By Evie Anderson, S6

THE coldness of the gas chambers, the vast scale of Birkenau, the hallway lined with faces of prisoners who died and mounds of hair, shoes and glasses – these are the images which will have a lasting impression upon me.

Visiting Auschwitz was a deeply personal experience as my great, great grandmother had died there after being transferred from Theresienstadt.

My grandmother was a German Jew who lived in Berlin. Along with her parents she managed to get a flight from Berlin to England one month prior to the outbreak of war but Pauline, her own grandmother, remained behind, as did her aunt and uncle, who died in Piaski ghetto.

This is an important part of my family history but until a couple of months ago I knew very little about it. The Lessons from Auschwitz project made me view my family history in a different way.

Having such a connection made the experience all the more real for me and I was presented this opportunity as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project, which aims to educate school students about the Holocaust while also conveying the contemporary relevance.

By informing younger generations, we are then equipped to pass on the importance of remembering the Holocaust to future generations. Through the Next Steps part of the programme I hope to communicate that to others in our school and wider community.

One week prior to the visit, we attended the orientation seminar. This was useful as it not only allowed us to get to know the other young people who would be going through the same experience but it addressed our expectations of the camp.

I was very nervous about how I would react once there, but the seminar emphasised that ‘there is no wrong way to react’. It is a daunting prospect not only visiting the camps, but doing so with a group of individuals with whom you are unfamiliar.

This is an important aspect of the Next Steps programme – taking our experience, reactions and thoughts and being prepared that not everyone will view the Holocaust in the same light.

At the seminar, we were incredibly privileged to have heard from survivor Ziggi Shipper. Ziggi’s story of being separated from his grandparents and imprisoned in Auschwitz to later finding his mother again after the war is truly remarkable.

In 20 years’ time, survivors like Ziggi will no longer be with us – their testimonies will continue to be shared but this time through videos, books and other mediums.

His talk had a profound impact upon me and I wish I could capture the emotions he shared with us and the emotions we experienced as a result – I know I can’t convey them on paper.

Upon arrival at the site, I realised that any picture I had built up in my mind was false. The scale of Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which I observed from the guard tower, is overwhelming.

Auschwitz I is small in comparison – with red brick buildings and cobbled streets, it is in sharp contrast to the vast expanse of empty land than confronts you at Birkenau.

Auschwitz I affected me emotionally in a different way to Birkenau. I think in part that was a result of being able to see the buildings where these people were kept, or the gas chambers where they were killed and the cabinets of their belongings on display.

In Birkenau, there is little for you to use as a visual aid (apart from reconstructed barracks) to picture how things once were.

To begin to understand what seems beyond understanding, I believe one has to visit these sites and I found that the saying ‘seeing is not like hearing’ certainly applied to my experience.

However, not everyone will be presented the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, so there is a particular onus on us, who have visited the sites, to make sure that future generations learn about the atrocities that unfolded not only in these camps but throughout the Holocaust.

Perhaps one of the strongest messages I walked away with is that of the power of the individual. The idea of the 6 million is faceless, and lacking any identity. Equally, ‘the Nazis’ were millions of individuals, each with their own story. By visiting the site, I became more aware of this.

A quote from survivor the Rev Ernest Levy stuck with me: “There you ceased to be a person, you were reduced to a number, totally de-humanised.”

I came away having understood the importance of reversing that process and I want to share some of these individual stories through our next steps. If such acts can only occur in the face of de-humanisation, then perhaps re-humanisation can help to prevent them occurring again.

This can be applied to the refugee crisis, which I believe is one of the greatest challenges facing our generation. If we are to show we have learnt lessons from the Holocaust, we need to prove so now.

It is essential to consider the refugee crisis when evaluating the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust. In July 1938 at the Evian Conference, the only country which offered to accommodate a large number of refugees was the Dominican Republic. Indeed, the Allies failed to offer refuge for thousands of Jews.

For example, in May to June 1939, more than 900 Jewish refugees were denied entry to the United States after sailing from Hamburg on the St. Louis. A total of 254 of the 908 on board died during the Holocaust.

Fast forward 76 years and on the other side of the Atlantic, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump is allowed to stand up on a global platform and declare that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.

While here in Britain, as of September 2015, despite channelling £750 million in humanitarian aid to Syria, the UK had only accepted 187 Syrian refugees. This number seems incompatible with the figures the United Nations refugee agency released in August this year, which highlighted that the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe has surpassed 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 during the whole of 2014.

A lack of humanity was in abundance during the Holocaust – the current refugee crisis demonstrates it still prevails.

The follow-up seminar helped to reinforce my views of the experience, following a week’s reflection after the visit. Being able to speak initially to other people who experienced it at the same time felt easier than immediately trying to convey the scale of the site, the claustrophobic conditions of the barracks, or the feelings one experienced walking through a gas chamber, to your parents or classmates.

I now feel ready to do this as part of the Next Steps programme, though, and hope to achieve this through various channels such as assemblies we will be presenting during Holocaust Memorial Week.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – these are the hollow words which confront you as you enter Auschwitz.

‘Work sets you free’ – these are the words which met millions of prisoners, some of whom made this sign, who would never experience freedom again.