Our Journey Through Auschwitz.. And Theirs
When asked whether one ‘wants’ to visit Auschwitz, the reply isn’t a simple one. And for many of us it wasn’t really a question we could answer until we went on the trip itself. Our journey was very much focused on ‘rehumanising’ the people of the Holocaust and their experiences; be they the victims, the bystanders or the perpetrators. This wasn’t easy to do when overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the crimes committed. We were walking the paths taken by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people on a march to their deaths; so to focus in on the sound of one set of footsteps was a daunting task. But it was also important. We began to properly engage with the stories of those who didn’t survive the Holocaust and, in doing so, we stopped condemning the victims of the Holocaust to be written over by the inconceivably large numbers that represent them; as the Nazis had tried to write over their humanity with numbers tattooed on their forearms.
Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal on that day,
I, too, had had a face
marked by rage, by pity and joy,
quite simply, a human face!
-Benjamin Fondane, murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944
On the flight back from Poland the atmosphere was one of emotional and physical exhaustion, but there was also a sense of responsibility. Being physically confronted with the stories of the Holocaust had given us no room to escape, and forced us to engage with the realities of human persecution and the evils of hatred. We had wanted to visit Auschwitz. Because each of us was aware of the importance of learning about such a dark period of human history. But now we were aware of a greater responsibility: to share our experience with others so that they too can help to ensure that such horrors as the Holocaust are never forgotten.
Each year the Holocaust Educational Trust gives students from across the UK the opportunity to participate in the Lessons from Auschwitz project, which aims to educate young people about what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable. Having expressed an interest in the project we were chosen to represent our school and we joined students from across the East Midlands on the path to becoming ambassadors for the Trust. Firstly, we attended an orientation seminar in Nottingham which gave us an insight into pre-Holocaust Jewish life. Here, a Holocaust survivor, Steven Frank, spoke about his experience as a child during the Holocaust and its effects on his later life. Steven’s story was humbling and exposed the darkness of the Holocaust, which at times is hard for one to truly appreciate themselves, but it was also a story of hope. Steven concluded his presentation with an image of his family now, his children and his grand-children smiling into the camera. The darkness has not won. And we must never let it.
On Thursday 5th March we flew to Krakow airport and from there we drove to Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located. Our group visited the site of the Great Synagogue, burned down by the Nazis in 1939. Today, remains only a memorial commemorating the Jewish community to which it had once belonged. This was an important part of our visit because it reminded us that life continues despite tragedy, even if, significantly, there are no longer any Jewish people living in Oswiecim.
After having visited Oswiecim, we went onwards to Auschwitz I. The moment of our arrival is one that will stick with many of us, because this place of horror, of mass killings and human experimentation, resembled nothing more than perhaps student accommodation. Most of us hadn’t known what to expect, but this wave of reality hit us with force. Once barracks for the Polish army, the camp became the centre of a number of sub-camps, and played a key role in the ‘Final Solution’; an estimated 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our guide led us through the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free)” gates and through exhibitions held within the blocks that once housed the prisoners. Evidence of belongings, photographs and videos portrayed the conditions in which the prisoners of Auschwitz had lived. In block 4, there was an illegal photograph taken by a member of the Sonderkommando (a prisoner) as an act of defiance. They hid the photo in the hopes that one day it would be discovered, and that the stories of Auschwitz would be told.
We travelled then to Auschwitz II, Birkenau. This site was vast and overwhelmingly empty, only the earlier built brick buildings were still standing: their wooden counterparts eroded with the passing of time. We walked the lengths of the railway tracks, the image of Joseph Mengele condemning men, women and children to death by gas chamber or death by exhaustion, seared into our minds. Our guide pointed out the gas chambers which the Nazis had tried, in a final act, to destroy. They did not wish their crimes to be remembered: for the sake of humanity we must not allow them to be forgotten. As the sun set, we held a memorial service for all of those innocent people, who fell victim to Nazi persecution. Collectively we reflected on everything we had witnessed in Poland that day and tried to come to terms with all that we had learnt.
Now, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the lessons that we can learn from the Holocaust are as relevant as ever. If anything, now is the time to place more urgency and imperative on Holocaust education, as the number of living survivors continues to decrease. The responsibility for telling their stories and maintaining their legacies falls onto us.
The current global pandemic which is COVID-19 has brought out the good in humanity; neighbours are helping each other out and communities pulling together more than ever. But at the start of the pandemic, this was not the case. Public reaction to the crisis in China was too often characterised by suspicion of the Chinese members of our community in Britain, showing that still, we can be quick to turn to prejudice, instead of exercising reason and compassion. In understanding the Holocaust and it’s causes, we must learn of the dangers of such prejudice, and begin to show more care towards our fellow human beings.
In remembering that the perpetrators, and the bystanders to the Holocaust, were people too, not dissimilar to ourselves in many ways, we begin to recognise the weaknesses that are inside of all of us: the inclination to blame others; to lack compassion for those who are not like us; and the temptation to shirk responsibility for our fellow human beings. In this acknowledgment of the faults which we all could one day succumb to, we must find a resolve to be better. We must find the strength to stand up to those who continue to spread hate and intolerance and in the words of Jo Cox, a British MP murdered by a neo-Nazi in 2016, we must learn that we ‘have far more in common than that which divides us’.
Ciara and Sophie, Year 12