This is my daughter Sophie-Anne’s account of her trip to Auschwitz as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project. The visit was arranged by the Holocaust Educational Trust who work to educate young people about the Holocaust so they can see for themselves the terrible consequences of prejudice and racial hatred and bring these lessons back to their schools and communities.
We woke up early around 4am and headed, partly awake, to the airport. The Lessons from Auschwitz project were out in force and we soon knew where we were supposed to check in by the huge amount of sleepy teenagers milling around. After a two hour flight, where breakfast was thankfully provided, we arrived in Poland.
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The first place in Poland where we were scheduled to stop was the town of Oświęcim where we were taken to an empty site which was merely a piece of land at first sight. Our clue was the street sign that translated as “Street of the Jews”. Street of the Jews, and yet there was nothing here. We soon learned that under our feet were the ruins of a once great synagogue that had been at the hub of a previously thriving and prominent community within the small town. This small town would shortly become known to the world in the German translation “Auschwitz”. After a brief trip to the Jewish centre in the town and an introduction to the Jewish faith by Rabbi Marcus we left for Auschwitz Camp.
On arrival I was surprised to see vending machines and crowds in a place of trauma and genocide. Nevertheless we entered and saw the famous sign “Work Makes You Free” looming above our heads. Everywhere around us was wire, watch towers and poles where public hangings had happened. One cannot imagine the fear of a prisoner stood in the same place where I was standing, their vision being a haunting reality. To be robbed of your rights, culture, family, name and humanity one after another and then be greeted with such a vision as Auschwitz Barracks is hard to conceive.
The exhibition showed us rare pictures from the camp as it once was and the warning greeting us read ” The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”. The exhibitions were extensive and we were shown a particularly personal exhibition; a collection of the prisoners belongings. The collection included a mass of human hair that had been shaved off deceased victims, all with the goal to make a more efficient camp.
There were also thousands of shoes but most moving was the display of suitcases. All had a name and date of birth written on them. It was very eerie that I was able to read their names with ease like you might read names on a register and yet they had no life in them. It was really disturbing to understand that these items were preserved and the prisoners were not. A suitcase was worth more to the persecutors than a human life.
We visited some barracks, such as the Torture Block 11 which was particularly unpleasant. I became increasingly resentful to the persecutors who may have been mislead but still ignorant of their actions. How the scream of a Jewish child be told apart from an Aryan child is something I cannot understand. I was angry for humanity at this point of the trip for it appeared to me so misguided and wrong.
The second site of the museum was Auschwitz 2 or Birkenau, some short distance away. When we arrived, the atmosphere was similar to Auschwitz but more imposing. There was barbed wire as far as the eye could see. We climbed the watch tower where the scale of the camp was immense. Many survivors have spoken of how they could never fully get a feel for the scale of Birkenau. We visited some barracks and compared to Auschwitz 1 the structure was awful, originally being designed as stables.They would accommodate 700-1000 prisoners that would sleep ten on one bunk without any heating in temperatures that could reach -20 degrees C.
We then walked along the iconic railway which was the road of no return. We saw exactly where the selections took place, where a man with lower morality than those being judged would decide with the flick of the wrist whether someone would live or die. In Birkenau, there are only ruins of the gas chambers because the guards had attempted in vain to shield the truth from the outside world. The rubble I saw and its purpose is extremely difficult to comprehend, partly because it is so unbelievable and tragic.
We must learn from this tragedy then, about prejudices and their dangers. I cannot stress enough the importance of educating people so that they understand how important it is to live in harmony and also to remember all the victims who were not granted the life they deserved. Projects and experiences like the Lessons from Auschwitz are truly worthwhile and allow perspective within one’s life.
I feel that I have learned more in one day than I would reading text book for a year.
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