On Thursday 21st March 2013 I, my colleague and several other sixth formers around London had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz for the day, which was funded by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
The Sunday previous to when we visited Auschwitz, we attended an orientation which provided us with the relevant information we needed to know about the trip. However, we also had the privilege of hearing Holocaust Survivor, Susan Pollack, tell her story. Susan was born and raised in Hungary until the age of 13 where she was first transported to Auschwitz. When she arrived, she was told not to say she was any younger than 15 because those under this age were seen as ‘unfit’ for work and were therefor put to death. Susan was fortunately tall for her age and was therefore seen as ‘able enough’ to work. Her height was the factor that influenced the decision of her being sent to barracks instead of the gas chambers, which were disguised as showers. Through the duration of Susan’s horrific experience, she often had to go on long walks through dangerous places, along with many other women and sleep on grounds where safety and security was not assured. Susan also spoke of her brother, who she was reunited with years after the war, who suffered from post-traumatic stress after the job he was given as a Sonderkommando. This job required him to get rid of the corpses of the people who had been lured into the gas chambers. This had a significant impact on his life post-war and suffered with it until he unfortunately died.
However, although Susan had both seen and experienced the awful acts of discrimination and prejudice towards Jews, she does not blame and still has a strong sense of faith in God. She says her faith is what keeps her going.
Thursday came and we had a long day ahead of us. We had to check in at Gatwick airport at 5am in preparation for our flight to Poland. We boarded the flight at 7am and landed at Krakow airport around 9am (GMT). We were then introduced to our coach driver who warmly welcomed us and then drove us to our first stop of the day – The Jewish cemetery in the town of Oswiecim, which remains the only one Auschwitz. Here we discovered some unusual symbols engraved in the tombstones. One of the frequent symbols I saw was the branch of a tree cut. This represented a life that had been cut short, someone who had died at a young age. Another sign I recognised was the Sabbath candle sticks. This symbolizes a woman because traditionally when the candles were lit, the woman would wave her hands over the candlesticks as a gesture of welcoming in the Shabat. These symbols engraved in the tombstones, were a useful way of identifying the people who had died, as most of them were written in Hebrew. Whilst walking around the cemetery we also discovered that many of the tombstones were damaged. This was because there had previously been an attack to destroy the cemetery. As a result of this some of the headstones had to be put back together, whilst others were so significantly damaged that they had to be replaced completely.
Our next stop for the day was Auschwitz-Birkenau to visit Auschwitz 1. Here we met our tour guide who showed us around the concentration camp, where we went in and out of buildings to view pictures and models of the victims and their belongings. One of the memorable things that stayed with me was the display of approximately 2 tonnes of victims’ hair that were previously shaved off by Nazis.
There was also a display of piles of shoes belonging to the victims and shown behind a glass window. These displays, reminded me that each victim was an individual who had dreams, hopes and aspirations just like anyone else. What grieved me even more was the fact that, although there was a very large amount of belongings put on display, it was only a small fraction of the actual total amount; as gas chambers and barracks were regularly cleaned out during the holocaust and therefore the belongings that were discovered were only there for a short amount of time. Approximately 6million men, women and children died as a result of the holocaust and many didn’t last any longer than three months when first transported to their camp.
Our tour guide also told us several stories about victims who tried to escape the horror but unfortunately got caught and were brutally tortured and eventually ended up dying. Displays also showed belongings of those with disabilities such as false legs, as well as homosexuals who were also victims of the holocaust. She also informed us of the experiments Nazis used to carry out on victims, such as dropping chemicals into their eyes and attempting to sterilise women. Towards the end of the tour, we went into a gas chamber, where many people were deceived into thinking they were going to have a shower but were instead killed.
Our last visit for the day was Auschwitz 2, which was about 5 minutes away from Auschwitz 1. Immediately from entering the camp, we could see that it was much larger than the previous one. At the front, we saw the rail way which was used to transport the Jews into the camp. Many of these people were deceived into thinking they were being relocated to another home, where they would carry on living relatively normal lives; some even bought tickets for boarding their train. As I dwell on this aspect of this horrific event, I can’t help thinking that the train drivers who were ‘just doing their jobs’ were also part responsible for this terrible tragedy; as they acted as a ‘bridge in the gap’ for the Nazis.
During the tour, we also saw the ruins of what was left of Hitler’s attempt to bomb some buildings in the camp e.g. gas chambers, to hide evidence of his ‘ethnic cleansing’ from the Russians during the war. We were also shown inside the barracks, where victims slept in often very bad conditions. Rats were running around raising bad sanitary conditions and sometimes more than 6 people would sleep on one bed.
Towards the end of our tour we saw a gallery of photos. These were brought by the victims from their home, before being transported to the camp and were therefore very special to them. This display again emphasised the individual aspect of the victims and how they were normal people just like you and me.
To end the tour we had a short memorial service from Rabbi Barry Marcus, who sung a memorial prayer in memory of the victims.
As I now reminisce on my experience visiting Auschwitz I reflect upon how terribly those innocent people suffered and it makes me realise the full capacity and horrific lengths that a human being is capable of going. If this is the case, what is to say that something like this cannot happen again? It motivates me to prevent discrimination and step out against wrong doing in whatever way I can, because clearly if a human being is capable of going to the lengthy extremes of mass killing approximately 6 million people in such a short amount of time and get a significant number of people to support it, it hurts to think or imagine what other horrific acts could be carried out by the human race.
The Holocaust Educational trust aims to educate people about the holocaust, through several events, and provide memory for those who were victims and truly suffered during this period. To find out more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust visithttp://www.het.org.uk/ and watch this news report for further insight into how the trip went.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I hope you have gained something out of it. Feedback is always welcome!