Visiting Auschwitz was a ‘completely life-changing experience’

Watchtowwer at Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Watchtowwer at Auschwitz II - Birkenau

In 2009, a small group of Banbury youngsters was among a party of 200 students from across the south east to visit Auschwitz.

Among those taking the trip to Poland to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust was student Katy Roberts from, at the time, Chenderit School in Middleton Cheney.

Today, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp, we go into our archives to republish Katy’s review of the visit - first printed on this website on April 2, 2009:

“On Tuesday, March 24, 2009, I took part in a one-day trip to Poland, where we visited three sites – the town of Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz during the war), Auschwitz I (where political prisoners were held), and Birkenau, the main death camp, where the gas chambers and crematoriums were.

“In Oswiecim, we visited the site of the Great Synagogue (only the foundations remain today) and the smaller, newer synagogue, which had been built after the war.

“Before the war, 58 per cent of the population in Oswiecim had been Jewish. Now, there are no Jews living in the town at all.

“The main thing that shocked me about Auschwitz was the buildings – they were so modern.

“In these buildings, we saw tanks of human hair, suitcases, combs, hairbrushes, shoes and children’s toys – which had all belonged to people sent to the death camps.

“One particular suitcase was unbelievably sad – the suitcase of a little girl who had been born in 1941 and gassed at Birkenau in 1943. She was two years old.

“In contrast to Auschwitz I, Birkenau was incredibly open, with huge lines of wooden barracks that ran all the way along the infamous train tracks in the centre of the camp.

“As we were walking around Birkenau, there was another group from Israel, and they were holding a memorial service. Hearing their singing across Birkenau was the most haunting thing I have ever heard.

“But it was the last part of our time in Birkenau that really upset me.

“A building we went into was the building where the prisoners were ‘dehumanised’ – their clothes and possessions were taken from them, their hair shaved off. But it was the last room in this building that got too much for me – there were huge walls filled with the photographs of people who had died at Birkenau, which had been taken from their suitcases.

“Seeing these photographs reminded me that the people killed in the Nazi death camps were just ordinary people.

“They had families, friends, hopes, dreams, aspirations - just like you or me.

“And to realise that these people never got the chance to see their families and friends again or the chance to fulfil those hopes, dreams and aspirations was the hardest thing I have ever had to try and come to terms with.

“The day ended with a memorial ceremony, where I had been asked to do a reading, which was huge honour for me.

“A couple of prayers were said, we had a minute’s silence, and we each lit a candle and placed it along the train tracks in remembrance of all those millions of people who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

“Visiting Auschwitz has been such an emotional journey, but also, it has been a completely life-changing experience for me. I firmly believe that everyone should go and see it.

“Holocaust survivors are getting less and less, and people need to know what happened during the Holocaust to prevent history from repeating itself.”