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Highbury Fields and St Aloysius students visit Auschwitz to learn about horrors of Holocaust

PUBLISHED: 10:05 18 October 2016 | UPDATED: 15:16 18 October 2016

Prem Rupawala, left, with Daniel Doherty     Picture: grahamsimages.com

Prem Rupawala, left, with Daniel Doherty Picture: grahamsimages.com

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Sixth-formers from two Islington schools took a trip to Auschwitz as part of a campaign to ensure the terrible lessons of the Second World War are remembered by this generation. The Gazette was there.

Rabbi Barry Marcus teaches the lessons of Auschwitz to the students      Picture: grahamsimages.com Rabbi Barry Marcus teaches the lessons of Auschwitz to the students Picture: grahamsimages.com

There are no Jews in Oswiecim, the Polish town once known to the Germans as Auschwitz.

Having arrived six centuries ago, Jewish people made up a majority of the settlement’s population in 1939. They are gone now because almost every single one of them became a victim of the invading Nazis – raped, enslaved, starved, shot, hanged, gassed, abandoned – after they converted their town into the global capital of human slaughter during the Second World War.

The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim        Picture: grahamsimages.com The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim Picture: grahamsimages.com

Between May 1940 and January 1945, an estimated 1.1 million people were murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, the equivalent of 20 packed-out Olympic Stadiums of confused toddlers, anxious mothers and exhausted fathers.

Remembering this cataclysm is one of the main aims of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which last week took nearly 200 students, some from Highbury Fields School and St Aloysius RC College, to Auschwitz for a one-day trip designed to pass on the lessons of the Holocaust.

The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim        Picture: grahamsimages.com The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim Picture: grahamsimages.com

“The power of seeing everything first-hand really sticks in your mind,” Daniel Doherty, 17, from St Aloysius, said. “It’s very enlightening. Everybody should come here.”

Students took a coach from Krakow to Auschwitz’s old Jewish cemetery, the concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and finally the Birkenau extermination camp (Auschwitz II). At the cemetery, they learnt how the town’s ancient Jewish community had once lived “side by side” with their Catholic neighbours.

The railway line leading into the centre of Auschwitz II (Birkenau)    Picture: grahamsimages.com The railway line leading into the centre of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) Picture: grahamsimages.com

“One of the town’s two synagogues was right next door to the church,” said the trust’s Andrew Date. “Before the Jews became victims, they lived very normal lives – it’s crucial to remember that.”

Students were told how prisoners were transported to the camps – often being tricked into buying a “ticket” to begin what they thought was a new life – then tattooed, photographed and robbed.

The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim        Picture: grahamsimages.com The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim Picture: grahamsimages.com

Seeing enormous piles of hair – shaved from women’s and girls’ heads as they arrived, much of it still plaited – was one of the things that hit Prem Rupawala, 17, the hardest.

The St Aloysius student added: “The way they were stripped of their humanity was shocking. I don’t think something like the Holocaust could ever happen again, not on this scale, but if you look at Syria you see certain groups of people being targeted.”

The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim        Picture: grahamsimages.com The Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim Picture: grahamsimages.com

Later, at Auschwitz II, students saw rooms where prisoners were gassed and burnt, then gathered around Rabbi Barry Marcus as he delivered a sermon on lessons to be learnt from the slaughter.

“‘The valley of the shadow of death’ in many ways describes the world we are in right now,” he said after reading Psalm 23.

The pile of shoes once belonging to the murdered inmates at Auschwitz I    Picture: grahamsimages.com The pile of shoes once belonging to the murdered inmates at Auschwitz I Picture: grahamsimages.com

“If we observed a minute’s silence for each of the people killed here, we wouldn’t speak for two years.”

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