Trip into heart of darkness and a lesson for the future
HUMAN hair, once sleek and dark, is now grey.
It has aged, unlike the men, woman and children – victims of the Holocaust – who had it brutally cropped from their heads as part of the dehumanisation process nearly 70 years ago.
Long plaits which you imagine swinging from happy young girls before deportation are entangled in the two-tonne mass displayed at Auschwitz in Poland. In other cabinets are piles of shoes, glasses, hairbrushes, suitcases, false limbs and crutches which belonged to those arriving at the former Nazi concentration camp (now a museum) in Oswiecim. More than half the town's population were Jewish at the start of the Second World War. Nowadays none of them are.
But it is the hair, which we are told was turned into blankets, clothing and mattresses, which is the most personal and shocking.
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The sinister display is entitled Exploiting The Corpses. Our Polish guide explains how gold teeth, watches and rings were also removed from bodies and sent to Germany in the early 1940s.
"Even ashes of victims were used as fertiliser on farms," she says.
The 200 East Midlands teenagers, including 40 from Notts, look on in stunned silence.
Like others, I feared the day would make me cry but instead of tears, it left me shell-shocked, then angry and bewildered that human beings were capable of committing these atrocious deeds.
We were flown there for the day by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), a charity which not only teaches future generations about Auschwitz, it actively encourages them to learn from the horrors.
Before the trip we were told that hearing is not like seeing.
And nothing can prepare you.
Billy Myles, 16, from Trinity School in Aspley, didn't expect the hair to disturb him as much as it did.
"When you read about it, it teaches you the knowledge but it does not get you on a personal level. The hair really shocked me," he says.
Many of those who died or were forced to work in labour camps were younger than Billy. Can he imagine it?
"I can't comprehend it at all," he says shaking his head.
The Holocaust is often told as a story of numbers – 6m Jews were slaughtered, including 1.5m children. Tens of thousands of Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted. The facts and figures are overwhelming.
But the visit puts a human face on the genocide. We see black-and-white photographs of families arriving, having been promised a better life; snapshots of weddings, babies, smart young men and a smiling grandmother – a stark contrast to the mugshots of shaven men and women in their striped uniforms hanging on the wall of Block 7 like 27-year-old Aniela Mirga, prisoner number 6786. She arrived on April 27, 1942. Five months later she was dead.
We tour the harsh living conditions, the death block where victims were held in cells before being shot and a gas chamber where SS guards dropped deadly Zyklon B cyanide pellets through openings in the roof and burnt the corpses in furnaces.
It is an unseasonably sunny day with blue skies – in winter the temperatures can drop to -16°C. Despite the warmth, the chilling eeriness of the camp casts a cold dank shadow.
Natalie Heath, 17, who attends Nottingham Bluecoat School, says: "It's sickening" while fellow student Jack McCarthy, adds: "You can picture the Jews in there and the guards outside dropping pellets in. It makes you wonder how they could do that?"
What made ordinary men, with wives and children, commit such horrendous acts? It's a complex issue the teenagers are made to question.
The message is don't be a passive bystander in the knowledge of what can happen if racism, prejudice and bullying go unchallenged.
If we thought Auschwitz I was grim it was nothing compared to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest death camp in Europe and the location for the film Schindler's List.
Here, at the top of the watchtower, we realise the enormous scale of the site, which held over 100,000 prisoners and had four brick gas chambers and crematoria where 2,000 people could be killed at a time.
We stand at the notorious selection spot by the rail track, where families were split up after disembarking from cattle trucks.
Healthy, strong individuals who were fit to work were sent to the right. The 80 per cent sent to the left – the disabled, old, sick and very young – were doomed to death. It's a powerful image.
The physically and emotionally gruelling day ends with a moving service led by Rabbi Barry Marcus.
Putting into context the scale of the genocide, he says if we were to observe a minute's silence for the 1m plus victims who met their death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we'd be silent for three-and-a-half years.
In an impassioned plea, he begs the teenagers: "We can do nothing about the past, it's gone, but we can do something about the present and the future."
The service ends with everyone lighting a candle and placing it on the rail track, a symbolic gesture of peace and hope.
A £1.5m Government grant pays for trips for students from across the UK. MPs, including Nottingham South's Lilian Greenwood, was among those invited.
"As well as being very harrowing, it's very challenging. On a personal level it will make me redouble my efforts to speak out against prejudice," she says.
The trust hopes the students from schools including Arnold Hill Academy, Carlton le Willows and Rushcliffe Comprehensive, will reinforce the message among their peers and even the wider community.
Madi Edinger, 16, of Trinity School, says: "We want to do a really big display but we're wondering how to present the magnitude of loss and make that tangible."
Before the trip, we heard the testimony of survivor 82-year-old Zigi Shipper.
But as the number of elderly speakers decrease, the first-hand accounts will stop one day.
So HET, which has been running student trips for 13 years, is training sons and daughters to tell their parents' stories.
"So far this has proved very effective – through initiatives like this we are working to ensure that future generations can continue to learn about this terrible time," says chief executive Karen Pollock.