As part of the Holocaust Education Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz project two Woodhouse students, Klaudia Buzi and Veronica Beecham visited Auschwitz- Birkenau, the former network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by Nazi Germany during World War II. Here are their recollections on the visit.
There's really no words to describe how ethereal it was visiting a place that has such a dark history, where so many horrific crimes against humanity happened. Our visit to Auschwitz started with an early morning flight to Poland with the bleak weather only further setting the mood for where we were about to go. Upon arrival, we were surprisingly taken to the town of Oswiecim and stood on the site of the town’s former, largest synagogue. It was saddening to imagine how the town used to be home to a thriving Jewish community and today all that remained that was Jewish was a small make-shift synagogue which had been preserved by the only Jewish person to return to the town after the Holocaust. We then made our way to Auschwitz and the first thing that struck me was the huge motto above the gate, "Arbeit Macht Frei" which is German for "work makes you free". A cruel taunt filled with irony. Our very knowledgeable guide Marcelina, proceeded to take us into one of the brick buildings that is now a museum. What I saw inside was nauseating; piles of human hair that the Germans had sold on for money, suitcase upon suitcase belonging to the victims that had perished, and even prosthetic limbs. We then went to Birkenau and this was perhaps the part of the trip that struck me the most. The camp was so vast that when we stood in the German guards’ watch tower, the fields stretched as far as the eye could see. There was ruin after ruin of the buildings that had housed the prisoners, which has been made using bricks from their own houses that the Germans had destroyed. Despite wearing thick clothing, it was freezing. To imagine how people had to sleep in stables made for horses with 6 to a scrap of blanket was heart breaking. We finished the tour of Birkenau with a ceremony from Rabbi Marcus. He said that one of the most common questions people ask is where God was when this happened, but the question that really should be asked he said is where was humanity? How could what we witnessed be the actions of humans when it seemed like the work of monsters? We then lit our candles in memory of the individuals who died.
This October, Klaudia and myself, along with 200 other students and some teachers (including Mary Mc Hugh from Woodhouse) from across London sixth forms, were part of an organised trip by the Holocaust Education Trust who were given the rare opportunity to visit the former Nazi concentration camp and death camp Auschwitz-Birkeneau.
The first part of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ involved an orientation seminar in London. First we had a brief lesson which focused on pre-holocaust Jewish life and the start of the Nazi invasions. Later we all sat in shock, listening to a Holocaust survivor Renee Salt, one of the very few who survived Auschwitz Birkenau, able to share her story – a blessing that millions of other individuals were unable to do. Her story was unlike others. I had previously heard holocaust survivors speak, and each of them have a different story, but all equally as horrific. I was left speechless and amazed that someone who has gone through so much was able to relive this time in her life through retelling her story to many groups like us so frequently. However, of course no amount of time, or even by not speaking of this time in her life, would she ever be able to forget what she went through.
Visiting Auschwitz was like no other experience. I still find it hard to put into words how it made me feel. On arrival to the first camp, we were greeted by the infamous sign on the gate ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ –‘Work makes man free.’ Here we walked around the museum, which was all very well built and structured that you wouldn’t necessarily suspect initially that anything so terrible went on here. However on entering the rooms we were able to see images, objects and valuables that were found after the war of the victims of the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of shoes of all different sizes filled 2 or 3 rooms. The piles were endless. Piled human glasses, hair brushes, tooth brushes, pots and pans filled the rooms of the former work camp. One room contained suit cases, marked with people’s names and information showing the false hope that millions had on arrival- those with hope believed they would return to their goods.
As we entered the next room our tour guide told us to not take pictures. Walking through the darkness, we were faced with 7 tonnes of human hair. This was the most shocking room for me as I thought about how our hair carries our DNA and that made me think of individuals rather than the huge figure we hear. When we hear of one death it’s a tragedy, when we hear of millions, it becomes a statistic. But we should never forget that the millions of Jews and others killed were all individuals from all walks of life, and that they all had their own stories and lives.
Thousands of humans were squashed into sheds where under a hundred horses were kept, stripped of their dignity.
After a short 5 minute drive on the coach, we arrived to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This camp left a greater impression on me. As we looked out of the watch tower which was once controlled by Nazi soldiers, I could not even see the end. It is hard to explain the size of the camp. It was so big that it was almost empty, and it was clear to me that this was not a place for the living, but for the dead. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the biggest death-camp during the Holocaust. As we walked down beside the infamous railway track we stopped and were told that this was the point where on arrival 50 years ago, people were told to step to the right or to the left- to be guided to either their immediate death in the gas chambers, or to work to their death. As we carried on walking towards the remains of the destroyed gas chambers a shiver ran through me. I was walking along the same path where millions walked towards their death.
At the end of the day when it was getting dark and the camp was filled with fog, Rabbi Marcus, who came with us on our trip, held an extremely moving service on the memorial ground which each of us lit up with memorial candles. The three questions he said that he gets asked the most on the subject of the Holocaust is;
1. 'Why don't we put it in the past and move on?' But it is those who do not remember history who are bound to live through it again.
2. 'How was this possible?' Rabbi Marcus replied, "The question is not how was this possible, but, how was this humanly possible?" At this point, his voice echoed through the camp.
3. 'Where was God in all of this?' Rabbi Marcus replied, "The question is not where was God, the question is, where was man in all of this?"
Walking out of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we were almost silent. I was able to walk out of there, unlike millions of others who only entered not so many years ago.