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Lessons from Auschwitz

This isn't quite like my usual post, however, this year, a one day visit to Poland has made me want to tell as many people as possible about what I have experienced and explored. In March, I was selected after a process of interviews to represent my school on a trip to Oświęcim, funded by the Holocaust Educational Trust. The day long trip saw us fly to Krakow and then travel by bus to the infamous concentration camp: Auschwitz - Birkenau.

I've now written about my experience numerous times. In my monthly column for the local magazine; in a lesson in which I taught Year 7 students studying The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and in the essays I had to write for the Lessons from Auschwitz project once I had visited the site. Despite this, however, I am still unable to put my feelings entirely in to words, nor write enough to cover everything that I saw and felt both prior, during and post my visit.

It is a strange thing to stand in a place where millions have died and feel the sun's heat on your skin, hear nothing but birds singing, see grass growing on the floor. I had read a number of first hand accounts before visiting Auschwitz, most notably Kitty Hart's Return to Auschwitz and had learned from family members what those related to me had experienced as members of the Jewish community in Nazi occupied German, but nothing could prepare me for the surreal nature of the concentration camps. I half expected to walk in to a dark and dismal graveyard of a place, with smoke billowing around my feet and a wave of emotion hitting me. But it did not. When I walked in to Auschwitz, all we could see in the sunshine were army barracks (which Auschwitz was before becoming a work camp) and across the road, the Commandant's house. I felt angry, confused. I knew this was a place of horror. I knew when I walked in to the gas chambers that men, women, children, people had walked in those footsteps never to come out again. And yet I could not comprehend it. I couldn't comprehend the hatred of those that had worked here, the pain so many faced. In some of the rooms, piles of hair, shoes, pots, pans, gas canisters towered above me behind glass screens. That could so easily be my hair or that of the people I love. There was a tiny red, child's shoe amongst the mountain of work boots, party shoes, slippers. It reminded me of the little girl in the red coat in Schindler's List. The owner of those shoes could be approaching 90 years old now, or she could no longer be with us. The latter is most likely.

The first time I cried on my visit was watching videos. We went in to a dark room and I half expected horrific, graphic photographs to be projected around as  you so commonly see when researching the genocide committed by the Nazis of anybody they thought to not be human, to not be worthy. Instead, what we saw was far more horrific. Home videos, photographs of weddings, the first days of school, family picnics were beamed around the room. 6 million people means nothing. I have no concept of that. It's a number, a statistic to shock people, to emphasise what the Nazis did. These people weren't numbers, they were people. Think of the authors, scientists, musicians, artists, doctors, nurses, mothers, fathers we could've had if this tragedy hadn't occurred.

People. We're all people. Whether you're a British Christian, a  German soldier, a Polish Jew, a Syrian refugee. We're all people.

Next, we visited Birkenau. A purpose built facility for the murder of those captured. A place where people were made to live in stables and fight for food, shelter, clothing. A place where people could only use the toilet once or twice a day, where they lived with the constant knowledge that each second could be their last. I walked in along the infamous train tracks and looked left and right. On neither side could I see the end of the camp. The gas chambers here have been demolished, an attempt of the Nazis to hide their actions. But it is not the buildings here that hold significance, it is the knowledge of what happened in that spot not so many years ago. The sun began to set as we walked around the site, even in the hours we were there we only saw a tiny amount of it. Once the sun had gone down, we sat together to pray for those who had endured the conditions at Auschwitz-Birkenau. No matter what our religion or background, we sat and eventually lit candles in the darkness to pay our respects. I am not a religious person, I have not been since I was perhaps five years old. But as I lay down my candle on the memorial at the end of the railway tracks, I closed my eyes and hoped. Hoped that those who had suffered were in a better place, hoped that I could help to educate people in what I had experienced and could continues to educate myself, hoped that this would never happen again.

Before it all, we visited the town itself and stood in the market square. It was beautiful and bustling but has virtually no Jewish community left despite being majorly Jewish before the war. It is a symbol of the inhumane nature of human nature, it is a warning to us all. I believe everybody should educate themselves about the horrors of the Holocaust, it is an injustice to the people who suffered not to. We must learn, we must grow and we must not sit back in this age of fear and irrationality.


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