In May we, as Sixth Formers, had the opportunity to participate in a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Taking part in the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’, through the Holocaust Education Trust. The visit itself consisted of four parts: orientation, visit, follow up and next steps. As part of our next steps we wanted to write this article on our experiences highlighting the importance of remembering the events of the Holocaust as well as sharing our lessons with the school community. . Our reasons for participation can be explained through the famous quote by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
The entrance to Auschwitz I, sign saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” – work sets you free
With over 70 years having passed since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we must not forget those who were persecuted during the Holocaust nor the events that took place. The project began with an opening orientation seminar. In this orientation seminar we had a very rare opportunity to hear a testimony from Zigi Shipper, an 87 year old Holocaust survivor. Zigi was born in Łódź, Poland and was just a child when the Nazi regime began affecting his everyday life, moving into the Łódź Ghetto aged 10. He said that the hatred towards Jews was “worse than anything else”. In 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz, packed within a very small cattle car full of people making the same journey like millions of others. Left fearing for his life, scared that he may not make it out alive, a little boy without the company of his mother was squeezed tightly in this truck. The Nazi de-humanising process continued at this point, so much so that at the time Zigi wished someone died in order to allow him to take a seat. However, Zigi only spent a couple of weeks in Auschwitz and was one of the lucky few to be sent off to Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig. Here Zigi volunteered to work on railway lines and as such he had a greater chance of survival compared with many others. One of the reasons Zigi made it through was purely because his friends kept him going, carrying him when he could barely walk and keeping him alive through support.
Hearing Zigi’s testimony allowed us to re-humanise the events of the Holocaust, allowing us to get past the numbers of people that had lost their lives, and understand what events people had to go through at the time. Zigi’s testimony had been very powerful and moving, hearing accounts of all the things he went through was so tough for us; though, he was the one who had experienced all these horrific things. We can say that Zigi’s testimony was definitely one of the most inspirational talks we have heard. In response to a question about hatred to those who had done the things of the time, he responded by saying “please, please, please don’t hate, my friends. It will ruin your life”. Zigi’s testimony taught us a big lesson about life and how we shouldn’t hate anything or anyone. This was the first lesson from Auschwitz, and one we would certainly like you to take from us. Undoubtingly we went home that evening and thought about things just a little bit differently. This, however, had only been the first part of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project.
The next part was the visit to Poland and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our day started off with a visit into the nearby Polish town of Oświęcim, the town seemed so normal now, but yet was very different pre and post war. Whilst being there in the town square we were able to compare and contrast the past to the present and see how things have changed. Previously having a Jewish population of 58% in 1939, it was horrifying to learn that the current Jewish population of Oświęcim is now zero. Having been to the orientation seminar and hearing Zigi’s testimony, we felt somewhat prepared for the things we were about to see in Auschwitz I and Birkenau. However, driving past the red barracks, and high barbed wire into the car park changed everything for us. Seeing Auschwitz I, we were extremely emotional, and at times it felt like an out of body experience. Experiencing the site in first person was a harrowing experience, despite seeing photos and hearing Zigi’s testimony. Walking within the site heavy hearted, among the barracks, seeing places where people had been hung, shot and killed by the barbaric acts of the Nazis was a haunting experience. Seeing thousands upon thousands pairs of shoes behind large glass cases allows us to re-humanise the Holocaust. Filled from floor to ceiling, every single pair a different size, style and colour was seen behind the case almost every style you can imagine. This was very overwhelming and enabled us to understand the individuals who were affected. Each shoe represented a different person, their favourite shoe or the shoe of their style; these individuals were just like us, innocent yet stripped of their identities being left with just a number. The size of the cabinet, along with the sheer number of shoes behind was so overwhelming, but it led to a greater understanding of the scale of the Holocaust. But yet, those shoes we had seen were only a proportion of the shoes which were collected at Auschwitz. A total of 1.1 million people had lost their lives. The second lesson we can learn from Auschwitz is the modern day contextual understanding of the Holocaust, and how such events can happen to us, through understanding the past we minimise these chances.
Our trip to Auschwitz I was followed by Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp. Auschwitz I was the concentration camp which was constructed to hold Polish political prisoners. However, Birkenau the death the camp was extremely vast, and the flat land went on for miles, surrounded with barbed wire fencing. The scale of Birkenau was truly frightening, the barbed wire went on for at least a couple of miles in each direction; the back of Birkenau not even being in our clear sights. It was one of the most eerie, harrowing experiences we have ever had. The sight of the well-known gatehouse is one of the most iconic images of Auschwitz, as the entrance point is highly significant. However, it hides the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and this is something we have learnt throughout the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz project’. Learning that Allianz insured the animal stables that the prisoners slept in left our whole group confused – leaving questions as to why a company would agree to do such a thing. We also felt a fear that money and organisations can commit to such crimes. Now the reconstructed stable-like buildings revealed to us the extent of inhumane treatment of the prisoners who weren’t murdered on arrival. The unbelievable enormity of the camp showed the power of the Nazis, to be able to commit the worst of crimes right on the doorstep of residential Polish towns and then demolishing them to hide the evidence.
Finally, during the memorial part of our trip we had the opportunity to view photos of many people before their lives, families and identities were stripped away from them. This was followed by a service led by Rabbi Garson, in which he read poems by and for the millions of people who lost their lives in the Holocaust, as well as singing a prayer about togetherness in Hebrew. This service was very special as it allowed us all, as a group of young people, to pay our respects to those who had lost their lives. As part of our remembrance we took participated in a two-minute silence and lit candles. Thinking of the past events allows us to plan for future peace and as human beings try to do our part in preventing such events from happening again. We know we will never forget our lessons from Auschwitz, and hope dearly that you can learn from our lessons by taking a moment to remember the past.
“As part of the orientation seminar, and throughout the day at Auschwitz, we were encouraged to consider the roles played by groups in the Holocaust. The words ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ have been universally used to group those perceived as innocent and those perceived as guilty during such events. However, through group discussions and work with our leader we came to realise that this use of grouping terms can sometimes be harmful, especially when discussing the ‘victims’ of the Holocaust. By using an umbrella term to group millions of people, we are possibly taking away their individuality and humanity. Before these people were targets of the Nazis, they had their own unique and individual lives. People had jobs, families and wanted to enjoy life just the same as people in the 21st century do today. The overall lesson learned from this is that to forget that the Jewish people and other oppressed minorities had importance to their lives before the Holocaust is to remove the relevance of their lives prior to the tragedies they incurred. In a similar way that we consider the individuality of the victims, we also learned a lot about the way in which perpetrators are perceived. The Nazis were able to delegate small, seemingly meaningless, tasks to officers during the Holocaust as a means of allowing for a removal of blame. The word ‘just’ comes to mind here. He ‘just’ signalled the trains arriving at Auschwitz. All of a sudden the word ‘just’ has removed the severity that ultimately lies with every single tasked that allowed the Holocaust to occur. We learned that officers worked with small jobs to allow the framework of a much larger regime to work smoothly and with as little guilt as possible.” – Ruby Blandford
“The ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’ had been something I wanted to participate in from fairly low down in the school. It has been a very hard and emotional experience but one which has truly been eye-opening. To learn about the Holocaust hearing a testimony from a Holocaust survivor and seeing Auschwitz through my own eyes was an enriching experience. The Holocaust was the biggest genocide in history, with a death toll estimated between 6 and 17 million lives, it is incredibly important that we remember this sad past and prevent it from happening again. Going to Auschwitz where over 1 million people lost their lives, and having the ability to pay respects was something truly special. Understanding the events which took place and learning about them, puts us in a better position to prevent such acts from taking place. As George Santayana put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. However, we understand that in certain parts of the world such as North Korea people are kept imprisoned and killed despite of this devastating past. These events should not be allowed to take place but yet they still do. We as a race have not learnt completely from the past, and we should aim to teach those that haven’t. As global citizens we should understand the past and act in compassion and care for our peers in hope of a better future.” – Michal Zalewski
“The lessons learnt from the visit to Auschwitz are clear: hatred has no place in the human heart. In the 21st Century especially, with all of our technological, humanitarian and social advances, it is easy to distance ourselves from the past-and therefore reassure ourselves that a repeat of the Holocaust could never happen. However, when we examine current affairs, it is unnerving to see the huge repercussions that hate still has amongst our society.
An example of this is the increasing global instances of hate crime and racial-driven malice. Ignorance, especially within the media, can cause hatred towards certain groups, religions and cultures to become rife. For example, in the USA there was a 6% increase in hate crime in November 2016 (a significant date for the international political situation). Furthermore, news reports of the events and atrocities in conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Turkey are a living illustration of what can happen when hate becomes overwhelming. As members of society, we have a choice in how we react to this: do we aid the perpetrators by remaining as bystanders? Or do we take a stand against them?
In our modern world, which we like to envision as progressive and accepting, the reality can often be starkly contrasting. The message to take away from this, if anything, is to remember that we all play a part in the perpetration of hatred. Whether we implement it, avert it, or actively campaign against it, ask yourself: in such a hostile earth, how will you spread love?” – Eleanor Clarke