As today is Holocaust Memorial Day, I have decided to take some time to reflect on a recent project that I was given the opportunity to take part in.
Last year, Ben Caldera and I were lucky enough to be chosen from a selection of Sixth Form students by Mr Lemieux to take part in the project ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’. The project was set up twelve years ago by the Holocaust Educational Trust and has already enabled more than 100,00 students and teachers across the UK to visit the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The project was based on the premise that ‘hearing is not like seeing’ and it aims to explore the universal lessons of the Holocaust and its relevance in the world today. Therefore, the trip was much more effective than any other previous history trip that I have been involved with; it enabled us to move away from impersonalized statistics and generalizations and view the persecuted as human beings-with their own everyday lives.
Along with around 250 other students from across the UK, we attended a pre-visit and post-visit follow-up seminar, which took place in London. Over these days, we learnt more about the treatment of Jews and other minorities across Europe. We were also informed about the radical increase in discrimination across Nazi Germany from 1933 onwards, including Kristallnatch in 1938 and the setting up of the Einsatzgruppen in 1941. Following this, we heard a survivor’s testimony from Susan Pollack and were lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask her a variety of questions.
“What was it that inspired you to keep going whilst in the camp?”
She replied: “Hope.”
After being separated from her father by the Nazis in her home town, Susan never saw him again, and to this day still doesn’t know whether he died in the camp or was deported elsewhere. At first, Ben and I found it hard to take in what Susan had told us. This story was far worse and far more disturbing then anything we’d heard before. The impact of hearing it from a first-hand survivor made it seem so much more real; this was to be our first insight of the trauma we were yet to witness for ourselves.
Through all these distressing events, Susan had managed to keep hope and is now happily married to a fellow survivor. This put into perspective for us just how strong hope is. The testimony also allowed us to put our lives into perspective and relate our everyday struggles to the struggles that Susan had faced in the camp; there is no real comparison. I’ve come to realise that if people have the ability to keep hope in a situation like hers, then there is hope for everyone.
After the testimony, we divided into smaller groups and discussed our expectations from the visit. However, we knew that nothing could prepare us for the harrowing experience we were yet to face.
It was November 12th and the day had finally arrived. Sadly this meant having to journey to Heathrow irport at the early hour of 2am. Before we knew it, we were joined on the plane by the rest of our group as we began our trip to Krakow, Poland.
The intense recollection of walking through the infamous gates of the Auschwizt I camp marked ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Labour makes you free’) is a memory that will stay with me forever. It was here that we encountered possibly the most moving part of our trip: the room of hair, spectacles, suitcases and personal items belonging to the prisoners. It was in these rooms that the human atrocities that had been carried out seemed real for the first time. Just as the trip had stated in its aims, we began to humanise the Holocaust and understand that the persecuted were no different from ourselves. As we toured the second camp, it was fittingly cold and the eerie feel that lay within the fog set the typical scene that you would imagine.
This camp was even more hard-hitting as we discovered the daily lives of the prisoners and took part in a memorial service outside the ruins of Crematoria II. In the evening we each got the opportunity to light a candle along the tracks that ran through the camp. This was a poignant moment for everyone; accompanied by sound of Rabbi Marcus’ prayers and under a starlit sky, a group of 250 UK pupils gathered together to remember the 6 million lives that were taken during the Holocaust.
For me the trip was one of the most profound experiences of my life, perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve delayed myself in writing or even speaking about it for so long. You cannot describe these experiences to others in away that justifies the events and although part of the course is for us as ‘ambassadors’ to share the lessons which we learnt- I feel that it simply cannot be done. It would be wrong for me to express the journey in any words other than telling you to visit for yourself.
There were moments of the trip where I realised both Ben and I were stood speechless. To know that I was walking the same halls which Himmler, head of the SS had done and which Rudolf Höss’ wife had described as “paradise”, left me feeling numb and vacant. However, I must stress to you the importance of never forgetting atrocities like this because discrimination and racism is still present and on going throughout the world today. It is important that, as the youth of today, we address these issues and do not allow ourselves to go into the future repeating these mistakes.
“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." - George Bernard Shaw