An emotional return to Nazi camp where my grandma was born

Celine Bickerdike and her grandmother Helena Kowalczyk.

Celine Bickerdike and her grandmother Helena Kowalczyk.

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VISITING the site of Auschwitz is a powerful experience for anyone who goes there.

But the trip had special significance for one 16-year-old girl from Yorkshire whose grandmother was born in the concentration camp and lived there for the first two years of her life.

Ed Balls, who sits on the Prime Minister's Holocaust Commission, with Woodkirk Academy students Celine Bickerdike and Declan O'Donovan

Ed Balls, who sits on the Prime Minister's Holocaust Commission, with Woodkirk Academy students Celine Bickerdike and Declan O'Donovan

Celine Bickerdike took part in a visit as part of a Lessons from Auschwitz Trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.

The project is now in its sixteenth year based on the premise that “hearing is not like seeing”.

Thousands of pupils have been taken to where the camps were to get a sense of the horrors of the Holocaust but few have been on the journey which Celine took.

She was retracing the steps of her Polish great-grandmother Francesca Lanska who had been taken to Auschwitz by the Nazis.

Celine told the Yorkshire Post how her great-grandmother said she had been wrongly believed to be Jewish and feared that she was heading for a gas chamber. Celine said: “She was Catholic and was queueing in a line praying for help when they discovered she was not Jewish. Otherwise she might not have lasted a day.”

Her great grandmother remained at a detention camp at Auschwitz and her daughter Helena - Celine’s grandmother - was born there.

Celine was one of two pupils from Woodkirk Academy, in Tingley, who was chosen to go on the Auschwitz trip along with fellow student Declan O’Donovan.

They visited the town of Osweicim, closest to where the Auschwitz death and concentration camps were situated. The students were shown the barracks and crematoria of Auschwitz I and witnessed the piles of belongings that were seized by the Nazis, before spending time at the main killing centre of Birkenau. More than a million prisoners died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Celine said: “It did seem more real because I knew my great grandmother had been here.

“At the same time I had expected the rooms to be set out exactly as they had been but some of it was more like a museum which did make it feel more distant.

“However when we were walking around outside it definitely felt strange thinking about what my great-grandmother had gone through.

“While I was there, I remember thinking that my feet were really wet and ached, but then you think about everything that people in the camps had gone through.” She said the visit had made her more interested in knowing about her family’s past.

Her grandmother Helena, who is now 70 and lives in Leeds, was born in the camp and still has a mark on her leg from when she was scalded as a baby by a blind nurse who helped look after her.

Celine’s great grandmother came to England after the war but was left traumatised by her ordeal inside the concentration camp. Celine was accompanied by Woodkirk Academy’s head of religious education Dale Skitt during the visit to Auschwitz.

He said: “ We first took part in Lessons from Auschwitz in 2010 and it resulted in a strong response from students with more pupils wanting to go to experience it for themselves.”

He said he hoped the latest visit by Celine and Declan would also inspire more interest.

As well as sharing their experiences with classmates Celine and Declan have also met with Morley and Outwood MP Ed Balls, who sits on the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, to tell him about their trip. Labour’s shadow chancellor: said: “It’s great that young people from across my constituency have had the opportunity to see the reality of the concentration camps for themselves. For Celine and Declan this has been an amazing experience. Celine’s grandmother was born and spent two years at Auschwitz. They are both planning to talk to others about their experiences so that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten.”

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