|Lessons from Auschwitz Account
We have taken part in the Lessons from Auschwitz project with the Holocaust Education trust which aims to widen our understanding of the Holocaust, its contemporary relevance and teach us how to prevent an event like it ever happening again. Our motivation for taking part in the Lessons from Auschwitz was to help us understand what happened and help us to answer why such an event could happen.
The first stage of our course was the orientation seminar in Nottingham. Here we had a testimony from Zigi Shipper a Holocaust Survivor. He spoke to us about his experiences throughout the war and how he survived three concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hearing his testimony gave us a very moving first-hand account of what it was like to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau and made us realise that after everything Zigi and the other victims endured an event like the Holocaust should never happen again and our lessons learnt from it cannot be forgotten. After Zigi’s testimony we split into our smaller groups which we would spend the rest of our course with. Here we discussed our expectations as to what visiting Auschwitz would be like. From these discussions we came to the conclusion that it would be a powerful experience but we were going in with an open mind.
The following week we travelled to Poland for our one day visit. During our day we were visiting three sites: The last Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau. Our first site was the Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim (the town where Auschwitz was based). Here we saw a low maintained, damaged cemetery. Visiting this site was a reminder that Jewish people had homes and communities before the Nazis came along and showed us the disrespect and persecution that the Jewish people faced. The gravestones had been broken and ripped out during the war to be used as pavements for the German people; it was only years after the war that they were finally returned to the original cemetery but not necessarily in the right place.
Afterwards we went to the Auschwitz I. This was the work camp during the war but now has been turned into a museum. Here we saw the horrendous conditions that the Jews had to live in. Each block held approximately 600 people and were crammed full of bunk-beds, with an unhygienic wash and toilet area. There were row upon row with the blocks, all lined up in unison. Inside the blocks there are now some very powerful exhibits such as a room containing around 50,000 shoes collected by the Nazi’s from prisoners. It was very chilling seeing the shoes and the suitcases because behind each one held the memory of an individual who had suffered at Auschwitz. But seeing the masses of shaven hair struck us the most because it showed us the extent the Nazis had gone to so they could dehumanise these people. At Auschwitz I we walked through one of the first gas chambers created, which had a cold, damp and eerie feeling to it, knowing that many had lost their lives in that room right where we were standing. In an adjacent room there were the incinerators where they burnt the dead bodies. It was a welcoming sight to be outside, yet slightly disturbing knowing we could easily leave the gas chamber, but those inside could not.
Following our time at Auschwitz I, we then took a short journey to Auschwitz Birkenau – the extermination camp. Before we entered through the ‘Death Gates’ we stood on the railway tracks, reflecting on not just the people who were killed here, but the bystanders who were involved to an extent e.g. the train drivers who drove the trains into Auschwitz Birkeanu, with wagons jam-pact with Jews. It was a chilling experience standing there on the tracks, knowing that those in the coaches were not going to be leaving.
When we did enter the camp, the huge scale of Birkeanu was overwhelming; a mile wide and half a mile in length, then continuing beyond the forest. All we could see were the chimneys representing where the stables that the prisoners lived in once stood. Whilst walking around Birkenau our attention was highlighted to a cattle wagon (designed for 5-10 cows) used to transport around 200 Jews with little ventilation. This was brought to our attention as it was the same style of wagon that Zigi Shipper had travelled to Auschwitz in. Hearing a holocaust survivor’s testimony before the visit made everything whilst you were in Auschwitz much more real and you would see things around the camp and it would match the description of Zigi’s account. It re-humanised the whole experience and made sure that we didn’t forget that each of these victims were individual human beings who had a story behind them, they were not just statistics of the Nazi’s attempted genocide.
When you walk to the end of Auschwitz-Birkenau you find the blown up gas chambers, here we heard a very powerful testimony of a Jewish man who worked in the chamber, wrote down what he had witnessed and what went on and then buried the diary. He wanted everyone to know what had gone on there and knew he was not going to live to tell people. At the end of the day we had a ceremony led by a Rabbi as a chance to reflect on everything we had experienced that day, we then lit candles and left them on the railway track to memorialise all of the victims of not only Auschwitz but every victim of Nazi persecution.
The final stage of our course is the Next Steps stage. We attended our final seminar and here we discussed our response to the visit and whether it met our expectations. Through these discussions we decided that seeing really is believing and nothing could have prepared us for what we saw. We then started to plan our Next Steps stage where we go out into our local communities and share our experiences and lessons we have learnt from this. One of the most important lessons we learnt from the Holocaust Education Trust was to never stop re-humanising all of the victims. Are main aim when we share our experiences would be the re-humanising, comparing to how dehumanising the Holocaust was; from having 200 Jews in one cattle wagon instead of 5 cattle or forcing them to live on the bare-minimum. It is easy enough for people to talk about the Holocaust and state all of the statistics but we must never forget the individuals behind each number.
Lessons from Auschwitz was not only an informative experience where we learnt a lot about the Holocaust but it was also a very emotional and personal experience. It not only gives you a different perspective on the Holocaust but it also gives you a different perspective in life. It showed us not only how fragile human life is but also how strong humans can be, the Jews did not surrender immediately they fought the Nazis back and some did manage to survive. When asked if he had any motto he lived by Zigi Shipper told us his was to ‘just not hate’. It was that simple. After to witnessing and experiencing everything we have through this course that is one quote we will not forget and we will continue to share this and all of the lessons we learnt with everyone.