Last week, on the 29th was the long-awaited trip to Auschwitz. We had a very early wake up to get to the airport for 5am and by half 7, we were in the air on our way to Poland. The whole plane of us were going to Auschwitz and none of us really knew what to expect or what awaited us when we were to get there.
We arrived at Poland and got onto the coach to head to Auschwitz I, which was the labour camp, it took about an hour to get there. It was really strange to see such colourful houses and churches in a place that was once shocked by such a traumatic event in history. When we got there, our groups met with the tour guides, we were given headphones and started the tour of Auschwitz I. The first sight we saw was the famous gate:
The writing on the gate “Arbeit Macht Frei” means “Work brings freedom.” This is the gate that Jewish labourers walked through to work in the camp. We were told there that to the right of the gate was an orchestra that was put their to keep spirits high, it also kept the marches to a beat so everybody kept in line when walking through the gate. Also every body walking through the gate in the morning to work must comeback through the gate in the evening, so if somebody died whilst working, their bodies would be dragged back through the gates in the evening to make the numbers up.
Before that, the Jews were lined up for roll call in lines of 10. If someone went missing, then they were forced to stay there until the escapees were found. The longest time known was 21 hours. When the escapees were caught, they were tortured or even shot in front of the other members of the camp to show them what the consequences were.
There was a strange feeling around Auschwitz, you sensed wrongdoing and there was an unpleasant atmosphere. It was just like a still photo, there were no birds singing, no birds would fly over Auschwitz, but would only fly around it. It’s very odd, yet poetic to think that the birds knew what was happening, but that’s almost what you sense when you’re there.
Auschwitz I used to be Polish army barracks, then when the Germans invaded, it was turned into a concentration camp because of its structure and it’s railway links, so Jews all over Europe could be transported to Auschwitz.
This was a map in the museum that showed us where the Jews came from. The place in the bottom right of the map took 11 days on a cattle truck with no food, no water and no sanitation. The cattle trucks were about 25 feet long, to 10 wide. They were packed aswell, the trucks could transport 15 cows, yet up to and often more than 100 people were forced into them. The killing started before the Jews even arrived at Auschwitz.
In the museum was this sign, we were told that if you gave a minute’s silence for every human life lost in Auschwitz alone, it would take you two years. These days, if a well-known celebrity dies, we tend to have a minute’s silence for them, but knowing it would take 2 years for every Auschwitz victim alone was something that hit us all, especially knowing that there were millions more killed elsewhere in the holocaust. “One million Jews, Two years of silence.”
As the sign says as well, the majority of the people were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, we were shown into the gas chambers. The chambers were filled with 1500 people at a time and were gassed with Zyklon-B, within 25 minutes, they were all killed. After this, they were to be cremated, but it took 6 days to do so, which to the Nazis, was too long.
All around the camp was barbed wire, signs that said “HALT!” It was a very threatening and intimidating place to be in. The barbed wire was rusty and once had electricity running through them, and even caused the death of many Jews who threw themselves into the wire so that the Nazis would not have the satisfaction of killing them.
We were shown, in the museums, the possessions of the Jews. Human hair, suitcases, glasses, crockery and even artificial limbs were on display.
Human hair was shaved from the Jews who were working and were shipped back to Germany to stuff mattresses and pillows. However, this was the hair that was shaved after the Jews were gassed. They weren’t shaved until after they were killed because the Germans did not want to give the impression that anything was wrong. Also, if the Jews were to riot, there wasn’t enough guards to control them.
This is a small proportion of the possessions that were ruthlessly taken upon arrival at Auschwitz. These were the glasses that belonged to the jews and were never sold to help Germany’s economy. This has a massive impact on us all that saw, it really gave us all this reminder that 1.1 million is just a statistic, but each other these people were individuals.
After the visit to Auschwitz I, we went back on the coach for the five-minute journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II). This was the purpose-built camp to kill the Jews. It is 25 times larger than Auschwitz I.
This was the famous entrance of Auschwitz II in which the trains would enter through the middle and stop at the platform in which the Jews would be separated between who will work and who will be executed. This is a view from the top of the Watchtower:
This view was quite powerful to us, personally as it feels like a split screen down the middle, you have the camp on the left, looking still as it did when the Holocaust was happening, and then on the right, looking as if nothing has happened, with cars and road signs with houses in the background.
We then went into one of the buildings that you can see on the left, these were the buildings that the Jews lived in. There were triple bunk beds with no mattress at all, or pillow. It looked like this:
Towards the end of the trip, after going around the camps, we went into this building that had nothing in it except a wall with family photos of the victims. The photos were not taken in the camp, but were brought into the camp by the victims. In all these pictures, they looked happy, they were enjoying life. The wall had pictures on one side, and on the other it had information about the pictures, most of them weren’t happy endings. This hit everyone hard, it told us that everyone had a family and had a life and it was tragically taken from them because of racial hatred.
I think many of us didn’t want to see the other side of the wall because it would just upset us, but you cannot describe or understand unless you see it for yourself at Auschwitz, which makes teaching about it really hard to do.
The day ended at Auschwitz when the man who is behind these trips, Rabbi Barry Marcus, performed a sermon for us to reflect on every single life lost at the camp. It is difficult to understand why the Nazis killed the Jews and what good it did for them. That ceremony gave us all a little time to soak up the cold atmosphere and reflect on such an overwhelming day emotionally, physically and mentally. We finished with lighting candles on the railway and started our long journey back home.
It was horrifying to know that prejudice still exists around the world. We were told at Auschwitz that the museum exists to teach people about the horrifying stories and hopefully it will never happen again. Millions of people died in the Holocaust and that’s just a statistic, each and every one of them people had a home, a heart,they had dreams and goals and they wanted to live a full life. But they were all cut short because of bigotry and racial hatred. Which saddened us all and angered us intensely.
Auschwitz was such an odd experience and very tiring. We write this over a week later because it takes that amount of time for it all to sink in.
“One million Jews, Two years of silence”