HOW do you begin a discussion about the systematic slaughter of six million people? It’s not a topic you can just drop into day-to-day conversation.
We struggle to find words strong enough to convey the full horror of the Holocaust and so the worst atrocity known to modern civilisation can lie dormant in our minds.
However difficult it may be for us to talk about what happened during the Second World War, it goes without saying that our discomfort is nothing when compared with the pain and suffering inflicted upon the innocent victims of the Nazi regime.
In a bid to ensure what went on during those fateful years is kept at the forefront of our minds, the Holocaust Education Trust runs a series of one-day trips to Poland for 16 to 18-year-olds across the country as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz project.
The charity invited me to join a delegation of students from Worcestershire on their journey to the most notorious sites of the genocide.
Like most people taking part in the project, I had a basic understanding of what went on at the camps, but nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see.
We began our journey at a Jewish cemetery in the town of Oswiecim – better known by its German translation of Auschwitz.
At first glance, it appeared to be like any other place of rest on a beautifully sunny day. But as our eyes lingered, we realised there was something deeply wrong.
The grey stones that dotted the green land had been disturbed. They were broken, jostled, perched against walls or piled in fragments at the roots of trees.
Some of them had been used to construct two monuments in the centre and at the far side of the site.
We were then informed that Nazi soldiers had desecrated the cemetery, reducing the stones to nothing more than paving slabs – striking at the heart of the town’s Jewish community. What lay before us was an attempt to repair that heinous act.
As we walked under those infamous words, Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free), at the gateway to Auschwitz, our thoughts turned to the thousands of people in whose footsteps we followed.
They had been told they were about to embark on a new life. In truth, they were about have them taken away.
The majority of victims taken to the camps spent less than two hours there, before they were stripped of their belongings and murdered because they were considered more beneficial dead to the Nazi regime.
Men, women and children were harvested for their hair for the German textile industry and plundered of their valuables, before they were gassed, their ashes dumped in local rivers like commercial waste.
In one room, piled high to the ceiling behind a glass screen is the harrowing sight of two tons of hair that was found when the camp was liberated – just a fraction of what the Nazis took.
In other rooms, this scene is repeated again and again, but with glasses, crockery, prosthetic limbs, shoes and suitcases.
One display shows collections of what were once treasured family photographs that were saved from destruction by prisoners given the task with sorting the belongings confiscated from new arrivals.
For 17-year-old George Badger, an AS-level student at Hanley Castle High School, near Malvern, this was a particularly moving moment.
He said: “I knew I’d find it tough because we’d hear real stories while we were there. I didn’t think there was anyway to be prepared for it. I found the photos particularly hard. I think [the Holocaust] is something I feel more strongly about now, having experienced this. We need to try to learn from the past. It says on the trust’s website that knowledge is bigotry’s worst enemy.”
We walked through a corridor of red brick buildings that looked like factory units and our guide enlightened us about their former uses. There was one used as a laboratory to perform medical experiments on men, women and children without anaesthetic.
There was one where criminals (one of the Auschwitz camps was originally a prison) were left to slowly suffocate to death in a tiny, airless basement.
And there was one where scratch marks from human nails are still visible in the walls, left by people desperately clambering to escape lethal cyanide gas as it filled their lungs.
Student Abbie Walters, who is studying AS-levels at King Charles I School in Kidderminster, said seeing the camp first-hand had helped her gain a better understanding of the atrocity. The 17-year-old said: “Everybody knows about it, but when you’re learning history in a classroom, you only hear certain amounts. I needed to see it first hand to open my eyes and appreciate how serious prejudice can be.
“I’ll definitely tell everybody that I can about it and spread the word to encourage them to take an interest. I’ll always feel privileged to have been here.”
The day concluded with a service and the lighting of memorial candles near to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau where many of the 1.1 million Jews, 140,000 Poles, 23,000 gipsies and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war killed in the camps collectively known as Auschwitz.
Abi Grinnell, aged 18, from Evesham – a sixth form student from Evesham High School – said it was important that what happened during the Holocaust was remembered by future generations.
She said: “It was an opportunity not to be missed – to be able to teach other students about what we found on our journey.
“I had an idea of Auschwitz, but I didn’t realise the scale. The gas chambers really brought it home for me. I’ve learned a lot more. I think it’s changed my life.”