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In February 2015, myself and three other students embarked on a journey to Auschwitz in Poland, as part of a nationwide program called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’. Mostly aimed at students and their teachers, but also available to groups of adults as well, this incredible scheme aims to educate the next generation on the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, with a particular focus on Auschwitz. To complete the program, students must attend a seminar before visiting Poland in order to get to know your group, share thoughts and worries and so on. Then comes the day where you actually go to Poland, and after that is a final seminar where you can regroup and reflect on your experiences. You shall then be officially recognised as Ambassadors for the Trust, and therefore work with schools, communities and peers to spread their message that “We shall not forget” even further. For me, it was a truly humbling and enlightening experience, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
The history of the Holocaust is truly horrific and yet I have always had a fascination with the subject since first learning about it in primary school, motivating me to read up on it throughout my teenage years (something relatively unheard of for me). When I heard that our school was providing the opportunity to engage with Auschwitz and the program, I wrote my application the same day. Luckily for me, our sixth form was very large, so we were able to apply for four students to go instead of the usual two. When I was chosen to take part, I was both thrilled and nervous about the experiences to come.
Within a couple of weeks, we were already on our way to London to go to the first seminar. During this session, we mingled with other students, introduced ourselves to our group for the upcoming journey, and listened to the testimonial of a Holocaust survivor, in one of the most intense hours of the program. If you are able to listen to a survivor’s account of their experience through the war, I would certainly do it. This kind gentleman was the fourth I had listened to, and each person has a unique story to tell. It is becoming all the more important to listen to the survivors of the Holocaust because, unfortunately, not very many remain. This is an upsetting thought, but this is why the Trust exists so that we do not forget what happened more than 70 years ago.
The day of the visit to both Poland and Auschwitz itself was a long and intense one. We arrived at the airport with a few hundred other students from Hertfordshire at about 4am, and returned to England at around midnight. The atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat as everyone reconnected and boarded the plane, only to be hit by the reality of the coming hours when we landed in Krakow. From here, we drove an hour on the coach to reach a little town called Oświęcim (pronounced Os-vim-shen). There was an eerie feel to the place, as it looked somewhat desolate yet busy at the same time.
We were taken to the local cemetery, where we wondered around in silence, looking at the individual grave stones and texts written in Hebrew. As it turns out, this was the resting place of 800 Jews who had died during the Holocaust, and contains the last Jew who lived in the little town of Oświęcim, Szymon Kluger. We learned that the cemetery had been raided a few decades ago, with burglars stealing headstones and smashing the remaining ones in an act of hatred. The broken pieces now make up a beautiful memorial statue in the middle of the cemetery, dedicated to the Jews of the Holocaust. It was an unexpected but emotional beginning to the day.
From there, we drove only a matter of minutes to get to the Auschwitz complex, which took us completely by surprise. The town of Oświęcim lies only a couple of miles away from the war’s most notorious death camps, yet we were told that many residents had no idea about the atrocities that were being committed so close to their houses. Although I am ashamed to admit it, this is when I realised that Auschwitz was a different complex to the images of the railroad and the tower gate and the rows of wooden huts we were all so used to seeing in pictures and films; that site is actually called Birkenau. Instead we first entered Auschwitz, which is a site containing countless red bricked blocks, housing mostly prisoners of war, political leaders and those who were experimented on for the purposes of ‘science’. It was a truly nightmarish place, although it was pointed out to us that these prisoners were often treated ‘better’ than those in the colder, more densely-packed huts of Birkenau.
Each block that we went into showed us something different, from the living conditions comprised of hay beds and a diet of only bread and water, to solitary confinement where the punished were not allowed to sit or lie down for weeks on end. The most striking rooms for me however, were the ones containing the personal possessions from prisoners across Poland. One room had thousands and thousands of shoes, another full to the brim with human hair. The one that caught me off guard the most was the one filled with the suitcases with addresses painted on them, which belonged to those who really did believe they would return to their homes. Within these cases was everything they owned that was important to them, apart from their families, both of which were stripped away from them so cruelly. This was the moment that overwhelmed me the most, resulting in a few tears being shed.
After this humbling experience, we then drove another couple of minutes to the Birkenau camp. Most striking of all when you drive up is how surrounded by trees and forest you are, only to end very abruptly giving way to the iconic towered gateway overlooking the camp. We were quickly escorted up to the top of the tower, and only then can you observe the true magnitude of the site. We were told that the parameter could take a good few hours to walk around, with the barracks continuing on in their line formation for as far as the eye could see. We walked into some of the few wooden huts which were still standing, as so many had been destroyed by the Nazis when attempting to liquidate the camp. The conditions, even today, can only be described as appalling. Hundreds of inmates were packed into barracks that would only comfortably house 40. The toilets, consisting of a concrete wall with holes carved out, illustrated how unsanitary these conditions were. After just 5 minutes I felt incredibly uncomfortable, I can only imagine the horror of living like this for years on end.
Shortly after, we started to walk up the railway tracks which disappear into the tree line. The walk was surprisingly long, and on this freezing cold day in February, it hit us all hard that the inmates would have been wearing so little clothing, struggling for warmth, whereas we were wearing at least four layers each. Along the way we stopped at one of the cattle carts that have been restored, showing how the prisoners were transported into the camp. A long while later we made it to the end of the tracks, stopping at the remnants of the crematoria. Like the barracks, the individual gas chambers had been largely destroyed or knocked down by the Nazis in order to cover their tracks. We stood there, once again in silence, as we tried to take in our surroundings. As darkness fell a couple of hours later, we returned to this spot with all the other groups who had visited with us on that day. We stood around the magnificent memorial, and listened to a Rabbi who had flown with us as he said a few words reflecting on the past and the present, followed by the singing of prayers in Hebrew. The thought still gives me chills, it was a truly poignant and beautiful moment as his voice echoed around us in the forest, eclipsed by a stunning sunset in the background. It was the perfect ending to an emotional, but enlightening day.
I would make a plea to anyone debating whether or not to visit Auschwitz/Birkenau or any other sites of the Holocaust to go, and to do so before the sites continue to degrade, and before humanity forgets. As my experience consisted of just a matter of hours in Poland, I will make it my mission to revisit both sites in order to gain a proper appreciation for what I saw and how I felt, and to continue to share my memories with more and more people. I would like to reiterate once more that it is paramount, especially in the modern political climate, that we as a society do not forget what happened here, and what ended the lives of over 6 million innocent Jews and minorities throughout the Holocaust.
Featured image © Rodrigo Paredes