Earlier this year, my friend Estella and I were selected to go on a trip to Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz Birkenau; a expedition organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, with the intention of redefining how we think about the Holocaust.
Our experience began with an orientation day, where we met with approximately 200 other students representing various schools and colleges in our area. For the majority of the day we discussed the background of the Holocaust in smaller groups to better grasp its causes, but also to get an understanding of what Jewish life was like before the war. The most interesting and moving part of the day was when we were privileged enough to meet a survivor of the Holocaust – Rudi Oppenheimer – who came to tell us his and his siblings’ story of how they survived Bergen-Belsen. His story was truly moving and extremely emotional, and we were able to purchase a copy of his brother’s book “From Belsen to Buckingham Palace” to further read up on his life.
By the end of the orientation day, we began to realise exactly what we’d signed up for. Our task was about so much more than visiting the death camps in Poland; we were expected to leave Auschwitz having gained a new insight on the Holocaust, and then to teach our community about it. What we didn’t want to do was ‘raise awareness’ about the Holocaust, because most people know about it already. Our goal was (and still is) to change how people approach the topic: instead of focusing on the statistics alone – on the vast number of people who perished – we were trying to make a human connection by focusing more on individual lives and stories; re-humanising the Holocaust.
The morning of our trip arrived, and we got up at 5am, ready to go to the airport for our flight to Krakow at 7am. Upon landing in Krakow, we were transferred straight to coaches and driven to Oswiecim – our first stop. Oswiecim (a pre-war Jewish site) is the nearest town to both Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau, so we stopped off at the town square to learn about life there before and after Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau were created. Prior to the Holocaust, Oswiecim had a huge Jewish community (by 1939 Jews made up about 53% of the population there), however the entire Jewish population and many others living in Oswiecim were relocated and sent to Auschwitz I/Birkenau or Labour Camps in Germany. Today, there are no Jews living in Oswiecim, despite a number of Jewish survivors returning after the war. The last Jew to live in Oswiecim was Szymon Kluger; he spent the remainder of his life there and died in 2000.
Our next stop was Auschwitz I. Each group was lead by a tour guide, and everyone was given a set of headphones so that the guide did not have to shout – she spoke directly into our ears. In a way, this made us feel more detached from the visit. It was strange enough to think ‘this is it, we’re walking around Auschwitz’, but having our ears covered the whole time; it was surreal. Some of the buildings have been converted into a sort of museum, and whilst some contained pictures and information on the horrors that occurred there, many buildings contained the possessions that had been left behind by prisoners. It’s hard to describe exactly what this was like, but in each room there was a specific type of possession. One room was full of pots and pans, and cooking utensils, another had thousands upon thousands of shoes. In one room, there was human hair. Most of it was matted together, a dull shade of brown, but here and there a blond plat was visible; still intact. These glimpses were incredibly poignant. That hair had once grown upon thousands of heads, but it had been cut off and kept, intended to be made into haircloth, and sold for profit.
The final part of our visit to Auschwitz I was a walk through the only surviving gas chamber. On the walls – on the concrete walls – there were scratch marks from human hands. They only went part the way up the walls, only as high as the tallest person could reach. That’s how you can tell what the marks are. It’s impossible to begin to imagine the force necessary to gouge marks with your fingers into solid walls. I think this was the thing that really hit home, what happened in that place.
Another short coach journey away was Auschwitz Birkenau. The first thing that strikes you when you arrive, is the sheer size of it. It’s a huge open space that appears to stretch as far as the eye can see, with buildings – huts – placed in rows. We were taken round some of the huts to see the living quarters, before we walked pretty much the length of the camp to the partially destroyed crematoria. Walking about Birkenau was completely different to the walk around Auschwitz I. There was a strange natural beauty to the place, many birch-trees lined the edges (Brzezinka [Birkenau] actually means ‘birch trees’ in Polish), and as we visited at dusk, we were witness to an exquisite sunset. It was an eerie juxtaposition between natural beauty and past horrors.
Our day ended with a Memorial service at the ruins of Crematoria II. It was a beautiful service, lead by the rabbi who came on the trip with us, remembering all those who were victim to the Holocaust. At the end of the service, we each lit a candle and placed them along the tracks of the railway that leads through the centre of the camp. It was a perfectly touching end to a very harrowing visit, but it somehow felt right, to mourn the loss of life and culture in such a beautiful way.
Our journey to Auschwitz did not end when we arrived back in England, nor was it over after we attended a follow up seminar with the Holocaust Educational Trust. Each pair of representatives comes up with their own ‘Next Steps project’ – some kind of document or activity that shares what we have learnt with our community. The conclusions that we have chosen to make for our project are that statistics are impersonal, and behind the 6 million people who died, there are individuals who lived their own lives across Europe. Additionally, every individual who perished was part of a community, so to speak of loss, one speaks not just of a loss of lives, but of a loss of culture, customs and ideas.
For us, this blog post is only a small part of what we are doing for our ‘Next Steps project’. We come from a music school and are in the process of organising a Holocaust Memorial concert on the next Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January 2018). Our aim in doing this, is to celebrate the culture that was lost with the Holocaust: our program will be made up entirely of music written by Jewish composers who died in the Holocaust. We also hope to put the Holocaust into a modern context – all profits made from our concert will go to a modern refugee charity to highlight the importance of supporting anyone fleeing from unfounded persecution.
Rowena and Estella
Photographs by Estella