Auschwitz: Local students learn from visit to Nazi death camp

Northern Ireland pupils at  Auschwitz
Northern Ireland pupils at Auschwitz

Since 1999, over 30,000 students and teachers have taken part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s groundbreaking Lessons from Auschwitz Project.

Based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’, this four-part course explores the universal lessons of the Holocaust and its relevance for today.

The LFA Project aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.

The visits to the former Nazi concentration and death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau are preceded and followed by half-day seminars in order to ensure an educational experience.

On this trip I was joined by pupils from schools the length and breadth of Northern Ireland as we flew to Poland to experience first hand what happened at Auschwitz.

It was also interesting to gauge the pupils’ reaction to what they were witnessing.

They had all studied the Holocaust at school but the minute we went under the sign at the gate of Auschwitz which read ‘Work sets you free’ the mood in the whole party changed.

Gone were the happy go lucky teenagers who had been joking and laughing on the flight and bus from Belfast to the camp.

They seemed to understand that this was very different from reading about the Holocaust from a text book or watching a documentary about it on television.

This was real and in your face stuff and they were left in no doubt what had happened in the huts they were seeing.

They had walked quietly and in sombre mood through the camp as they saw the firing wall -where inmates were shot.

The pupils saw the pictures, hair, shoes and worldly possessions of the people who had been murdered inside the fences that enclosed the camp.

But the thing that seemed to hit home with most of them was the gas chamber and the crematorium.

There was a real silence as our guide told us the figures of how many had been murdered in this spot and how the bodies were burnt after the people had been gassed.

So many people had been murdered here that it is hard to get your head around - but they will all remember this experience for the rest of their lives.

Hannah Lyttle - from Thornhill College - says the whole experience has helped her get a better grip on what happened during the Holocaust.

“The gas chambers really hit home with me. It is the thing I will remember most from the trip.

“When we walked into the gas chamber I thought I could feel the anguish that the people would have felt at that time.

“The gas chambers really affected me and there was a strange feeling in there.

“And overall the whole placed was eerie. It has affected me and I feel as if I understand the whole thing better after coming here.

“I also feel I will be able to educate people better about what happened here,” she added.

And Sarah Bridle - from Ballyclare High School - also thought the trip would help her understand the horrors better.

“A really strong memory for me is all the tonnes and tonnes of hair that was on display. Thousands of people must have been murdered to get all that hair.

“Also the size of the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was frightening. It’s true - seeing is better than hearing.

“You also get the idea of where people died and something like this must never happen again. I will want to share with everyone what I have witnessed and seen today because everyone has not had the experience of coming to Auschwitz.”

And Darach O’Mullan - from Ballycastle High School - also believed he had been enlightened after his visit.

“It makes it very real when you come here and see the camps, the gas chambers and where they burnt the bodies.

“I will take loads of things away from today and it has been a very eye opening experience. This should never be allowed to happen again and we have to learn from what happened here.”