WILD flowers grow in abundance under weeping willows, and storks nest in the chimneys while deer bound among the woods. Its beauty belies its history.

When our office was invited to send a journalist on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s (HET) Lessons from Auschwitz (LFA) project, I immediately put myself forward.

I’ve never particularly followed any religion but I have Ashkenazi Jewish roots on my mum’s side and so thought the experience would be interesting and help me reconnect with my heritage.

I wasn’t quite prepared, however, for the roller-coaster of emotions a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would send me on, or that it would turn out to be one of the most harrowing and powerful experiences of my life.

The late Simon Wiesenthal once said: “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”

Certainly, the Holocaust is a warning, an extreme example of the consequences of the bystander effect. From Adolf Eichmann, the chief organiser of the so-called ‘Final Solution’, to the average German citizen who either believed the propaganda against their fellow human beings or turned a blind eye, every person living under the Third Reich was a cog in the industrial-scale death machine.

But dismissing the atrocities of the Holocaust as evil somewhat excuses the behaviour of the perpetrators, dehumanising them as they dehumanised their victims.

HET strives to challenge this notion through its LFA project. Real monsters don’t have horns, they’re loving fathers like Rudolf Hoess, whose children played in the garden of his villa a stone’s throw away from where people were gassed to death.

LFA Education Officer, Tom Jackson, told me: “If you consider Rudolf Hoess and dismiss him as an evil monster, it’s pointless because he was a human being - and a human being is complex and they can be more than one thing. The fact he was ordinary is the scary thing because the Holocaust was carried out by ordinary people.”

Oswiecim is the location of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were murdered. Richard Demby, an HET educator, began our tour in the town’s square, which was once a thriving hub of the local Jewish community. Today, it’s home to a museum in their memory.

After Oswiecim, we made our way to Auschwitz I, a former Polish barracks which was converted by the Nazis into a death camp. Taking in its surroundings, it struck me at how ordinary, almost beautiful, the place appeared. It was hard to imagine the horrors that went on behind those red bricks. Those buildings could just as easily have been the old mills I see every day in my home town of Paisley. But the reality sank in when we were taken inside and shown the piles of personal belongings seized from the inmates when they arrived at the camps.

I will never forget the two-ton heap of human hair; nor will I ever shake the image of a child’s slipper, lying in its innocence before the pile of discarded shoes. Suitcases, clearly labelled with family names in the tragic assumption they were being relocated to somewhere safe evidenced the ultimate deception.

We were then shown Birkenau, where the majority of victims perished. The one-way rail-tracks leading into the mouth of the familiar tower and disappearing into the horizon emphasised the vast size of the place; while the remains of two crematoria, gradually being grasped back by nature’s claws, served as a grim reminder of the past.

It was here that we were led on a chilling walk-through of the journey taken by the camp’s new arrivals. Separated by time, we walked along the same corridor which saw confused human beings ushered along, onwards to the place they were ordered to strip and into the room where they were shaved with a blunt razor – robbed of their last shreds of identity.

Finally, we arrived in a room filled with old photographs – weddings, family gatherings, children laughing, proud parents cradling new babies, loving grandparents, a smiling girl on a bicycle, a striking woman in a hat, a roguish chap smoking a cigarette, a man who looked like my dad. In most cases, these images are all that remain of entire families. It’s worth considering that they represented a mere fraction of personal pictures taken into the camps by people – the vast majority were burned by the Nazis, generations of memories lost forever.

The LFA tours usually culminate in a candle-lit ceremony between the ruins of Birkenau’s crematoria. The weather however, prevented that from taking place, so Rabbi Barry Marcus conducted the service within the photo room. Pupils gave readings and the rabbi performed a cantor, which was heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad.

But it was Rabbi Marcus’ words that reverberated with me on the journey home: “Man has conquered almost every distance, he’s been in space, but the one distance he’s not conquered is the distance between his fellow man.”

As we left to make our way back to the buses, I watched my feet tread through the mud where the ashes of murdered people lay. Suddenly a frog, ironically the Ancient Egyptian symbol for rebirth, hopped across my path. It reminded me of how beautiful and precious our existence is. Death’s dust might have been sown into the soil of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but we must have hope and remind ourselves that life prevails.

Trip an invaluable lesson to future generations

THE LFA project has taken over 30,000 school pupils to Auschwitz-Birkenau since 1999.

Tom from the LFA explained the important role that students play in the project: “They’ll take what they’ve learned and share it in their school, their communities. Knowing about the Holocaust is not going to prevent genocides but on a local level, on a smaller capacity, it’s about engaging people to understand other people.

"Understanding the consequences of the Holocaust allows you to understand the consequences of things today.”

School from across Ayrshire participated in the project and, following the visit, they attended a follow-up seminar to reflect on their experience. Here is what some of them had to say:

Ben McCorquodale, 17, Marr College: “It’s hard to put into words. It’s hard to bring it back, like when you tell a story to someone and they weren’t there.”

Nicola Muir, 16, Marr College: “I thought it was quite chilling, especially all the children. The weather added to it. We had so many layers on, they literally had pyjamas.”

Tammy Russell, 17, Greenwood Academy: “It made me think more than I expected. It makes you realise how lucky you are.”

Fraser Wallace, 16, Greenwood Academy: “It’s made me reflect. I’ve now recognised we’ve got a chance to do what we want. That chance was taken away from them.”

Cameron Logan, 17, Arran High: “I found the whole experience really educational. I didn’t know much about the Holocaust before so it’s opened my eyes.”

Evie Campbell, 16, Arran High: “I found it really beneficial. It showed they were all people rather than numbers.”

Ciara McLachlan, 16, Ardrossan Academy: “You just don’t know how to take it in. It’s so hard to get an understanding of why it happened and that makes it harder to know how you feel.”

Rona McNairn, 16, Ardrossan Academy: “I think it’s just important to remember it was just human beings that chose to make these choices. We’re all still human beings that can make the wrong choices.”