Education Secretary John Swinney was confronted with the “sheer enormity and awfulness” of the Holocaust as he visited Auschwitz with almost 200 Scottish school pupils.
The trip, involving students from 94 schools across the country, was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz (LFA) programme.
Around 1.1 million people, including one million Jews, were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration and death camp set up by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Mr Swinney, visiting the site for the first time, said: “Nothing prepared me for what I’ve seen and what I’ve witnessed.
“I think it’s very difficult to come to terms with the sheer enormity and awfulness that this represents in our recent history.
“I take away from this a realisation and an understanding that it’s so important that young people in Scotland have the opportunity to have their learning shaped by experiences of this type.”
He added: “We’re just a few days away from Remembrance Sunday, and recalling the sacrifices that people made to defend our freedom, and coming on a visit of this type… and seeing just the awfulness of the actions that were taking place as part of that dark period in our history, it is vital as part of our remembrance.”
The Trust’s LFA programme, supported by Scottish Government grant funding, offers pupils an opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and return home as ambassadors to pass on their learning.
The students began with a stop in Oswiecim, the Polish town which became better known by the Germanised name of Auschwitz.
From there they moved on to the Auschwitz I camp, first established by the Nazis in 1940, and then to the expansive Birkenau, which, from 1942, became a killing centre for Jews housing a series of gas chambers and crematoria.
With its piles of belongings taken from victims – shoes, suitcases, spectacles and prosthetic legs – the displays in Auschwitz I help to provide a visual representation of the scale of the killings.
A pile of human hair weighing almost 2,000 kg, and the enormous ‘Book of Names’ containing the identities of victims, are the most potent reminders.
However, the students are also encouraged to reflect on the personal tragedies behind the sheer numbers.
Children such as Czeslawa Kwoka, who died at the camp age 14, and whose picture taken by photographer Wilhelm Brasse, is among those exhibited in Auschwitz I.
Andrew Purdie, 17, of Turriff Academy in Aberdeenshire, said: “I think the artefacts were particularly harrowing, the human hair especially… That struck a chord more than most, because it really did enforce that it didn’t just belong to someone, that was someone, and that’s just discarded and taken away from them.
“I think (the visit) has given me a greater understanding of the Holocaust and the human cost of it. I think it’s given me a greater understanding of how it’s people, not numbers, and how many people were affected. They’re people like you and me, they’re no different from us, and they were just picked on because of their religion and their race.”
Fellow student Ross Walker, 18, added: “There’s a certain amount of guilt that comes with it, that as humanity we can do something as terrible as the Holocaust, but also a sense of purpose that we need to prevent this from happening in the future, and just how easy it was for this to happen is quite terrifying.”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “We are delighted that the Deputy First Minister was able to join us on the Lessons from Auschwitz Project with students from across Scotland.
“To see Auschwitz with your own eyes is a life-changing experience… And I have no doubt that, as is the case with the many young people who have taken part, this will have been a day that he will never forget.”