It’s difficult to put into words how it feels standing in the place where 1,300,000 were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
But that’s what students from across the Chilterns were asked to do when they were taken to the site of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp on Thursday.
The trip was organised by the Holocaust Education Trust, which hopes that one-day trips to confront the stark reality of Nazi mass murder can encourage young people to turn their backs on prejudice and discrimination.
That’s why the charity, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, set up the Lessons From Auschwitz course 14 years ago.
The project receives a £1.5m government grant which allow two students aged 16 to 18 from every school and college in the UK to travel to Poland each year.
When they return, they are asked to tell their peers about what they have seen.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw, whose own grandfather was killed by the Nazis, joined students making the trip.
He said: “You go to school and learn about facts and figures.
“Being here is about bearing witness to the place where evil took hold.
“Every step you take in this place is a step of life, a step of goodness in a place where so much evil has happened.
“We are walking out of here with a message for the world that evil will not survive, and good will triumph.”
Students from Kings Langley School, West Herts College and Berkhamsted’s Ashlyns School, were among those making up the party.
They had just been to the nearby Auschwitz museum, converted from smaller camp Auschwitz I, and were now on the railway platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Europe’s largest death camp.
It is the place where the Nazis split Jews into two columns. One was for the strong, who would be made to work. The other for those who would be gassed to death immediately.
Ashlyns School student Megan Gronow, 17, said: “It was really emotionally draining. I did not really expect the camp to be this big.
“You read about it in textbooks, but when you get here it makes it feel so much more real.”
West Herts College student Campbell Drummond, 17, said: “I was shocked by the magnitude of how big this place really is – it’s about two square miles.”
Earlier, at Auschwitz I – opened as a museum by the USSR in 1947 – the students had seen rooms where shoes and briefcases were piled up to the ceiling.
Seven tonnes of human hair – used by the Nazis to make rugs, blankets and wigs for German civilians – fill a room there.
The students were shown a pit full of pots and pans from Jews who were told Auschwitz was a holiday camp, then large piles of glasses and prosthetic limbs.
The Nazis had taken the items from Jewish prisoners to pass onto German civilians – but left them there after abandoning the camp to the USSR’s Red Army in 1945.
Kings Langley School student Cally Salter, 16, said: “Whatever you read in a history book does not prepare you for what you see at Auschwitz.
“The scale of it is something you can only realise by being over there.”
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, there were four gas chambers, which could kill up to 1,500 people in 15 minutes before their bodies were burned in attached crematoria.
But the Nazi’s slaughter of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others was so vast that they had to burn bodies on land around the buildings, too.
Cally said: “Lots of people call Auschwitz a place of death, but you can get hope from the fact that we all walked out of there.
“There were 1.3 million people who died there, but millions have visited it to remember them – and to remember how bad the holocaust was.
“You walk out and learn from being there.”
To this day, every Polish child has to visit Auschwitz as part of their education and every Israeli soldier has to visit the camp as part of their training.
Only 10 per cent of the 8,000 Nazis who served in Auschwitz were ever brought to justice. Many received light sentences of five or 10 years in prison.
Fifty of them are still alive in Germany today.