By Natalie Jones and Joelle Way
In April, bright and early, Joelle and I boarded a
plane to Krakow, Poland. Why? We were taking part in a ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’
trip to visit the most infamous site of the holocaust: Auschwitz-Birkenau. To
be honest I did not know what to expect. From history lessons I knew that it is
estimated that 11 million people were murdered in the holocaust, approximately
2 million just in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it is impossible to conceive such a
large, unbelievable number. It just does not seem real when you study it in
history; it seems just like some distant event we are in no way connected to,
and there are so many questions that form in your mind when you learn of the
terrible things that happened. How could people let such atrocities happen? I
thought that I was going so that I could humanise victims I had learnt about,
so that I could really understand what had happened and so that I could learn
at a more personal level what Auschwitz-Birkenau really was like. There was so
much to take in during the trip so I will only mention the most poignant things
that affected me personally.
When we arrived in Krakow we travelled to a small town known
where there is a Jewish cemetery. It was full of old, worn gravestones covered in moss and weeds. You
look closer and realise that there does not seem to be much order to the
gravestones. The Nazi occupation of the town meant that they used the
gravestones for paving slabs, not paying any respect to whoever was buried underneath.
After the war there were attempts at restoring the graveyard but obviously
there is no way of telling whether the gravestone corresponds to the right
person underneath. It seemed so heartbreaking but perhaps the most moving thing
was that even today you have to get special permission to visit the cemetery
because there is still a fear of vandalism.
The next stop was Auschwitz 1 which
was originally army barracks. The camp had a really quiet and eerie atmosphere
to it. It was small – perhaps the size of the size of the Charters school site
with regular buildings.
We went inside the buildings which have now been converted
into museums. In each were displays of various things found when the camp was
liberated. Perhaps the most disgusting was a room full of human hair shaved of
the thousands of people who had been brought to the camp. The hair was piled
high, tonnes upon tonnes, some of the hair cut particularly from little girls
and women still looked like plaits or ponytails with ribbon and hair ties still
visible. In other rooms were personal belongings which had been confiscated
from the people who had entered. Perhaps the most poignant thing about these
belongings was that they had never been collected by their owners – suggesting
that the owners had never left the camp. There were spectacles and false legs,
makeup, eyelash curlers, pots, pans, cheese graters, a huge room full of
people’s shoes, photographs and piles of suitcases with names on them… We were
told that the people who had been forced into the camp had only been allowed
one suitcase of belongings. We were encouraged to think of the things that we
would have brought with us if we were faced with the same situation. Would we
have taken our favourite shoes as well? I was really upset by the belongings as
they were so recognisable. Shoes, makeup, hairbrushes… You really got a sense
of how these people must have felt and how vulnerable these people were made to
feel, without their glasses, without makeup, without their photographs.
Everything was taken from them. They were no longer humans when they entered
In Auschwitz 1 there was one gas chamber which you were allowed to walk through. I remember hesitating before I went in trying not to
think that thousands of people had been brutally murdered and had never left
this building. The room was dark, dingy and hot and as soon as I entered it I
wanted to get out. It was claustrophobic. You could see scratches at the door,
worn patches of floor; you could see where the gas would have fallen. I walked
as quickly as possible through that room, struggling like many others on the
trip, to come to terms with the injustice of the act that I was able to leave
that room but many others had not been so lucky.
The third and final part of the trip was to go further out
and visit the second part of the camp. Auschwitz II better known as Birkenau.
This was different from the first as it was primarily a death camp. The
infamous railway track leads directly into the camp.
If you were fit, healthy or just lucky
then you would stand a chance of being made to work in Auschwitz II of being
put in charge of the dirty work that the Nazis did not feel like doing. The
stable like structures made living conditions not even fit for animals. The sanitation
was appalling, there was no privacy, the food received was not even a third of
what they should have received and you did not even get a bed to yourself but
often shared with four or more others.
If you showed any
signs of weakness, were old, pregnant or just not capable of hard work you were
sent to the gas chambers straight away. There were four gas chambers at
Birkenau, all of them now destroyed as the Nazis tried to cover up their work. What
I found incredibly sinister was the fact that these gas chambers had
artificial shower heads on so everyone would think that they are going to have
a shower. As soon as people were crammed inside the chambers the doors closed
and the gas was poured in. the more ‘privileged’ prisoners had the task of
emptying the gas chambers once everyone was dead and scrounging what they could
off their bodies, even gold teeth.
We walked across the camp to a building where people not
selected for death were registered. The camp was deadly quiet. I had heard
before going that you cannot even hear a bird sing in Birkenau. I don’t think
that I heard any sound other than the wind and our group talking. The site was
huge, rows upon rows of animal sheds and structures where prisoners lived. You
would be lucky to survive the weather in these shacks, let alone the Nazis.
There was one story of a prisoner who had rebelled by
keeping a diary which he buried every day. The following line really moved me:
‘We will bury our notebooks and diaries deep under the ashes. We have
done as much as we could. And you? – searching for the truth. You who have
lived to see justice and liberty. What will you do?’
This moved both Joelle and I as it seemed to speak directly
and forces you to be grateful for the time which we currently live in. It
inspires you to live up to this victim’s expectation: To search for the truth
but to promote justice and liberty also.
The most disturbing thing about the entire trip was that
although I was able to see the way that the prisoners were treated, and through
the displays of confiscated pictures and belongings I was able to humanise and
personalise the huge number of victims, I also inevitably had to face up to the
fact that the persecutors, the Nazis, were just as human as me also. I was
disturbed to find that Nazi officials lived right next door to gas chambers
with their families and young children in Auschwitz I. I was horrified to
discover the way in which they had so easily treated Jews, gypsies, homosexuals
and other prisoners. But I was most horrified to discover and to realise that
actually, yes, it could have easily been me as the victim, caught up in the
terror of being an Auschwitz prisoner, but it could easily have been me caught
up in the regime and willingly allowing people to die brutal deaths because I
considered them lower than me. The extremity of discrimination and violence was
poignant and moving. We like to think the Nazis were all monsters but in fact
what Joelle and I both discovered was that they were exactly like us.
Therefore I feel it is vital that we remember the terrible
number of people who were lost, that we remember the children that never grew
up, the mothers that never got to say goodbye to their children, the sons who
were worked to death, and the fathers that were killed brutally and had to
watch their whole family being torn apart. But it is just as vital to remember
that ordinary people committed such atrocities. Genocide, hatred and prejudice
have not been eradicated yet. Far from it. There are genocides all over the world,
hatred even in this country, this town, this school. It is our job as the next
generation to take a stand against history and not to allow it to be repeated.
If we forget, it will happen again. We must learn from the past. We must learn
the lessons from Auschwitz.