Silence is rarely something you expect when you have a bus full of teenagers.
But when senior pupils from Scottish schools stopped outside the former Auschwitz death camp and looked at what was before them, they were rendered speechless.
In November, and for the first time, youngsters from Bo’ness Academy joined their peers from the Braes, Grangemouth and Armadale and others from across the country on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.
A one-day excursion to Poland, the trip is a school lesson like no other and Louise Wyeth, a religious studies teacher at Bo’ness Academy, accompanied the youngsters.
“When we arrived at Auschwitz I, the old army barracks, there was silence,” she said.
“Nobody was speaking, we didn’t know where to look or what to say. We looked through the book of names of the Jews who had died and saw some pages were still blank because everyone still can’t be identified. That was harrowing for the pupils.
“Arriving outside Auschwitz II, the purpose-built death camp, we couldn’t believe the size and scale of the place.
“We were standing on the rail track which brought people to the camp and that was mind-blowing.
“We were also involved in a vigil with poetry which was an experience because we lit candles which were placed along the rail track.
“The pupils heard from the rabbi there that his grandfather had been killed at Auschwitz and that really brought it home to them – they were listening to someone whose family had been through it.
“He also said that prejudice was still going strong today which really resonated with the pupils.”
Lessons from Auschwitz is a three-part project which aims to improve students’ understanding of the Holocaust, while also emphasising the potentially dangerous consequences if prejudicial and racial views are allowed to become socially acceptable.
Since the project started in 1999, more than 30,000 students and teachers have taken part.
At the end of last year, Bo’ness pupils Jodi Howlett and David Mitchell were selected to take the school’s two places on the trip after an Apprentice-style interview.
Ten potential candidates were quizzed about how they believed they’d benefit from the experience.
S5 pupil Jodi (16) said: “It wasn’t what I was expecting.
“When we came back, my friends were asking me what it was like.
“It’s so difficult to explain; anything I said didn’t explain what it’s actually like.
“It puts things in perspective and makes you feel really lucky that you didn’t have to go through what people then did.”
S6’s David (17) said: “When we went to the first part which was Auschwitz I, it was so busy and noisy because people were chatting and taking pictures
“But when we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the actual death camp, it was very quiet.
“I remember going into a room, it wasn’t a very big room, where hundreds of thousands of people died.
“The walls were grey and there were scratches on them. By the time we came out of the crematoria, nobody was chatting and everyone had their eyes on the ground.
“The effect was instantaneous.”
Both pupils have not only been sharing their experiences with their fellow pupils but with their local community too.
MP Martyn Day recently visited the school to speak to the youngsters following their Auschwitz visit on November 8.
The Linlithgow and East Falkirk representative said: “I want to thank the pupils for telling me about the significance of their visit to Auschwitz.
“Projects such as this help to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten and remind people, especially in light of recent political events, that we cannot allow such views to seep back into society.”
Miss Wyeth added: “From a teacher’s point of view, it is exceedingly well organised.
“The pupils are mentally prepared before they go.
“Lessons from Auschwitz is about spreading the word about what happened and making people aware of it.
“Our pupils have definitely done that.
“They will also be giving a presentation to St Mungo’s High School next month.
“I’ve already had pupils asking me how they can take part next time.”