Holocaust Education Trust - Lessons from Auschwitz
May 4th 2016
When asked if we would be interested in a trip to Auschwitz we both felt that it would be a unique opportunity we had to take. Neither of us had ever visited Auschwitz or any site related to the Holocaust so our expectations were limited. This is experience would lead to us having a greater understanding of the sheer scale and industrialised nature of the Holocaust and also allowed us to become ambassadors of the Holocaust Educational Trust which aims to educate young people about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today.
Prior to the visit to Auschwitz we had attended a seminar that aimed to start thinking about the trip, however there is really no way in preparing for such a trip, and certainly no set way of feeling. At that point we didn’t really know what emotions would be brought about after visiting such a place of destruction.
During the day we went to a Synagogue in Oswiecim (the German name for which was Auschwitz) in which we heard a Rabbi speak about the life of the Jews during the Second World War and found out that the majority Jewish town had lost 56% of its population meaning the complete removal of a whole community. This was followed by a short drive to Auschwitz 1, where we walked around the camp with our tour guide and listened to his descriptions of each part of the camp through our headsets. After this we went to Auschwitz 2, also known as Auschwitz Birkenau, the iconic concentration camp which is really how you would expect it to be. Everyone says that in Birkenau it is far more about what you can’t see as opposed to what you can, which is definitely true with the view of the remains of the gas chambers and barracks which were destroyed by the SS to hide what was really going on.
Being at a scene of complete destruction is something that can’t really be described; or at least not in a way that does it any justice. It wasn’t as we expected. Driving into Auschwitz 1 we could see a Pizza place, a main road, a hot dog stand and a coach park; the sun was shining. This from the start made it very hard to visualise what it was like at the time as it seemed to be so different. We were given headsets which cut us off from all the sounds and the feel of the place and all the buildings we entered had been converted to a museum. The artefacts really did have a profound effect as it was all so personal, such as the exhibit of shoes; some being evening shoes showing they did not know where they were going, suitcases with their names on and human hair. It brought up very strange emotions as it really brought home how every one of these deaths was a person and not just a number. However it was still hard to picture it all happening in that location. It brings up the issue of tourism taking away the authenticity versus tourism helping to keep the memory alive.
Birkenau had a much larger effect on us, it was cold but clear so we could see the vastness of it. The wooden barracks all in perfect lines showed the industrialisation but also how they were treated like cattle. Everything we take for granted in our lives was taken away from them along with their dignity and identity. Standing in a latrine in a stable and being told this is where people wanted to work as it was inside and away from the guards makes you realise that.
The purpose of the trip wasn’t to scare or depress or make us feel bad about all our material possessions. Its aim was to make us think about why the Holocaust should be remembered and what it can teach us. Throughout the course we were asked lots of really hard, broad questions and honestly it is hard to answer any of them. I don’t know what made people commit such heinous crimes against innocent people, I don’t know how people survived not knowing if their family was alive, and I don’t know how the Nazi regime was allowed to carry on for so long. But I don’t think I was meant to. However I do now know how really important people standing up and being brave is. We talked about Major Frank Foley who helped transport thousands of Jews escaping occupied Germany, we learnt about Irena Sendler who smuggled 2500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto and about members of the Sonderkommando who buried evidence to ensure that people would find it and piece together what was happening in the Extermination Camps despite knowing if they were caught they would be shot. These are extremely courageous people who through all the evil were able to do some good. I suppose that is why people wanted to survive; because they hadn’t lost faith in humanity completely. The lesson I have learnt is that you have to stand up against something you think is wrong, whether it be at school or in international politics. Actions, or lack of, have repercussions. The disintegration of the Nazi party was quick showing it was not that deeply rooted in society. If this is the case its shows something could have been done. Something can always be done, there is someone somewhere who could have saved one more life. I think that is what I leant: choosing to do nothing is as bad as choosing to do the wrong thing. That is the lesson that needs to learnt by people, communities and governments to avoid atrocities from happening again.
Posted at 15:16 on 5th Sep 2018