Each year, the Holocaust Educational Trust organises a visit to Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, for Welsh sixth form students. Reporter Rhys Williams joined students from Lewis School Pengam, Coleg y Cymoedd’s Ystrad Mynach campus and Coleg Gwent’s Crosskeys campus on the latest trip on Thursday, February 13.
The students were joined by more than 140 pupils from across Wales on the one-day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in southern Poland.
The trip was part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, which was liberated on January 27, 1945.
After flying from Cardiff airport to Krakow, the group travelled by bus to the town of Oswiecim, which was renamed “Auschwitz” by the Nazis.
Before the Holocaust, 7,000 of the town’s 12,000 residents were Jewish. Today, there are no Jewish people left in Oswiecim.
After visiting Oswiecim, the students made their way to Auschwitz I.
At the camp, which has been turned into a museum, students were split into smaller groups and were shown around by a tour guide.
Students saw the piles of belongings seized from the camp’s prisoners by the Nazis, including shoes, clothes, suitcases, house keys, cutlery and more.
They even saw a display of the hair shaved from the bodies of the camp’s prisoners.
During the visit, students saw the book of names, which lists more than four million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
After visiting Auschwitz I, students made the short trip to the much-larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp.
Here, students saw replicas of the bunk beds prisoners would have slept on in the wooden huts they were kept in. They also saw the ruins of a gas chamber the Nazis had blown up with dynamite in an attempt to conceal their crimes.
As the sun set and temperatures dropped, the visit concluded with a period of reflection at the International Memorial at Birkenau.
Here, Rebbetzin Ilana Epstein, who accompanied the students on the trip, spoke to everyone who was present about her grandmother and great-aunts, who survived the Holocaust, before psalms were read out by students to pay their respects.
Students lit candles and reflected on the horrors inflicted during the Holocaust, before heading back to the airport.
Speaking after the visit, Lewis School Pengam pupil Olivia Lane, 17, said: “Today has been an amazing opportunity to visit an important place in our history.
“Being there and seeing the possessions and learning about different people’s stories has allowed me to connect in a way and look at it from a more personal angle.
“All the victims were individuals and they all had a life and a story. I think it’s important that we remember them as their own people rather than just a number.”
Meg Balmont, 18, from Coleg Gwent’s Crosskeys campus, said: “I found the experience really eye-opening and life-changing. It made you realise that the things you see in a history book are actually real life and this actually happened to people.”
Ashleigh Coombes, 17, from Coleg y Cymoedd in Ystrad Mynach, said: “It’s quite shocking when you actually go there and how real it actually becomes.”
Fellow Coleg y Cymoedd student Ashlyn Jones said: “You don’t realise how many people were in the camp until you see the book and how many names are on there and how big it actually is.”
Sarah Jenkins, history teacher at Lewis School Pengam, said: “I’m very pleased with everything that we’ve had to do. I feel that it’s been quite inspiring today to actually stand in Auschwitz and look back at history and sense what it must have felt like to be in there at the peak of winter.
“It’s definitely inspired me to teach the Holocaust differently and to personalise it even more, because sometimes I feel that it becomes too generic and the message can be lost in the numbers.”
Gabbi Melardi-Anderson, tutor at Coleg y Cymoedd, said the visit has “made it more real for us”.
She added: “The experience made us think about how it could feel to have seen our own families parted.”
During the day, the pupils from across the borough were accompanied by Alex Rumble, educator at the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Mr Rumble said: “I definitely think it was a powerful and thought-provoking day for the students.
“I definitely think they would have benefited greatly from the day. They’ve come here to bear witness to what’s happened.”
Anita Parmar, lead educator on the trip, said: “Our visit today has shown us what can happen if prejudice and intolerance are left unchallenged.
“Although the majority of the victims in Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews, we also remember all who were persecuted by the Nazis and their allies.”