Sep 23 2009 by Gordon Robertson, Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser
A PRETTY-patterned baby’s dress, now faded by time, lies under a glass case.
A few feet away a mountain of crumpled children’s shoes are piled high.
You can imagine proud mothers and fathers dressing their little ones in happier, safer times.
And you can sense the horror of their last frantic moments on earth, undressing those same children before being packed into gas chambers to die a terrifying death.
The exhibits in Auschwitz 1 are for many the most poignant physical evidence of the depravity committed during the Holocaust.
As well as children’s clothes and shoes, there are hundreds of suitcases with the names of the mainly Jewish victims written on them. There’s the tangled wire of spectacles and the mass of adults’ shoes.
And of course the hair, the human hair cut from the heads of dead women and children. Hair intended to be sent back to German textile factories to be used to stuff mattresses.
The dry, faded locks, testimony to an order of barbarity that leaves all who contemplate it stunned.
Sophie Reilly, from St Ambrose High School, is one of the pupils who took part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project.
Looking back on the day-long visit to the huge death camp in Poland, she said: “The room full of hair scared me. I ended up crying at that. It really touched me, as did the room with the spectacles in it.
“Auschwitz 1 was the most emotional for me, compared to Birkenau. I don’t really know how I feel at the moment because it is just so much to take in on one day.
“But I am glad I saw it because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I would recommend it, not as some sort of tourist attraction, but as something you should see, to see how evil human beings can be and what people are actually capable of.”
Pupils were led by tour guides through the infamous entrance to Auschwitz 1, under the twisted wrought-iron legend: Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Brings Freedom.
The pupils shuffled slowly past the grim exhibits and were asked to contemplate the enormity of the horrors committed in mainland Europe not much more than 60 years ago.
Jews from across Europe were brought to the small corner of Poland to be murdered.
Over a million were killed in Auschwitz alone along with other “undesirables” including Roma (gypsies), Poles and Russians.
The official guides told how the death camp had to maximise profits.
The prisoners already had their property stolen but even after death, before they were cremated, dead bodies were violated. Gold teeth were wrenched out of mouths and the hair shorn for those needy textile factories back in the Fatherland.
The message was not lost on James Donnachie of St Andrew’s High School.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me,” the sixth year pupil said. “The understanding you get from just being here is so much more than any text book can ever give you.
“I think what I have learned here today is that the Jews were individuals who suffered rather than just a collective group.
“I think everyone should always remember what happened here. It shouldn’t be allowed to be forgotten.
“I understand now why everyone has to remember and never forget what happened here.”
After leaving the smaller camp, Auschwitz 1, the pupils boarded their coaches and were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a five-minute drive away. They were greeted with another familiar image – the long, straight stretch of rail line passing under the Gate of Death.
Inside they saw the huts where the poor, wretched victims huddled together, to perish or endure.
They stood on the spot where SS guards decided who should live or die among the new arrivals.
In the distance you could hear a slow-moving train clanking its way through the town of Oswiecim
It wasn’t hard to imagine that between 1941 and 1944 the now innocuous sound would have meant that cattle trucks packed with human cargo were only minutes away from arriving.
The collapsed remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers are still there, despite Nazi attempts to destroy them days before the camp was liberated in January, 1945. The pupils were told how people huddled together in the “shower rooms” moments before Zyklon B cannisters were opened and brought on an agonising death.
At the end of the tour, a ceremony of remembrance was held as the autumn sun went down. The pupils were invited to light candles in memory of the dead before it was time to go home.
Jade Hegarty from St Andrew’s High School said the trip to Auschwitz has been a “privilege”. She said: “I was very keen to come here but a little apprehensive because of the sheer overwhelming nature of it all. There’s a lot take in. When you go around the exhibits and see the spectacles and the hair and stuff, it really hits home.
“It’s a privilege to be here as only 225 people from central Scotland came and I was one of them.
“It was definitely an experience I will take with me through life.”
Visit www.het.org for more information and see next week’s Advertiser for more from the pupils.