LAST year, Sophie Aitken and Campbell Notley (S6) were chosen to represent the Humanities faculty at North Berwick High School at the Lessons from Auschwitz programme.

The school has been working in partnership with the Holocaust Education Trust for over a decade with the main aim of educating pupils about events of the Holocaust.

The initiative involves two senior students visiting Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The pupils learn about the devastation and impact of the Holocaust. As part of the understanding and reflection process, both Sophie and Campbell have recounted their experience below.

They have shared their experience with the rest of the school as part of its Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations. 

Senior school staff were very impressed by the maturity and dedication displayed by both Sophie and Campbell before, during and after the visit, as both have proven to be superb ambassadors for North Berwick High School.

This is their story:

OUR day began with a 2am awakening. Having only been told that we were going on this visit six days prior, we didn’t quite know what to expect. Nonetheless, we were intrigued to find out what the day was going to hold.

Surreal: the only word that seems fitting enough to describe our harrowing experience to Auschwitz.

Beginning our visit to Auschwitz with a stop at the town of Oswiecim was a true eye-opener. We were brought to the tranquil town where we stood in a green area surrounded by trees.

At first we were confused.

“This isn’t Auschwitz,” I said to Campbell, to which shortly after it was brought to our attention that we were right, it wasn’t Auschwitz.

The town of ‘Auschwitz’ doesn’t exist anymore. Auschwitz was a name given to Oswiecim during the war.

We soon discovered that the quiet area that we were stood in was once a Jewish street. However, there is nothing but trees left. We truly valued our experience in this little green area because it gave us a better understanding of life in Oswiecim before the war. Jewish people were living their normal, everyday lives and it was completely taken away from them.

As we were met with the famous ‘Work sets you free’ gate, we still didn’t quite know what to expect. One thing that we did instantly notice was how many people were there. We were surrounded by numerous barracks and thousands of tourists, yet we were also surrounded by total silence.

This encouraged us to understand how life may have been during this horrific time: busy, yet silent.

Each block held a different story – back then they were used to carry out abnormal experiments; now they are filled with exhibitions to educate and show the horrors that occurred during this sickening time.

We first went into a block that showed a monument filled with the ashes of those left behind. Surrounding this were photographs of men, women and children entering the camp with suitcases in their hands, oblivious to the events that were about to occur.

We were left in total shock at block 4. This housed two tonnes of human hair of the innocent human beings that entered Auschwitz. It was surreal to look at because the hair on your head is a physical part of you and these people had been completely stripped, both physically and mentally.

It hit us when we looked inside the little glass case to the right as we walked into this room because inside were little pigtails from a small child whose short life was going to be over.

Next we saw the remainder of the belongings that were left behind: suitcases, 55,000 pairs of shoes, glasses and pots and pans. Everyone was asked to bring their most precious valuables in order for the perpetrators to sell them. These were people’s belongings that were not only taken away from them but sold. It’s unimaginable to understand the feeling of something so valuable being taken away and lost forever.

Entering the last remaining gas chamber in Auschwitz was the most silent our group had been the entire journey. It was dark, cold and eerie. As we looked around the chamber we could see scratch marks on the wall and holes in the ceiling where the gas would enter the chamber. It was hard for us to hear that fake showers were planted inside the chambers to pretend that they weren’t in a gas chamber and rather they were having a shower. It truly is sad to imagine that up until their last living moments they were lied to. We found it very difficult to try and understand what the sufferers would have been feeling in the last few minutes.

The journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau was short. When we arrived we walked towards the camp along the infamous train tracks that human beings travelled on towards their death.

Initially, the camp looked just like the photographs that we viewed in our history class. Nonetheless, as we walked through the middle of the famous building we were looking at the grounds filled with the barracks that housed the sufferers of the Holocaust.

The grounds went on for ages, we couldn’t see the outer perimeter of the camp. We walked towards the end of the train tracks where we envisioned the innocent sufferers coming off their carriage and split into two lines: one for men and one for women and children. This queue of people was where a hand gesture determined the life or death of the individual. Elderly people, pregnant women and babies were all sent to the ‘showers’ with a bar of soap. They were stripped down and shoved into the gas chambers to their deaths.

As we look back on the overwhelming experience to Osweicim, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, we feel a strong need to emphasise that not only were the sufferers human beings with family and loved ones, the perpetrators were too. The architect who designed the camp brought his family to live with him in a beautiful house inside the camp. He was a loving father, yet had created a place of torture.We have to begin humanising both the sufferer and the perpetrators because, after all, this inhuman act was carried out by humans who lived normal lives too.

May we also pay our respects on World Holocaust Day and remind ourselves that inhuman acts of hate and discrimination happen every single day, not just in the Holocaust.