Reporter Natalie Copeland joined pupils on a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau
For a few seconds, I stood there, closed my eyes while feeling the warm hazy sunshine sink into my face and listened to the birds tweeting.
For that brief moment, I could’ve been anywhere.
But I wasn’t. As I opened my eyes the sight of the barbed wire and never-ending barracks were a stark reminder I was standing on the grounds where once, hell on Earth was.
I was at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration and death camp, where the lives of more than 1.1 million men, women and children were so cruelly taken.
That’s approximately one million Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and around 12,000 victims from other groups and the disabled.
Earlier in the day, I was one of 200 visitors flown into Kraków, Poland, with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).
The trust, founded in 1988, aims to raise awareness of the Holocaust and its relevance today in schools.
For the past 19 years, the HET has run the Lessons From Auschwitz project, where students aged 16 and above are invited to attend two seminars and a one-day visit to Poland.
The aim is for students to become ambassadors and share their experiences with the wider public.
Along with students from sixth forms and colleges in the eastern region, I was invited as a reporter.
Before the visit, I had read about the Holocaust, of the atrocities, facts and figures which alone are heart-breaking.
But nothing could have prepared me for actually being there.
After all, the HET’s project’s premise is, ‘hearing is not like seeing’ – how very true.
After arriving at Kraków airport, we travelled to the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German).
A quiet town in Southern Poland which once had a large Jewish community, it has had to live with being associated with genocide.
Within my group of 18, I walked into Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, which held around 15,000 prisoners.
I felt my blood run cold as I read those infamous words above the entrance gate ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ – Work Sets You Free.
“The Nazis didn’t want the prisoners to panic, otherwise they could do something unpredictable. So they were given hope,” said our tour guide Pawet Sawicki.
“They were told to remove their clothes for a shower and even had to remember which pegs to leave their clothes on. But they were to be gassed instead.”
We were shown around several barracks in Auschwitz I, which is now a museum. In silent horror, we looked through several enormous glass cabinets, which were each full of possessions seized from the prisoners.
Suitcases bearing names, hairbrushes, artificial limbs and clothing were piled high.
“Prisoners were robbed of their identities and dehumanised,” Pawet told us.
I was sickened to see a gigantic cabinet full of human hair which had been shaved off the women prisoners, some even with hair clips attached or still in plaits.
The hair was used to make textiles as well as to humiliate the women.
Another cabinet I saw held thousands and thousands of shoes, all different shapes and sizes, once worn by their ill-fated owners.
“The shoes got to me,” said Summer Rostron, an A-level student at King’s Lynn’s College of West Anglia.
“There were so many, stacked so high, each representing those who died.”
We followed our guide into a corridor of faces, prisoners with their names and dates of birth and death underneath.
The fear in their eyes just seemed to stare right back at me.
And then we were led to a room which was personally, the worst one for me.
It was an exhibition which featured the child prisoners; images of their little faces and starving bodies, some pictured holding their mothers’ hands walking to their deaths.
I started thinking of my own children and couldn’t help but try to imagine what those parents would’ve been going through – how could humans inflict these barbaric acts on other humans?
I don’t mind admitting I cried at this point, the kind of tears that won’t stop flowing.
At this point I wanted to take my head phones off and press pause. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the horrors which flooded my sight and mind.
HET educator Alex Hetherington, who regularly goes to the camps for his role, said: “I will go past the cabinets all the time and be fine and, then it just hits me.
“We are bearing witness to all these names. It may be a name is no longer in anyone’s memory, but by coming here we are doing something – not allowing them to be forgotten.”
The next stop was Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, which was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres.
Even though I have seen pictures before, I was haunted by the rail track where prisoners would arrive by train before being separated into those fit for work and those who would die immediately.
This place was so vast with its rows and rows of barracks my eyes couldn’t take it all in.
Rabbi Barry Marcus said: “At the last camp at Auschwitz I, you saw everything, with here, what you don’t see can be just as overwhelming.”
As we walked towards the crematoria ruins, we listened to readings and stories from the educator and tour guide, and I noticed the young students within my group were so respectful – they wanted to be there and learn. They will become ambassadors for the HET, who vow to share their knowledge and experience with others.
Another COWA student, Annabelle Homes said: “I think it’s a lot bigger than I expected. I have read text books and this has put everything into context. I think everyone should come here. A very emotional experience.”
We gathered for a memorial ceremony held next to the destroyed crematoria, taken by Rabbi Marcus.
I had goosebumps when he sung a prayer in Hebrew and we each lit a candle.
Mr Sawicki the tour guide, summed up the visit: “This project turns us into messengers. You may forget many things I have told you, but no one can take away the emotions you have had.”
As we piled back on the coach to head back to the airport, it was naturally a sombre mood, students and guests reflecting on what they had seen and heard.
As harrowing as it was to see the death camps, the possessions, the faces, I think it is so important to be educated about what happened to ensure it never, ever happens again.
It was a frightening signal of what could happen if prejudice and racism was to ever become acceptable.
I feel very humbled for the opportunity to go to Auschwitz and will never forget it. I was also left feeling although we may not be able to change the past, together, we can change the future.