Leeds & West Yorkshire

Moon and star: A journey to Auschwitz

This spring two West Yorkshire teenagers - one Jewish, the other Muslim - undertook a journey which changed their lives.

They went to Auschwitz.

I had wanted to make a radio documentary which allowed two typical 17-year-olds to witness first hand the worst man can do to man.

Daniele, Umar and I went to the place where the Nazis created one of the worst death camps of the Third Reich.

It was a lesson from history, a graphic reminder of what extremism and racism can do.

'Feel scared'

Daniele, who lives in Leeds, and Umar, who lives in Bradford, both come from one of the most diverse multicultural communities in the country.

They are two young people from different cultural backgrounds: a Jewish girl, representing the star of David, and a Muslim boy, representing the crescent moon of Islam.

This was not a journey of faith. Neither Daniele nor Umar are particularly religious, but their cultural backgrounds still contrast.

Image caption Daniele and Umar, one Jewish the other Muslim, accompanied Liz from West Yorkshire to Auschwitz

Before the journey to southern Poland, Daniele told me: "I feel scared about what I'm going to witness.

"I understand how emotional it will be."

Umar told me he was "nervous" about going to Auschwitz: "I know it's going to be an emotional journey.

"I just really want to understand what happened in the past."

The three of us were accompanied by Fabian Hamilton, Labour MP for Leeds North East and a former member of the foreign affairs select committee.

Fabian had been to Auschwitz before and had also seen the killing fields of Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia. He was our guide and he helped Umar and Daniele understand what we were looking at and how it applied to our lives now.

It was snowing the day we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Now a museum, the concentration and extermination camp was one of the most efficient and deadly of all those created by the Nazis as part of their Final Solution.

'Breaking point'

Over a million people were murdered there. They were Jews, mainly, but also Roma (gypsies), people with disabilities and political prisoners among many others.

They were brought from all over Europe to a place where the Nazis had perfected their killing regime with chilling efficiency.

Umar and Daniele were accompanied by the museum historian and archivist, Teresa, who took us all on a journey which grew darker and darker.

It went from the infamous iron gate which proclaims "arbeit macht frei" -"work shall set you free" - to exhibitions chronicling the Final Solution.

As we progressed, we began to understand the truly horrific nature of organised mass murder.

Image caption This pile of spectacles was a poignant reminder of how many people died at Auschwitz

They say everyone has a breaking point when they visit Auschwitz. For me, it was the only remaining gas chamber and crematoria.

After guiding Daniele and Umar through exhibitions consisting of piles of spectacles left by those who were gassed, suitcases marked with their names, a hill of shoes never to be worn again, it was when I saw the furnaces where so many were placed after being gassed by Zyklon B that it became more than I could bear.

For Umar and Daniele, it was the piles of everyday objects which affected them deeply.

Daniele told me: "They didn't want them to have any belongings, anything that made them human.

"They just wanted to dehumanise them in every way."

Umar told me: "It's not nice. It just shows how fate can be decided at the click of a finger.

"There's no difference between two humans so why should one person decide what happens to another?"

Cattle wagons

The scene of the worst horror at Auschwitz is about three kilometres away at Birkenau.

There stands the infamous death tower where the railway line cuts cleanly underneath, the tracks that brought thousands upon thousands of people in cattle wagons to their death.

Also there are the barracks where men and women were kept as slave labour, the place where medical experiments were carried out, and the ruins of the two huge gas chambers and crematoria the Nazis destroyed before the camp's liberation by the Soviets.

We stood on that site, now a memorial, and Umar and Daniele reflected on what they had learned on their journey.

Umar said: "I just feel as if the future will be better.

"Just coming here really opens your eyes."

Daniele said: "Everyone who hears stories from survivors and comes to see this will learn and pass that on to other generations."

All three of us were changed by what we saw.

The message these two teenagers took away that day is poignant and it is uplifting.

They give us hope.

Join us on our journey in memory of all the victims of Auschwitz and the Final Solution at 1200 BST on Good Friday, 22 April, on BBC Radio Leeds.

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