Lessons from Auschwitz

The Lessons from Auschwitz project allows students like us to experience an in depth view of pre-war Jewish life in an introductory seminar, a visit to the concentration and extermination camps and a follow up seminar to help to understand and process what we had witnessed. At the introductory seminar we also had the fantastic opportunity to listen to Holocaust survivor, Susan Pollack, which had a profound effect on our feelings throughout the experience.

On Tuesday 14th March 2017 we were able to experience a trip to Poland to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps from the Holocaust. It was an incredible and informative experience for everyone that was part of the visit with the Holocaust Educational Trust and one that we feel is important to share.

The first place we visited when we arrived in Poland was the closest town to Auschwitz called Oswiecim, this use to be a thriving Jewish town but now not one Jewish person lives there showing the relevance and impact the Holocaust has to this day. We got to see the pre-holocaust lives of the Jewish victims which helped to individualise them.

After this we took the surprisingly short coach ride to Auschwitz I. Walking through the gates with the infamous words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work sets you free) you immediately feel a sense of trepidation about what you are about to learn and attempt to understand. Taking more the format of a walk-through museum each old barrack held a fundamental piece of uncovering what had occurred only 75 years ago. Our entire group became moved by the two tonnes of human hair that had been put on display after being taken from Jewish victims. Each room of Aushwitz one had a profound effect on people as we witnessed piles of shoes that had belonged to the victims, personal items such as suitcases and learned about some of the people who were forced to endure this; including the child prisoners and those included in Josef Mengele’s experiments. While we spent a lot of time focusing on the individuality of each victim we were also made to think about the humanity of the perpetrators as we heard accounts from both officers and victims describing the first commander of the camp as normal, just like any other man, as we stood in front of his execution site. Individualising those involved made the experience a lot more emotional and more ‘real’ for us.

Following this we went to the purpose built death camp: Birkenau. The sheer scale of the camp and the fact that the Nazi’s were planning to expand was overwhelming and is something you can never understand until you go. We visited a women and children’s barrack which was extremely moving and upsetting, to try and picture 8 woman to every bunk and the horrific conditions they were living in was unfathomable, especially as we had heard the testimony of Susan Pollock a child survivor the week before, to think that she lived and survived in a place like that was awful to consider. We then witnessed the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers which the Nazis had destroyed in an attempt to cover up the atrocities that happened. As the sun began to set we used this location to hold the memorial ceremony, which made it extremely emotional as we listened to the words the survivors and the Rabbi singing the holocaust memorial prayer in Hebrew. We found this incredibly moving and we lit our candles in a sign of remembrance for all the lives lost and affected.

Following our return we are hoping to share what we have learned with as many people as people and in doing so become ambassadors for the Holocaust. Overall it was an experience that we will never forget and one that we would encourage others to think on and try and experience themselves. Although we were left with more questions than answers about how something like this could have happened it was an incredibly worthwhile experience and it’s extremely important that these stories are heard.

O.Ball and A.Whiteman