Earlier this week, I had the unforgettable opportunity to visit Oświęcim (called Auschwitz during Nazi rule) in Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project where participants eventually pass on the lessons learnt to the wider community in our schools/college’s. Auschwitz is widely known for being the site where at least 1.1 million people died, the majority being Jews, amongst other victims such as some Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, and political prisoners from the Soviet Union. The one day visit included a trip to the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue, before making our trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau sites.
As you step into the gates, the haunting sign of ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ hangs above your head, intended to fool political prisoners originally into thinking that it’s translation ‘Work sets you free’ was a possibility, yet in reality they were brutally taken to their death, alongside hundreds of thousands of innocent people on grounds of nationality/religion, as well as the ridiculous notion that certain people, particularly Jews, were somehow inferior by their blood as they failed to fit the Nazi ideal of ‘Aryan’ ideals.
The sites itself, especially Birkenau are enormous. The silent and emptiness is perhaps what makes the site so sad and chilling itself, as it speaks louder than any attempt to fill the vaccum ever could. You get this chilling feeling when you realise that you are standing in the very site when millions were tortured, fooled and humiliated into forced labour, unbearable atrocities and ultimately, their deaths. In Birkenau, there are converted stables in which these people, purely based on their unchangable circumstances, were essentially kept as animals, forced to build and clean their own facilities, bath in dirty water and live in the most inhumane conditions. It would be believable to tell me that this land isn’t possibly today’s civilized Europe, nor any country on this planet for that matter. It had been converted to a site of bloodshed built on intolerance and an abhorrent mindset held by the Nazi’s. The site of Auschwitz was slightly more condensed, yet just as intense as Birkenau, as we were shown the remains of children’s toys, broken dolls, abandoned suitcase’s and pots/pans, as well as the Jewish prayer mats and hair cut off from woman, used by the Nazi’s to sell to Europe commercially. There were walls filled with faces to names of some of the millions of the victims, which really bought back the individual story and legacy of each victim, as opposed to being mere statistics. Previousely, at the introduction seminar, we met a Holocaust survivor who really bought us to light of the individuality of each and every single victim.
The day ended with an emotional silence to remember the victims as well as the lighting of memorial candles, with a Rabbi giving us a message highlighting the important lessons of today: the consequences of unnecessarily avoiding situations as a bystander, falling into the trap of becoming a perpetrator and most importantly, the importance of recognizing differences in embrace of the world, not in spite of them. It was an incredible trip with a truly thought provoking message. Find out more about the trust here: http://www.het.org.uk/