‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

On Wednesday 29th March four of Grosvenor’s year thirteen pupils, namely Libby Duncan, Anna Doherty, Isaac Skillen and Maya Todd enjoyed the opportunity of a lifetime when they were afforded the chance to visit the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of their involvement in a project entitled ‘Lessons form Auschwitz’, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust.

In preparation for the trip the pupils were required to attend a seminar on the afternoon of Sunday 26th March at the Wellington Park Hotel but the day itself began incredibly early – with a 3am rise in order to reach Belfast International Airport by 4am, where they queued along with two hundred other teens before bordering their chartered flight where they enjoyed an in-flight breakfast and prepared themselves for what would be an incredibly emotional but worthwhile day.

Following the conclusion of their flight the pupils experienced a two hour bus journey to Oswiecim, where the camp is located, where they learnt about the town both during and following the war; for example they learned that it was made up of 60% Jews prior to WW2 but now has no Jewish population whatsoever.

After this the visiting delegation were invited to tour ‘Auschwitz I’ concentration camp where they received a personal tour from their guide, Mathieu, complete with head sets, where they witnessed at first-hand some incredibly moving sights, such as the remnants of Jewish possessions in the old cabins in which the prisoners were forced to live, as well as a mass containing all of the hair of the Jewish inhabitants, in one huge exhibit. In addition the pupils visited a museum which focused on the individuality of the Jewish people while they also paid a chilling and highly powerful visit to a gas chamber and its neighbouring incinerator before, finally, seeing the house of the Rudolf Höss, the camp’s Commandant, who lived in a huge villa just metres away from the camp.

After the conclusion of this highly affecting tour the pupils then moved on to the camp at ‘Auschwitz II’, also known as Auschwitz –Birkenau, where they were immediately struck by its immense size, with it stretching as far as the eye could see. What the pupils witnessed when they arrived at Birkenau was a purpose-built, systematic killing machine, in comparison to ‘Auschwitz I’ which was an old-style military camp. In addition they were impacted by the archaic, unhygienic living quarters of the Jews where, for example, they were only allowed to visit the toilet at specific times – twice a day – otherwise they, horrifically, had to go to the toilet where they lived.

Next of all the pupils attended a Jewish ceremony with Rabbi Marcus where they listened to a lot of readings from Jewish literature, including war poems, before participating in a Jewish reading themselves, sang in Hebrew, after the Rabbi had symbolically blown his shofar horn. Following the conclusion of the ceremony the pupils then made their way back to the airport, after an emotionally draining but hugely educational day, where they travelled back to Northern Ireland – arriving in their homes just before midnight to conclude what had been an incredible, moving, informative and a times terrifying experience which will long remain in each of their memories. 

Many thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust for running such a highly worthwhile event, as well as GGS History teacher Mrs Peel who has co-ordinated the School’s involvement within the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ programme this year. Libby, Anna, Isaac and Maya will now be involved in a number of further initiatives relating to the programme over the remainder of the academic year and we look forward to reading about these experiences between now and the end of June.

From left to right: Anna Doherty, Maya Todd, Isaac Skillen and Libby Duncan, complete with headsets, as they prepare to embark on their guided tour of 'Auchwitz I' concentration camp.

The infamous gate to 'Auschwitz I': it says “arbeit macht frei”, which means “work brings freedom.” This is dramatically ironic as the people who were coming to work there would never again see freedom.

A photo of only some of the spectacles that were confiscated from prisoners in the camp before they were put through the “cleansing” process of dehumanisation.