It is one of the most infamous places in Europe – the death camp where the Nazis murdered more than a million people. DAN BEAN joined a group of York teenagers on a visit to Auschwitz.

THE temperature is below five degrees but in the icy wind it feels much colder as 200 teenagers from schools around Yorkshire step down from the plane at Krakow Airport.

They are on an away day, but as we leave the plane and board a fleet of coaches, there are no songs, few laughs, and a nervous uncertainty over what will follow.

Today's destination is one of the 20th century's most infamous places – Auschwitz Birkenau.

Here, between 1940 and 1944, the Nazis murdered more than 1,000,000 people shipped to Poland from around Europe. By the end of the war, about six million Jews had been killed.

As we are driven from the airport to Oświęcim – the original Polish name for the town next to the death camp – one of the most unexpected remarks is just how normal it seems. We pass supermarkets, advertising billboards and cafes, before our first stop at the Jewish cemetery.

At first glance, it looks in disrepair – headstones are placed in no apparent order, reeling at all angles, and chipped, cracked and scratched – but there's a tragic reason for this: when the German army took the town and began their purge of the Jewish inhabitants, they ripped up the headstones to use them as paving slabs.

A group of students from All Saints School listen to an educator from the Holocaust Education Trust explain how Jewish survivors returned to the town after the war and replaced the stones – as an act of defiance against the Nazis, and as a mark of respect.

It is the very intimacy of it that strikes the teenagers.

"You're seeing people's names on gravestones," says 17-year-old Sarah Morley. "Because six million is such a huge number, I think the personal stories make it easier to comprehend."

Gabrielle Martin, 16, agrees. "You hear about it all the time in history but it makes it more of a reality and you think more of the original people rather than statistics," he says.

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 Cathrine Reed, Catriona Thornton, Gabrielle Martin and Sarah Morley from All Saints’ school sixth form

Cathrine Reed, also 16, is shocked at the way the German Nazis treated the headstones."The fact the gravestones were trodden underfoot was utterly degrading and appalling and I can't comprehend how they would think that was all right."

"I think it's really important the stones were brought back afterwards by Jewish people who survived, coming back and showing that the Nazis hadn't won, they can't destroy the heritage and past, and making sure that lives on," says Catriona Thornton, 17.

From the cemetery, we are taken to Auschwitz I – the first camp. It is a former Army barracks, where up to 16,000 Jews, Poles and political prisoners at a time were forced to live and work until they died.

Many were sent to the gas chamber here, a small, almost subterranean structure on the outskirts of the brick barrack buildings, close to the cottage of the camp's commander, Rudolf Höss.

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The shoes of victims on display

Inside the huts are photographs of families arriving at the camps – stepping down from trains with calm, placid looks on their faces, and return addresses on their suitcases.

Around 90 per cent of them would die from conditions at the camp, from being worked to death, or from Zyklon B – hydrogen cyanide gas the Nazis used to make their killings more efficient.

Displays line the walls of the rooms – a pile of human hair, eight feet high, six feet deep and running the entire 30-plus foot length of one room, shows one of the by-products from the Hitler's industrialised extermination. It was sold to mercantile businesses for making nets and cloth.

Another room houses an unfathomable number of spectacle frames. Another has hundreds of suitcases, most with a family name daubed on it by the owner, to make it recognisable in case they misplaced it.

Yet another has thousands of women's and children's shoes, some of which still have flashes of green, blue or red.

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Joe Walker and Owen Jones from Bootham School

The displays make it clear: these were not anonymous victims. These were stylish, individual human beings, with homes, families and belongings, who never imagined what they were about to experience.

"It's humbling," says Joe Walker, 17, from Bootham School. "So many people, so many lives lost.

"The room with the belongings, the suitcases especially, the individual characters of them. No one can understand the extent of what was involved without seeing the scale of this. That's the most important thing."

Owen Jones, 16, also from Bootham School, feels the same. "It's hard to comprehend," he says. "I feel quite honoured."

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Candles laid on the train tracks that thousands of men, women and children were brought to Birkenau

From Auschwitz I we are taken to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II – where once were 300 wooden stables converted to house up to 90,000 people at a time, now just a handful remain. Crude brick heating systems and chimneys spike up from the ground where the buildings rotted away.

The two giant chimneys from the crematoria were destroyed by the Nazis when they realised their cause was lost, and before the camp could be liberated. A small marble memorial sits next to the rubble.

"It's helped me feel something I hadn't experienced," says Anthony Watts, 17, from Fulford School. "To take it all away from statistics and actually look at things rather than just hear about them.

"I think it should be left as realistic and natural as possible. I was surprised by the size of the place. You can't imagine the scale of the place until you've walked from one side to the other."

As the sun sets, the wind dies down, and the visitors gather at the end of the train tracks where thousands of men, women and children were brought to Birkenau, most of whom never left.

Rabbi Barry Marcus of the United Synagogue speaks to the crowd, thanking them for visiting, urging them to remember what they have seen, and share their experience with as many people. He sings a Hebrew prayer to the fallen, and the group place candles on the tracks and around the memorial.

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Suitcases that belonged to those who died at the camp

Kathryn Bruce and Anna Clarke, both 17, from Archbishops Holgate School, said they would try to share their experiences from the day.

"We will just try and help the rest of the school understand what we've seen," says Kathryn. "Obviously it's not going to be the same though.

"It was challenging, seeing the shoes and the piles of things - that made it more personal rather than seeing just numbers on a map. It didn't sink in, I teared up a few times."

"With the gas chamber and crematoria, it made it seem so real – being there, especially at Birkenau, you walk and think who went there before," adds Anna. "We were saying we were freezing but they were there in pyjamas, it was surreal. It puts things in perspective, how strong the survivors were."

"It should stay as a museum, I think it's important," says Kathryn. "They shouldn't build anything up again, but they should try and maintain it so more people can go see it in the future so it doesn't get forgotten."

The moon rises over Birkenau as the echoes of the Hebrew prayer become lost among the birch trees.

The same stars the prisoners looked at pierce the night sky, and two hundred teenagers begin their journey home to tell their friends and families about what they have seen, because it is their duty – and ours – and the duty of future generations to ensure that the sun does not set on Birkenau, Auschwitz, and the events of the Holocaust.

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 A pupil looks at a display of names and photographs