Standing at the end of the long, disused railway, sheltering from the rain, Beth Rutledge lit a small white candle and set it down on the tracks.
Above her, as the rain lashed down, the watchtower under which more than a million Jews, Poles, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners passed on their way to the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers.
To her right, the converted wooden stables, into which more than 800 men would be squeezed to shiver and starve, while ahead of her, in the darkness, a kilometre or so down the line, lay the ruins of the crematoria in which the bodies of the dead were burned.
“Seeing first-hand how families were ripped apart, I just wanted to go home and hug my mum,” the 17-year-old St Thomas More Catholic School pupil, from Low Fell, said.
“And standing there, you think, ‘If we were cold just visiting, what must it have been like for those people who didn’t have anything.’ It’s unimaginable.”
Beth was among around 200 teenagers from across the region who, on Wednesday, journeyed to Poland as part of the Holocaust Education Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project. The trip – a whistlestop, one-day visit to the city of Oświęcim and the two largest Nazi-built concentration and death camps on its outskirts – saw pupils taken to a Jewish cemetery, then guided around the sites of some of the Third Reich’s greatest atrocities.
Throughout, dark clouds hung overhead, rain pouring as if the weather had some appreciation of the solemnity of the place, its towers and gates iconic across the world for all the wrong reasons. “You see pictures and hear descriptions, but you can never prepare yourself,” said Ben Fraser, 17, a Park View Community School pupil, from Pelton.
“I felt a bit sick walking round, but also at the same time very sad.
“One million people is an impossibly large figure to contemplate, but to see the holiday snaps, and hear about people’s ambitions and aims, and see the sheer volume of things, it really put it into context – and it’s so important that the individuals aren’t forgotten in all of it.
“I know I can’t imagine what they went through, and it was a difficult, emotional experience, but it is important for people like us to visit Auschwitz and bring back our experiences to share with others, so we can educate and act as role models.”
Before the war, like many towns in Poland, Oświęcim had a large Jewish community – by 1939 it accounted for 58% of the near 60,000 population – with a Great Synagogue that could seat 1,000.
On the outskirts of the town, brick barracks had been built for agencies of the Polish government, with some used to house refugees, soldiers and migrant workers. Shortly after the Nazi invasion in September 1939, the synagogue was burned down and, within a year, Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, had ordered that a concentration camp be established, making use of the existing army camp, to house political prisoners, prisoners of war, Gypsies and Jews.
By March 1941, the decision was taken to build a sub-camp on the site of the village of Bzezinka – Birkenau in German – 3km up the road. In time it would become the final destination for hundreds of thousands of people.
Over the following years, a further 40 or so sub camps, usually attached to farms or industrial facilities such as the Buna-Monowitz chemical plant 7km away, were built, creating a huge network beyond the “Arbeit macht frei” gates – which are at the entrance to Auschwitz I – and the train tracks and watchtower at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which many people picture when they think of the site. “I thought I would cry and be really upset, but I was more just shocked by it all,” said Beth.
“You stand there, experiencing the sheer scale of it, and think ‘this horrific thing really did happen’ and it happened right there.”
At Auschwitz I, the pupils walked corridors lined with photos of prisoners who were executed, starved, or simply worked to death, and passed through rooms containing just a small fraction of the tonnes of human hair, shoes, spectacles and other belongings stolen from the dead.
They also walked past the commandant's house, which was described without irony by Rudolph Hess’s wife as “paradise” – a home she was so happy in that when her husband was recalled to Berlin she stayed on with her children.
And they were invited to step inside the camp’s former gas chamber and crematoria – a building shut down after only a matter of months for not being “efficient” enough, as it could only dispose of 350 bodies an hour. “I thought I had learned a lot about it, but to see it felt really different,” said Erin Bell, 17, from Washington.
“Standing in that gas chamber, it was deeply uncomfortable to be there.”
Transported up the road, the students – in groups of around 25, led by a local guide and educator from the HET – were taken into the watchtower, from where they could look out over the desolate remains of the death camp, then on into the repurposed wooden stables that each housed more than 800 people at a time.
From there they were taken to the train platform, where a simple “right or left” instruction could mean the difference between survival and suffering or near immediate death. Nearby, a stray cat pounced playfully on imaginary mice – a strange and jarring symbol of life amid the windswept openness.
The pupils tour ended with a walk past the long-demolished crematoria and gas chambers, destroyed by the prisoners forced to work in them in 1944, and a visit to the former main registration building, where many prisoners forced to labour were tatooed with an identification number on their wrist.
In the building at the end there were photographs, things that people brought with them as they were told they were being ‘resettled’. Beth said: “We were told to focus on one and read more about the individuals and their families, and you see that they were just normal people killed for no reason.
“Some were young, almost the same age as me.
“Seeing all that, it’s hard to understand how people are racist – we need to accept people for their differences.
"And I agree with the quote on one of the walls – ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’.”
“We need to learn from history because people are still very ignorant about it and I’d advise people to go to Auschwitz – but I’m not sure I’d want to go again as it was so hard-hitting.”
Rachel Grant, 18, from Whickham, agreed.
“I feel more appreciative of what I have and how well off we are,” she said. “Nobody is persecuting us for our religion or belief.”
Teacher Stuart Ireland, who accompanied four Year 13 A level pupils from Lord Lawson of Beamish School, said he felt it is important for pupils to visit and see for themselves the horrors of war.
“It was my third time visiting Auschwitz and the second with school pupils,” he said. “And it never really fails to amaze.
“From a teaching point of view, watching the impact it has on students, that’s the reason we do it.
“It’s one of those places you should try to visit at least once as it gives more humanity to the subject.”
Echoing the sentiments of many on the trip, Ben said the message he would most take away from the trip were the words of Rabbi Barry Marcus, who spoke to the teenagers in a service of remembrance at the end.
“I think the thing that struck me the most was what Rabbi Marcus said about it being the distance between people that we need to cross,” said Ben.