NOT far from the centre of the small town of Oswiecim, in Poland, lies an area of wasteland.
It sits between two churches and overlooks the River Sola – but it wasn’t always wasteland.
Until September, 1939, it was the site of the Great Synagogue, which could seat about 1,000 people.
It was a thriving street, the hub of Jewish life, where celebrations, religious ceremonies and special events took place.
In Oswiecim, Jews and Christians lived harmoniously for the most part and tried to work alongside each other.
But, almost overnight, the Nazi administration destroyed the Jewish way of life and burnt down the Great Synagogue.
The town, better known by its German name, Auschwitz, had a population before the war which was 58% Jewish.
Today, no Jews live here.
The last Jew to live in the town was Szymon Kluger, a Holocaust survivor who returned home and lived there until his death in 2000.
County Gazette reporter DANIELLE MORRIS’ visit to Oswiecim was part of a trip to see Auschwitz-Birkenau organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
She joined 200 post-16 students from the South-West – including some from Wellington School and Richard Huish College.
The trust is based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’.
NO amount of reading or pictures can prepare you for the horrors that lie behind the gates of Auschwitz 1.
Primarily a concentration camp, it held 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners at a time, from all over Europe, including men, women, children, prisoners of war, gypsies, criminals and homosexuals.
The last steps of freedom for prisoners would be walking through the iron gates which read ‘Work will set you free’, many dying in just a couple of months from exhaustion, hard labour, the atrocious living conditions or the torture and coldblooded murder that took place there.
Photographs of hundreds of faces hang on the walls of one of the numerous red brick buildings, some smiling, some fearful and many defiant, refusing to be broken, perhaps knowing that this was the last picture that would ever be taken of them.
Their heads all shaved, wearing the same blue and white uniform in a bid to strip them of their identity, viewing the image is an uncomfortable moment and one which starts to drive home what happened there.
Our educator for the day, Tom Jackson, showed us a picture of a mother and just a few rows away her young daughter.
There was no happy ending or escape for them – they died less than two months after arriving at the camp.
It’s a story repeated hundreds of times.
Tom told me: “I wouldn’t say I learn something new, because I do so many of these visits every year, but I always learn something new about how people react.
“Everyone has a different reaction and feeling to what they see.
"There’s usually a lot of anger and we try and get the students to think about why they’re here, why they feel that way and if they feel the blame lies just within the camp or if they think other people are to blame, too.”
Anger was certainly one emotion I felt at various points, along with sadness and a heart which grew heavier throughout the day.
I had seen pictures of the room filled with human hair but I could not help the gasp that escaped my lips when I saw it.
Gazing at the scene, you begin to pick out the different colours, the different styles and even the accessories – there was a plait which still had a blue ribbon tied on the end.
Next was the room of suitcases and then we went to the room of shoes.
It was there that I shed a tear, troubled by a blue nautical-themed shoe with a little white anchor sticking out among the thousands because I had seen similar pairs just recently in a shop in town.
It suddenly hits you that these were people with families and lives – they all had their own tastes and interests, just like we do.
It is perhaps too easy to lose perspective on what happened.
The Nazis murdered six-million Jews during the war but it’s a number so vast it becomes almost incomprehensible.
Tom asked: “If you were told you were being moved somewhere and had to pack quickly, what would you put in your suitcase.”
“Photographs,” I reply.
Others suggest clothes, keys, hair products.
And this is what we see.
People believed that one day they would return home, that they were not going to their deaths.
A wall in Birkenau has 2,500 photographs, each one brought to the camp by a prisoner.
We were asked to find ones we could identify with and if I close my eyes I can still see the faces of some of them now, smiling, laughing, celebrating.
This is how they should be remembered, as individuals.
The Holocaust Educational Trust sends about 2,000 post-16 students to Auschwitz-Birkenau a year.
Two students from schools and colleges in the area, including Richard Huish College in Taunton and Wellington School in Wellington, had the opportunity to go on the trip, part of the Lessons from Auschwitz course which includes a before and after seminar.
“I don’t really know what to expect, we’ve been reading about Auschwitz but I think the day is going to be really interesting and a good experience that we can share with others” Charles Foster, a pupil at Wellington School, tells me before we board the plane.
Alex Abbott, from Richard Huish, adds: “I think everyone should be made to come here.
“You can read all you like about the Holocaust and the war but I don’t think unless you see it you can't really understand or take in what happened.”
The reconstructed gas chamber at Auschwitz 1 has a cold feel to it, a cold that seeps into your bones, as if your body knows the evil took place there.
It sits just a few hundred yards from the electric fence and beyond that a house.
Camp Commander Rudolf Höss lived there with his wife and children – he was the man who oversaw the extension of Auschwitz to Birkeneau and to develop an extermination camp, following orders.
But, as Tom told us these facts and told us that he would have received no punishment if he had not built the gas chamber, I cannot help but feel sick and the faces of the pupils around me reflect that sentiment.
He added: “He was a family man, he had a heart, I’m not excusing what he did, but think about these things, too.”
It was one of the many difficult points the students had to consider as they thought about how they would follow up their trip.
Sophie Langdon, from Wellington School said: “This was a tremendous opportunity to improve our understanding of the scale of the Holocaust and the historical context.
“As the Rabbis point out, ‘hearing is not like seeing.’
“What really struck me were the children, younger than us, forced to work on the camps.
“The torture and experiments that went on for ‘medical research’ by Joseph Mengele were particularly awful and will stay with me for a long time.”
At nearby Birkenau we were faced with many parallels.
It was the main death camp, site of most of the gas chambers where Jews from as far as Greece were sent to die.
About 70% were automatically sentenced to death, children torn from their parents unsure of what was to come after days and weeks spent on a small, crowded cattle truck.
Up until their death their heads were filled with lies, told they were just being rehomed.
They were told they were going to be showered, given pegs for their clothes and laces for their shoes.
It was when they were asked to undress that many knew that death awaited them.
Even after death, they were stripped further of their identity.
Once killed in the gas chamber, their heads were shaved before their bodies were incinerated to hide the evidence.
For many women, their hair is their pride, and for it to be shaved after death seemed almost as barbaric as the gassing itself.
Standing on the railway tracks, over a mile long, in the shadows of the watchtower, it was still hard to picture what it looked like filled with people arriving, already knowing that the keys they had packed to go home would not be needed, that everything they thought they knew was about to be destroyed.
Did other prisoners try and warn them with their eyes about what lay ahead, did they already know what it was like to be a child wrenched from its mother?
I am sure we have all had experiences where we have lost our parents in a bustling crowd and the sick feeling that you would be lost forever, screaming their names.
But what was that like here, I wondered.
While we stood in a place where so much death and destruction took place, a man rode by on his bike.
Tom told us this was normal, that people often walked through the camp on their way home or to work – it seemed cold and cruel but they did not ask the Germans to move in and build a concentration camp, he reminded us.
The gas chambers have gone, destroyed by the Nazis to try and hide what they did, just weeks before the Red Army arrived, but the steps remain, a small reminder of the horrors that took place right by the giant memorial where Rabbi Andrew Shaw gave a moving memorial.
Rabbi Shaw’s grandfather was a victim of the Holocaust and his grandmother a survivor.
His grandfather never knew his child or his grandchildren, he did not even know his wife was pregnant.
No-one knows what happened to him but Rabbi Shaw is not full of resentment, as you would expect.
“I feel proud when I come here, I feel proud that I am related to a survivor of the Holocaust, I feel proud of my people because they refused to be beaten and broken, they never forgot who they were.
“Fire has so many connotations”, he told us as we all lit a candle.
“Fire was what they used to destroy the synagogue, it was what they used to burn the dead bodies of those they killed, but it can also represent goodness and hope, and tonight that is what it represents.
"We are all united by this light.
“Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people live.”