Written by Sophia T and Ella M
On 12th November 2019, we were given the incredible opportunity to visit the small town of Oświęcim, Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In one incredibly emotionally charged day, we were able to see the extent of the Nazi’s attempts to exterminate every single member of a people. We would say that the phrase ‘you have to see it to believe it’ applies to Auschwitz to some extent. Visiting these sites demonstrates the sheer scale of the Holocaust and forces you to confront what happened head on, as it is very easy for the human mind to subconsciously push away such monstrous displays of destruction. There is a certain shock value that comes with being there in real life and there is much that is hard to explain; we both agreed that one thing that is impossible to put into words is just how big the camps are. However, much of the information that we learnt through discussions and reading during the seminars and the trip has equal value to visiting itself. We hope that this article can at least give you somewhat of an idea of what it was like and how, if presented with the chance, we think it is an incredibly worthwhile trip to take.
Before our visit to Poland we had varied expectations. It’s difficult to predict how one will feel visiting the site of a genocide and you don’t know how you will react. We knew it would be a packed day, flying out at 4am and arriving back incredibly late at night that same day, visiting the site of the Great Synagogue in Oświęcim, Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The first site we visited was the town of Oświęcim (more commonly known as its germanised name Auschwitz) which is the closest town to the camps, and it gave us a sense of Jewish life before and after the Holocaust. Before the war, the town had a huge Jewish community that made up 58% of the population with a Great Synagogue built that seated 1,000 people and was the heart of the town for the Jewish people that lived there. The rabbi travelling with us told us that this synagogue was brutally burnt down by the German forces and almost all the Jews removed from the town. It was shocking to us to find out that there are now no Jews living in the town. It really demonstrated to us impact that the Holocaust had and to see that the site that was once the Great Synagogue was now simply a patch of grass was heart-breaking.
We then moved to Auschwitz I. We walked under the infamous gates with the words ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ (‘Work Will Set You Free’) towering over us and into the camp with our tour guide. We then toured the blocks that had exhibitions in them, walking through rooms filled with shoes, suitcases, pots and pans, shoe polish bottles, combs, canisters of Zyklon B that was used to kill millions, and even a room full of human hair. It is strange, you think you will break down in tears at such masses of items, and it takes a lot to force yourself to remember that these belonged to real people and even children. However, looking around us, we felt more of a numbness both in ourselves and in the people in our group. We imagine this is due to the human brain being somewhat unable to comprehend the prospect of so much death, but it brings with it a haunting feeling. Mostly, our entire group stood in utter silence, eyes scanning what was before us, with the constant reminder that each shoe, each bag, each pot of shoe polish, had a life behind it. A key concept that the LFA course kept at the forefront of our minds was this individuality. Focussing solely on the incomprehensible statistic of 6 million prevents us from understanding the Holocaust in its entirety. We were led into a room which held a book and told that it contained roughly 4 million names of people murdered in the Holocaust, their date of birth, and the date they were killed. Held up on multiple stands with the pages pressed into each other, the book spanned almost the entire length of the room; we were told there were more being added each year.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the final stop on our journey. The train tracks leading under what are commonly known as ‘the gates of death’ seemed to go on forever. Once inside, you could not see from one end to the other – it seemed never ending. The Russian army destroyed some of the wooden barracks on the right side of the camp in order to control the spread of disease upon liberation, but the chimneys had been rebuilt in order to maintain the demonstration of the number of barracks that were really there. There are no exact figures of those who died at Birkenau, though it is estimated to be around 1.1 million. As the hours went by, it got darker rapidly and this darkness seemed to settle over us as we walked over the ruins of Crematoria II and III. Finally, we walked the path that so many walked all those years ago through the registration rooms, most of which looked like a cattle farm. They would have their heads shaved, showers, uniforms given, a number on their arm, and then be put to work.
The question of conserving such sites is still a highly controversial topic and, unfortunately, there are still some people out there who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. 5% of the UK deny the Holocaust ever happened and 1 in 12 believe that the extent has been exaggerated. We feel that the preservation of these places therefore is crucial to remember what happened. As the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust has just passed, we are reminded of the phrase ‘Never Forget’ that survivors plead year in year out. The Rwanda Genocide of 1994 and the Xinjiang re-education camps in China that exist today bring into question whether this phrase is simply decorative. Therefore, we firmly believe that passing on the information we learnt is necessary in every way to ensure the permanency of the message and warning that remembering the Holocaust brings. The Lessons from Auschwitz experience has taught us both so much and we encourage students in the coming years to embark on this trip as it is incredibly worthwhile. Taking the time to recognise the lives of all those involved, the modern-day relevance and impact, and trying to prevent something like this from happening again in any shape or form by passing on this information has been invaluable to us. There is no straightforward way to address the site of a genocide, but we are grateful for the opportunity the Holocaust Educational Trust has given us to develop our understanding of it.
Sophia T and Ella M, Year 12