THE death count at Auschwitz was the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every day for 500 days.
That was how the numbers of those who died in Poland at the Nazi concentration camp were described to local youngsters who travelled there last Thursday to experience what is left of the largest death centre at the heart of the Nazi regime.
Local pupils and the Journal and Gazette’s Irene MacKinnon were in a group of 221 who flew to Krakow on a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, as part of their ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’.
The first stop was a Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, the Polish name for the city, renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis.
Before 1939, Jews made up 58 per cent of the population but there are no Jews there now. The Nazi invasion destroyed the local burial ground, uprooting grave stones to make new roads and, although many have been returned to the cemetery, they are broken, cobbled together and do not correspond to the bodies beneath. Sadly, the area is now kept locked as anti-Semitic vandalism is still a reality here.
The fate of an estimated 1.5 million was decided at Auschwitz, created by the Nazis in 1940, at an army barracks on the city’s outskirts, initially for Poles arrested after the 1939 invasion.
The whole complex is now called Auschwitz-Birkenau, but was originally three camps, only two of which still exist.
We were first taken to Auschwitz I - the concentration camp which housed up to 20,000 prisoners, including intellectual and resistance prisoners, Soviet Prisoners of War, German criminals, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
All were put to work in the arms factories, malnourished and living in dreadful conditions, most only surviving a few months.
Walking past the famous metal sign, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, or ‘work sets you free’, what struck the group was the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda.
The barracks looked like a homely avenue of red brick buildings separated by trees.
But there could be 700 people in any one of the barracks, kept like chickens in triple height bunks on straw with limited sanitation.
Pictures of inmates now line the walls, after they were shaved, given a number to replace their names, and dressed in used uniforms. As our guide Anna pointed out, the Nazis used many methods of killing, including work.
In 1942, the Final Solution was decided by the Nazis, and Jews were sent from as far as Corfu, Athens, Norway, Oslo and Paris to Auschwitz.
Not knowing they were being sent to their deaths, families packed their luggage with clothes, toiletries,and house keys for when they would go back home.
They paid for return tickets on cramped and ill-ventilated trains taking them across Europe to Poland where their fate was shrouded in secrecy.
In photos taken by SS soldiers displayed in Auschwitz I, children are seen stepping off trains, minutes before being sent to gas chambers as they were too young to work.
They had left their luggage with soldiers, heaped on the platform, that would be redistributed to Germans and soldiers.
To avoid panic, babies were kept with their mothers, and were together when they were lead to buildings disguised as shower rooms, that would instead belch Cyclone B gas suffocating all those inside.
An SS doctor would make a life or death decision as he assessed new arrivals, and 75 per cent were sent to the gas chambers, including the disabled and elderly. Twenty per cent were children. Crystal Henderson (17) of Bo’ness Academy said: “A lot of people didn’t know what was happening and we now see it in pictures. Seeing the hair from 40,000 people was the most moving thing, and the suitcases and shoes.”
Fellow pupil Murray Hay (17) added: “It makes the whole thing stand out in your mind. The gas chamber was shocking, and you saw how much the Nazis deceived people. You can imagine being there but there are no words to describe what you see.”
Chloe Sommerville (16) of Linlithgow Academy said: “ It struck me how big the whole area is. It was really good to see it in person and know what happened there.”
Finlay Macartney (17) added: “Being in the gas chamber was the most moving part. We didn’t learn more facts and figures but you understand the human cost more by being here and seeing the evidence.”
Birkenau, 3km away and known as Auschwitz II, stretches over 420 acres. It was the purpose built extermination camp, built in 1941.
By 1944, it was overcrowded with over 90,000 prisoners, and housed gas chambers, crematoria, and the end of the railroad for many.
Our journey around Auschwitz ended with a memorial service at the Birkenau crematorium ruins with Rabbi Barry Marcus (below).
If we had taken a moment’s silence for every victim, we would have stood there for three years.