Prior to my visit to Poland and to the concentration camps I had a preconception of what I thought I would see, think and feel. I had seen pictures online of the labour camps, death camps and cattle trucks in which prisoners were forced into. I had read books and articles and had studied the period of the Holocaust and so I was not going onto this trip completely ignorant of the events that occurred over 70 years ago.
I was unsure about how I would react whilst walking through the camp; some say that you cry, others say that you stand in silence. Reactions differ from person to person and although you attempt to ready yourself it is something that mentally and emotionally you cannot ultimately prepare for.
For such an extreme and historic event as this to occur, there are images or names that we associate with the Holocaust. “Stripped pyjamas, shaven heads, gas chambers, Adolph Hitler…” these are just a few things that come to mind when you contemplate the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazi’s. Many remember them as walking skeletons reduced to skin and bone, me included. This perception has subsequently changed since my visit to Poland although it is embedded into me the horrors that occurred between 1939-1945.
The trip began with a visit to Auschwitz I, the first smaller camp of the entire Auschwitz complex. This was initially built because there were already old army barracks based in the area and these were taken over the by Germans with the intention to set up a work camp for soviet prisoners. Our visit occurred at the beginning of February; a time when Poland experiences very harsh winter weather. These cold, snowy conditions contributed to the atmosphere of the camp and brought alive all the movies and documentaries where concentration camps were stereotypically cold and dreary. The general feeling at this camp, for me, was that it was like a factory. Everything had a purpose, a structure. Prisoners would march in, be counted, be labelled, sterilised and then sent to wherever the Germans decided they should go. There are 33 barracks in the camp and everything is organised. My group followed a tour guide who directed us around some of the rooms where exhibitions had been set up. It was intriguing to learn about the strict system the Nazis enforced when new prisoners arrived to the camp. For me it was intriguing to learn that their systems came as a product of trial and error. They had to test things out to see what the most efficient method was and rectified anything that could be improved; modifying and changing what was necessary. It is odd to talk about people as being reduced to a system, to a number, to a tag, yet this was the reality for the millions of people kept in various camps across Europe. In is intriguing to know that they did get things wrong and had to adapt and change just like we do every day. It makes the fouled-mouth, violent and aggressive image of the Nazi solider become more human yet this only makes them more monster-like.
We walked through room upon room. Rooms full of shoes and hair. Rooms with harrowing statistics about the number of people killed. Rooms with maps and pictures of the tracks and unknowing victims. Rooms with cabinets full of glasses, pots and pans, clothing and combs. These rooms make you stop and stand in silence. They make you think about the individual who owned that particular comb or those particular pair of shoes. Different sites and different rooms had different impacts on people. For me there were two places that had an overwhelming effect on me. The first was a room with cabinets full of suitcases. These were suitcases confiscated from prisoners of the camp. Each one was different, each had a different name on and each belonged to a person. It was for this reason that I took an interest to the display of cases. When the Jews were informed that they would be relocated they were allowed to pack a bag of what they would need for their new home. People filled their bags with their valuables: jewellery, clothing, photo albums, anything
of personal value or of expense. And there I was. Looking at these empty cases that still had the name of the person written across the slightly worn leather. All that was left of that person’s belongings was the bag they brought with them. These suitcases represent the hope that the Jewshad, the belief of being housed elsewhere. It represents their life and their past. It represents the lies told by the Nazis to lour and force people into their plan and mostly it represents the human, the person who lived and went to work, went on holidays, had family gatherings. Each individual suitcase represents an individual person, their memories, their likes and dislikes and their story.
The second place was a room that had been set up to play old video footage and music from pre-WWII. The black and white footage was projected onto the walls of one of the barracks that would have housed a couple of hundred prisoners. The footage was highly impacting because it showed life before the war. It showed happy Jewish families on days out and Jews walking through the streets undisturbed. This was hard-hitting because we were stood in a building that would have held hundreds of prisoners and yet we were watching some of the happiest memories of those people.
From Auschwitz I we travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942 and served as a center for the extermination of the Jews-9 out of every 10 victims of this camp were Jews. A large proportion of the more than 70,000 Polish prisoners perished in Birkenau as well as 20,000 Gypsies in addition to Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities. During 1943 and 1944 four gas chambers and crematorium operated continuously in this complex. To me this camp was far more open and extreme. You can only see the remains of the gas chambers yet it is the train tracks that run through the centre that appear the most intimidating faction of the camp. These famous tracks brought people to the camp and were often the last thing thousands of people saw before being led away to their deaths. It is difficult to stand on these tracksand contemplate exactly what occurred here over 70 years ago.
At the end of our day the entire group gathered in a building full of photograph’s of the victims. This was originally the place where prisoners were registered and sterilized if they were chosen for hard labour, but it is now a place of remembrance and dedication. One of the rooms was full of photos of families, couples and children portraying them in their everyday lives before the war. These were brought to camps by prisoners who perceived them to have great personal importance. The Rabbi who joined us on our trip spoke to us all when we had gathered together. He said that he still suffers from anti-Semitism today and it frightens him that this seems to be the future for his children; but he continued to remind us that we are the future and so we have the decision and control on how we behave. I have never experienced silence such as this. A room packed full of teenagers from around the Midlands and we were all in silence, listening to a man who had captivated us all. His words were full of hope for the future and even though he had experienced anti-Semitism himself; his strength and hope greatly inspired me and many others listening.
We then went outside and all were given an individual candle to light and place somewhere near the memorial that had been created at the end of the tracks. The majority of the group placed their candles on the tracks leading up to the camp. It was this moment of all being gathered together on the tracks I have ultimately brought away from the experience. There was such a strong sense of unity and cohesion between 200 people that did not know each other, who all come from different backgrounds and all practice different religions. We were all gathered remembering the past but looking into the future. When you go to a place such as Auschwitz there is an association that youcome back upset, angry and distressed. But it is experiences such as these that we must learn from. The Holocaust is an example of what happens when prejudice, discrimination and hate becomes the power in the world. You would think that, from the past, we would have understood what happens when we become hateful and intolerant yet still today we witness this all around us. Cambodia in 1975, Rwanda in 1990, Bosnia in 1995 and Darfur in 2003 all experienced genocides or attempted genocides and these have all occurred many years after the Holocaust. Bullying, racism, discrimination and intolerance are all still a problem that we face today in schools, the workplace, the media and the local community. But we must not forget that there are so many out there fighting against this hate, and rebelling against prejudice and discrimination; this is something we can all do. It does not have to be a huge donation of money or a speech in front of hundreds of people. It can be a conversation with a person who shares a different religion or a smile to someone who appears disheartened; a simple act can make a great difference. We do not have to be frightened when confronting hate and we do not have to be silent. Instead, through good intentions and by working together we can become unified. The Nazi’s singled out people who were different and saw them as inferior. They believed that specific races, religions and beliefs were superior to others. Today, we have the choice on how we behave and treat others. If there is one thing that I have taken away from my experience it is this: We can continue to be prejudice and narrow-minded or we can choose to be accepting and educate others on understanding and embracing differences and encouraging unity; there is so
much more that unites us than divides us.