On the 22nd of February, two Barry Sixth Formers, Bethan Hopkins and Isaac Mayne, along with Barry Comprehensive School teacher, Miss Jenkins, visited the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The visit was part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project that provides sixth formers from all over Wales with an unforgettable experience
Preceding the trip, Bethan and Isaac listened to the touching testimony of Holocaust survivor, Leslie Kleinman, at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff. The survivor told the audience of how he was sent to Auschwitz at the age of fifteen with his seven siblings and mother, and how he would become the only member of his family to not be sent to the gas chambers. Kleinman then went on to tell the room of how he was liberated and saved by a Jewish American sergeant who he longs to meet again. Finally, the testimony was concluded with the words ‘I don’t hate anybody’, with Kleinman adding that hate will only cause similar events to happen again.
Two weeks after hearing Leslie Kleinman give his testimony, Bethan and Isaac flew to the Polish town of Oswiecim (renamed ‘Auschwitz’ by the Nazis in 1939). The group was greeted by the man that founded the project, Rabbi Barry Marcus, in the only surviving synagogue in Oswiecim.
After the Rabbi’s introduction, the students were taken to the gates of Auschwitz I, where Bethan and Isaac were shown exhibits of various recovered items from the camps: suitcases, family photos, razors, toothbrushes, shoe polish, hair and artificial limbs, all of which reminded them of the painful truth that those who were sent to Auschwitz were sent to the camps believing that they were to be met with comfortable accommodation.
The next area of the camp that Bethan and Isaac were to visit was the gas-chamber. Every student silently entered one at a time and came out the other side not quite knowing how to feel. ‘After everybody had left, I decided to stay in on my own. I just wanted to experience just a part of what they must have felt, and absorb it as an individual.’ said Bethan describing her visit to the gas chamber. She continued… ‘I can only really describe it as… an experience.’
When the tour of Auschwitz I had finished the students moved to the second camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of the three camps in Auschwitz. The students walked through the snow-covered camp until they reached the large multi-lingual memorial. Now cold and dark, the hundred sixth formers stood between the ruins of gas chambers, and listened to Rabbi Marcus speak and sing passionately in memory of those that died where we were stood. The comment that Bethan and Marcus remember most vividly was ‘If we were to have a minute of silence for each innocent man, woman and child that died in this camp alone – something we are constantly doing to remember individuals that die tragically within western culture – we would have to remain silent for three whole years.’
The students then lit candles and placed them upon the railway track at Auschwitz II-Birkenau as a final mark of respect to those that died, and to mark the end of their trip. But from here the experience was not over – Bethan and Isaac now plan to share what they have learnt with the school through a forthcoming assembly. At this assembly, Bethan has planned to create a holocaust memorial to display in our school – the memorial will be a large sheet layered with handprints of every pupil that wishes to take part, and will serve us as a reminder of our own individuality, our respect to those that died, and our willingness to never let it happen again.