27th January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps. As the single biggest site of genocide in human history they have become an infamous site of the modern world, where 1 million Jews, and other minority groups perished at the hands of Nazi-Germany.
Since 1999 the Lessons From Auschwitz Organisation (LFA) has taken 26,000 students nationwide to Auschwitz, which included myself, within a group of students from throughout the South East of England this year. The LFA Organisation is based on the premise that “hearing is not seeing” which explains why students have been compelled to take part in the project for over 16 years. The project included an unforgettable one-day visit to Poland along with two educational seminars, in which we heard an emotional eye witness testimony from the Holocaust survivor Stephen Frank. I was honoured to be chosen along side four others from Anglo European School to partake in this unique educational experience.
The horrifying stories of the Holocaust filled me with apprehension as our group approached Auschwitz; however the emotions I experienced during the day were something which I could not have anticipated. Walking into the death camp under the now infamous gate which reads “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free) creates an uneasy atmosphere, and it somewhat prepared us for the harrowing reminders left inside.
Blocks 4 and 5 of Auschwitz I have now been restructured, giving them a somewhat museum like feel, consisting of an elongated corridor displaying the last photographs of victims before their almost certain death. Whilst walking along this corridor coming across pictures of families struck me. With such a high death toll it is somewhat impossible to individualise the victims, yet seeing the photographs of those brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and other extended family lucky to be surrounded by one another left me with an overwhelming sense of sorrow, as I couldn’t help but compare them with my family who were at work back in England.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the extermination site most associated to the Holocaust as the resting place of 1/6th of Jews murdered as a part of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’. On the date of our visit the sun was shining over the historical town of Oswiecim, but the monstrosities that took place there undoubtedly overshadowed the day.
Inside the camp all that remained were a small number of preserved barracks, which, in their prime, housed 400 people each in an area originally created for 52 horses, as well as what remained of the collapsing crematorium and gas chambers. The perimeter of the site was surrounded by at least two rows of barbaric barbed wire, around which I was startled to witness a family of 3 cycling around. Yet to me, the most poignant moment throughout the day came from Rabbi Barry Marcus. He delivered a moving hour-long memorial service just as the sun was hitting the trees creating a tranquil atmosphere around the camp. After a moment of reflection he began to sing in Hebrew, and amongst the silence of the group it became somewhat easier to individualise the victims of the holocaust that had previously been so challenging. The majority of victims had been sent to the camp because of their religious beliefs, where, in theory, was to be stripped from them, but indeed their faith very rarely left them.
70 years on from the Holocaust, and yet to some people the events still can’t be placed into reality. The work the Lessons from Auschwitz Organisation does plays a vital role into rehumanising and individualising the people and events for a new, younger generation like myself. We cannot change the events that happened at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, yet the one thing we must do is remember, and recall the words that echo all around the camps of George Santayana that “the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”.