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Lessons from Auschwitz

A recent visit

On 22nd February two Year 12 students, Liam Connolly and Rachel Barton-Hagger, flew to Krakow, Poland to visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau as part of the 'Lessons from Auschwitz' programme delivered by the Holocaust Trust.  Please find below Liam's reflections experienced upon the visit.


It is difficult to exactly describe what it is like to visit Auschwitz Birkenau. The feeling of walking down the very path that a countless number walked down, the vast majority still unaware that they were walking to their deaths, of seeing the ruins of the gas chambers where they spent their final moments is incredibly disturbing. It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be separated from your family, and how it would feel the moment you realise that you will never see them again, that the fleeting glimpse across the crowded platform was your last. Perhaps this was the lesson to learn from Auschwitz; understanding their suffering is impossible when we have never experienced anything remotely of the sort, but we must ensure their suffering is not forgotten, their legacy being our certainty that this will never happen again.

As would be expected, there were plenty of horrific stories to be heard; of medical experiments, including attempts at mass sterilisation to ensure the extinction of ‘undesirable’ races, and Mengele’s experiments on the Roma and Sinti people. Yet somehow seemingly ordinary objects seemed just as shocking here. Upon liberation, large warehouses of goods taken from the prisoners on arrival were found; these warehouses were nicknamed ‘Canada’ – places of abundance. These items included glasses, personal photos and suitcases. One room was filled with prosthetic legs, another with thousands of shoes and a third with the hair of around 140,000 prisoners – this was used in Nazi Germany to produce material that could be used in a variety of ways. There were also house keys – after all, those being relocated had picked up their bags, locked their doors and put their keys in their pockets, just as millions of people do every day. This was a key thing to remember at Auschwitz. Trying to comprehend 1.3 million murders is impossible. But these people were not statistics; each one was an individual who lived and hoped and suffered, and who were ultimately not too dissimilar from us.

The victims in Auschwitz Birkenau were not of a single group, although undeniably the majority of those killed were Jewish.  Until mid-1942, the majority of the population of Auschwitz I were Polish, although there were also large numbers of Jews, Roma, Sinti and Soviet prisoners of war, especially later in this period.  Auschwitz I was originally Polish army barracks, and so the buildings are constructed relatively well, although conditions were, of course, still awful.  By March 1941 the decision had been made to build another camp on the site of Birkenau – this was developed to be the main extermination centre and was largely built by Soviet prisoners of war.  From early 1942 until towards the end of 1944, Jews from all over Europe, from the Channel Islands to Corfu, were sent to Auschwitz Birkenau to either be exterminated, or worked to death. The estimated figure is that 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, and at least 1.1 million of these died. Roughly 90% of these were Jews. Others deported to Auschwitz Birkenau included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, and thousands of other groups, including an unknown number of homosexuals.

Auschwitz in Polish wintertime was bitterly cold. During our visit the temperature stayed around -5ºC for the entirety of the day, to which our Polish guide simply remarked was “not too cold”. The wind blew across the camp, and snow fell all day, with a thin layer of ice and snow on the ground. Consider now that I thought I was cold, in my jumper, coat, scarf, hat and gloves. Typical clothing in Auschwitz consisted of what we now refer to as the striped pyjamas. Prisoners came from all over Europe, including as far south as Corfu, and would be expected to stand in this cold without moving for several hours a day – this really emphasised how what we may consider cold, or unpleasant or even what we consider hunger to be, is nothing in comparison to the daily experience of those who lived in Auschwitz.

The best way to understand the effect Auschwitz had psychologically, and to remember that every victim was an individual, is to read the words of a survivor.  Below are the words of Elie Wiesel, a Romanian born Jew, which were read out to us as we stood on the very platform he stood on in the moment he is describing.

"'Men to the left! Women to the right!'
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father's hand: we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora [his youngest sister] held mother's hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever".