THE bleak February snowflakes fall and flurry through the grey air at the open iron gates embellished with three words, as the eye is drawn to the grim brick buildings, writes Bruce Sinclair.

Western Telegraph:

The gates, bearing the infamous three-word promise ‘arbeit macht frei’, better known in English as work makes you free, mark the entrance to one of the darkest places to stain the gentle Earth, the Nazi concentration camp, whose name still evokes horror more than seven decades on, Auschwitz.

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Entering under the lying words, whose original promise was far less sinister, the rows of drab brick buildings, so near the modern day Polish town of Oswiecim, seem at first innocent to the terror and despair they will be forever associated with.

The horrors of the camps that make up Auschwitz-Birkenau and its many sibling monuments to the murderous Nazi regime, are well known, the memories forever etched on our consciousness.

It is worth remembering that Auschwitz was not the first, or only, of the sites of brutal organised mass-murder, whether concentration or extermination camps; the names Belzec, Sobibor, Majdan, and Treblinka, among many others, darken the world.

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Auschwitz, however, bears the horrific title of having the largest death toll of the Holocaust, with 1.1million people killed, about 1 million Jews, but substantial numbers of other victims of the regime, including Poles, Soviet prisoners-of-war, and Roma.

Last Wednesday, February 7, The Western Telegraph joined some 150 students from schools and colleges across Wales, including pupils from Tasker Milward, Greenhill, and Ysgol y Preseli, as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project.

The trip started with a visit to Oswiecim, where before the war, more than half of the population was Jewish, so well integrated that the town’s Catholic church and grand synagogue faced each other.

The town, renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis, was once home to 7,000 Jews; few returned, and even fewer stayed, the last dying in 2000.

The trip visited the site of the former synagogue, before entering the gates Auschwitz 1’s barracks and crematoria, and the main killing grounds of nearby Birkenau.

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Auschwitz1 was primarily the concentration camp, but also the site where the Zyklon B pesticide was used for its murderous intent in the gassing of so many was developed.

Inside its sombre brick buildings, where so many died, are chilling reminders both of the scale and the barbarity of what was committed there.

Auschwitz tried to swallow the identity of those sent there, condemned soon enough, as the numbers increased, to merely be a number tattooed on an arm.

It troubles the mind, and the spirit, to comprehend the sheer scale of the loss when faced with the personal items collected from those swallowed by the camp.

Those who ran Auschwitz found a use for all the personal possessions, and many other things, taken from its victims.

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The ever-stretching mass of hair, taken from those who arrived both to humiliate them and for its uses, chokes the breath, while the mounds of suitcases pay mute testimony to the lie given that those brought here were being offered a new life, as do the other personal possessions, the piles of spectacles, and the combs, and plates, the photographs of now-unknown memories, and everything else that gives comfort to a life but has little value to anyone else.

And then there are the shoes. Piles and piles of shoes.

The shoes, the ever-onward stretching sombre spectacle of black and dark hues, are on a scale that assails the eye and mind, the human imagination, thankfully unable to fully process the sheer numbers that affronts it. What breaks the spirit is, every now and then, a personal and agonising glimpse of a different colour, a different style, someone’s shoes, someone’s gift or someone’s own taste; someone who disappeared.

These everyday items were once owned by someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s daughter, sister, brother, wife, husband, someone’s love, someone’s lost love, friend, colleague, someone’s future, past, someone’s neighbour, someone’s helper, someone’s smile on a crowded street, someone’s hopes and someone’s dreams.

The horror expands with a walk in to the showers where victims were herded and cajoled, the holes in the ceiling where they were despatched with Zyklon B; the bodies moved to the nearby furnaces.

After the chilling experiences of Auschwitz, the visit to nearby Auschwitz-Birkenhau, the death camp, gives a brutal sense of foreboding.

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The second of the Auschwitzes was built when the capacity for brutality, horror, and murder couldn’t be met.

The guard tower over the railway track glares menacingly as the winter snows fall, the eye leading to the railway tracks that stretch ever onward.

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The railway tracks.

The tracks were built to bring those who had so far escaped the full brutality of the Nazi plans to a place of death, bringing hundreds at time, overloaded in cattle trucks, sick, suffocating with the heat or bitter with the cold after a cramped journey of many hundreds of miles, to face barking dogs and shouting guards when their final destination was reached.

A simple order: left or right.

A simple order which meant life, perhaps for a while, or near instant death; an order which instantly tore apart friends, families, brothers, sisters.

To live, as a slave, perhaps in the Sonderkommando -the prisoners disposing of the fresh bodies from the ever-busy gas chambers and - meant life for a short while; but even then life that was utterly disposable.

Their knowledge of the evil secrets of mass murder made their life precarious, but some brave members, realising the futility of their future, provided testimony of what happened, and even staged uprisings.

Much of this second camp is now empty, the wooden buildings fallen or destroyed over the decades, but what remains provides grim realisation of what happened; the hastily destroyed gas chambers providing a glimpse into the abyss.

Nearby the site of the gas chambers is an area of the camp referred to as Kannada, where many of the items of value were taken from its victims.

Now this part of the camp hosts photographic images taken from those lost, unnamed and unknown images of lives devoured by the murderous system.

Western Telegraph:

It would be wrong to think of the sites of Auschwitz as a museum, it is a grave, a forlorn, empty place where once there was farmland, now the desolate ground is stained forever with the many lives eradicated and spread amongst its soils.

Western Telegraph:

Auschwitz is not a museum or even a place of remembrance for an event in the dark annals of human history, it is a warning, if we do not learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat it.

What is it now, it is not a mausoleum, it is a warning. In an age when people daily deny the holocaust on social media its victims silently scream: “our futures were taken from us this happened to us but it could happen to you.”

Auschwitz is eternal, it is our duty, and our salvation, and our future, to learn its lessons, a mirror to our darkness. A place that out of hatred may yet come hope.

History never repeats itself but it often rhymes. The gas chambers and the burnt synagogues will be seen again, or something similar, if we don’t heed the stark warnings from the bleak empty buildings that pay silent witness.

To those who would deny the past and the future, let them look at the bales of human hair, the names of those known, the pictures and memories of those unknown, and ask, if this never happened, where are the lost?

Western Telegraph:

The day ended with a simple-yet poignant candle lighting and a period of reflection to remember the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, and all the other victims.

In a happier world, a church bell tolls in a Polish town, witnessed by a synagogue across the street, the members of both faiths having lived in neighbourly peace for centuries.

Meanwhile the bitter cold snow falls on the frozen ground at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as the desolate land pays mute remembrance to the darkness that once visited it.

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PICTURES: Justin Grainge.

VIDEOS: Western Telegraph.