Face to face with murder


STANDING BEFORE A two-ton mountain of human hair, shorn from the heads of women about to be killed in the gas chambers, all talk of exam modules and weekend discos ceases.

Tears well in some eyes, but all are transfixed by the awful spectacle. The six million deaths described in textbooks become terribly real. The victims of the Holocaust suddenly become humans.

That's the goal of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which last Wednesday flew 120 sixth-form students and teachers from all over Northern Ireland, as well as three Members of the Legislative Assembly, to the death-camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project.

Based on the premise that "hearing is not like seeing", the government-funded initiative aims to give two children from every UK school the opportunity to witness at close quarters the potential dangers of racism and prejudice.

In the week leading up to the trip, the students had listened to Auschwitz survivor Ziggy Shipper's testimony of the brutal realities of the camp. But for Eirin Cushnahan, of St Joseph's College in Belfast, like many of her contemporaries, things didn't sink in until she saw that mound of hair, matted and ready to be sold to the German textile industry.

"That really upset me because it personalised the whole idea of the murders," she says. "It actually scared me. You can read all you want about six million people dying, but it will never have an impact like just coming here and seeing for yourself."

However, this is just the beginning of the traumatic process of putting faces on the murdered millions.

In a building marked "Material proof of the crimes", the group are first led to a room containing a gigantic mesh of spectacles, then into one filled with suitcases, many inscribed with their previous owners' names.

There are audible cries and more tears when the tour passes through a room stacked ceiling high, on one side, with prosthetic limbs, and, on the other, with tiny children's clothes and shoes.

Recalling this moment, Una Dillon, a teacher from Aquinas Grammar in Belfast, questions whether the trip would be suitable for everyone.

"I would be selective as to who should go on something like this - definitely not younger children," she says. "There was a period of over an hour where we hardly [ spoke] to each other. I couldn't think of a word to say after seeing those children's clothes."

If seeing these masses of personal belongings brought home the human individuality of those murdered, it was being in the actual gas chambers where they died that made painfully clear the barbaric, industrial means by which they were slaughtered.

The dank depths of the cement chambers feel all the more foreboding after stepping out of a glorious Polish spring day. Observing the rule of silence in respect for those murdered, the students pass from the changing hall to the "shower room" and into the crematorium, where the bodies were burned in their thousands.

BY THE time we walk back into the disconcerting sunshine, the silence continues, due now to shock and revulsion rather than protocol. Lyra McKee from Belfast Metropolitan, singles this moment out as the most disturbing of the whole day.

"Down in the gas chamber, I saw this square of light in the ceiling," she recalls. "It was such a sunny day and in there it was so dark, and it was nearly like I was in the mindset of one of the Jews 60 years ago, because the first thing I thought was 'I'm never going to see the daylight again'."

Not everyone, however, was so affected. Many struggled to connect the site and buildings with the events that transpired there.

Danielle Elliott, from Malone Integrated College, says she would "need to see the people go into the gas chambers and not come out again. I'd need to have seen it as a concentration camp, not a museum. Looking at everything through glass walls, I don't know, for me, it's just not real."

Nevertheless, the group agree unanimously that the project was worthwhile and should be continued. Many even resolve to return themselves to "get a closer look". Patrick Simpson, from Foyle College in Derry, says: "A lot more people should have the opportunity to make this journey. You can't really know how it'll affect you until you come here and feel the genuine eeriness of the place. You can just feel the devastation in the air. It's just a chilling atmosphere - impossible to describe."

On the flight back to Ireland, Mark Durkan, the leader of the SDLP, describes the overall effect of the visit. "The big impact was colour," he says. "I've always thought of concentration camps and death camps in black and white - even Schindler's List was shot in black and white - but today brought things into full, horrific colour.

"And that just reinforces that these horrible events weren't that far away from us in either time or distance."

Leaving Belfast airport, the students' conversation returns predictably to imminent modules and upcoming discos, but what they have witnessed is clearly still at the back of their minds.

Having earlier that day done what so few prisoners ever achieved - walked back out through the gates of Auschwitz - they are, in all likelihood, filled with a newfound appreciation of those simple joys.