarters of the prisoners would be gassed immediately after the selection process.

A tour of the site revealed the prison huts were once stables, but were converted to house hundreds of prisoners in each one.

The gas chambers at this site were blown up by the Germans to hide what was going on.

Such are the atrocities that were carried out here, there is a saying that the birds don’t sing at Birkenau.

I never heard any.

Hartlepool Sixth Form College student Matthew Dunn was one of the youngsters who joined me on the trip, and like everyone who visits, he was clearly moved by his experience.

“It’s been very interesting and good to experience rather than read about the place,” he said.

“Seeing where the murders were committed and the size of the Birkenau site surprised me, and learning about the condition the prisoners lived in was really shocking.”

At the end of the visit, a candlelit vigil and prayers were held at the end of the rail line that brought the Jews to the camp.

As hundreds stood in silence, the only sound that could be heard came from dogs barking in the distance.

As darkness fell, the rabbi that had held the service with both dignity, pride and passion, brought the day to and end by blowing a shofar, a trumpet-like instrument which is the horn of a ram.

We then began our journey home to our families and loved ones.

And we thought about all of those who weren’t so lucky as us.