A-level history students and their lecturer have planted a birch tree in the grounds of Coleg Sir Gâr as a lasting memorial to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
Four students visited Auschwitz Birkenau because of the college’s links with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). The visit prompted their determination to make their own contribution to Holocaust Memorial Day.
Students approached college principal Barry Liles to help them source a birch tree as they felt it had a significant symbolic connection to the memorial as originally, the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau) was named by the Polish because of the birch trees that grew there.
As part of the schedule arranged by HET, students met with Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke who was born on a coal truck carrying Jews to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Her mother, who weighed a skeletal five stone (35 kilos) miraculously, gave birth to Eva who weighed only three pounds (1.5 kg). On their second visit to Poland, they met a survivor who underwent surgical experimentation at the age of three. “She showed us her prison number,” said Coleg Sir Gâr student Lucy Havard. “She told us that after liberation, she got adopted by a Czech family, though even as a child she could not grasp the concept of play and in fact could only play her own disturbing game called selection which was based on her experience at the camp.”
Walking the same path as the Holocaust victims had an emotional impact on the girls. “Everything there seemed so bleak and unforgiving that the camp still seemed to be in mourning,” said Emilie Bowen. “Even the birdsong didn’t sound quite right,” added Lucy Havard.
Molly Jones said: “What upset me the most was seeing all the pots, pans and utensils the Jews brought with them because they thought they were going to live, not die. In the photographs which the Nazi soldiers took of people coming off the train, you could see the fear etched into the faces of the young mothers, who were clinging to their children’s hands as they entered the camp.”
The students commented on the scale of Auschwitz Birkenau, they said it was unimaginable and that even the view from the watchtower failed to encompass the whole site. They also commented on on the contrast between the appalling huts housing the prisoners and the well-appointed house of the Camp Kommandant, Rudolf Hoess and his family. Hoess sanctioned the ‘dehumanisation’ of prisoners who had their heads shaved, were tattooed, humiliated and given starvation rations. “Even at the prisoners’ lowest point, guards clearly ignored the fact that these were human beings,” said Molly Jones.
Visiting a former extermination camp stirred conflicting emotions in students including sadness and anger. Reflecting on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Molly Jones added, “It makes you so angry to realise that discrimination and persecution is still going on, even if on a smaller scale. Racial intolerance and violence have become such a common occurrence in our world it’s important we don’t become complacent and I think the media should cover every story unfolding so that none are left untold as voices need to be heard.”
Lucy Havard said: “Our generation are often accused of being indifferent, but when we were at the camp, a Rabbi read in Hebrew at the end of the railway track and there were hundreds of young students there, all deadly silent.
“It makes you think of the little things in life, like coming home and having a home to go to. One fact that especially moved u was that if we held a minute’s silence for every person who died in the Holocaust that silence would last for three years.”
“Hopefully, in 70 years, our birch tree will stand as a symbol of hope for the future and the young people of tomorrow.”
Elaine Thomas, A-level history lecturer pictured with (L-R) Lucy Havard, Shannon Gilbert, Molly Davies and Emilie Bowen
Students gather at the site of the birch tree on Holocaust Memorial Day.