Sixth Form student James reflects on his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp.
There is no doubt that I feel incredibly humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having taken so much from the experience, it is something that I wish not only every Sixth Form student could participate in, but also every single human being.
The outbound flight to Krakow departed from East Midlands at around 7 in the morning: it was an early start, but it was necessary for the visit to be as rewarding as possible. We arrived in Krakow, Poland, just before 11 and promptly made our way to the town of Oswiecim. Many people will be more familiar with the Germanised name it was given – Auschwitz. Before the war, Oswiecim had a large Jewish population, which by 1939 made up 58% of the population. The community was one of tolerance, with members of the Jewish faith serving on the local council. There was a willingness for continued integration between the Jewish and Christian inhabitants of the town.
But by the end of October 1939, after the outbreak of war in September, the entire administration was replaced with a Nazi one, complete with a Nazi Mayor. In June 1940, the ‘resettlements’ began. Half of the town was effectively removed, which would have had a huge impact on almost all aspects of everyday life, including local schools and the community. Since the war, the inhabitants have had to deal with vast economic problems and the stigma of living in a town associated with genocide. No Jews live in the town today. As I stood in the brisk Polish breeze, I found it hard to contemplate how it was possible for half a town, which was similar in size to Mansfield, to perish.
A short coach ride took us to Auschwitz 1: as we drove along the road that travels parallel to it, there was no announcement needed to inform us that we were at our destination. The things I had seen in textbooks struck me first - the wooden watchtowers, arched fence posts and barbed wire that have become iconic for all the wrong reasons. As I walked under the infamous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign above the gate to the camp, which translates to ‘work sets you free’, I realised that I was perhaps emulating the last steps of some of the Jewish community, or non-Jewish prisoners, who perished during their time there.
The scale of Auschwitz 1 was frightening, with seemingly endless rows of barracks, like supermarket aisles. Each barrack now houses a different exhibit. There were two glass display cases, in two different museum rooms, that I think I will always be able to recall. The first display case was around a bowling lane in length, and a single decker bus in height. Inside the case was what I could only describe as ‘mounds’ of shoes. There were small shoes, with floral patterns, that would have belonged to little girls. A single shoe at the front of the case snatched my attention – it was a shoe similar to my size, that I could have seen myself wearing. This brought home to me that each one of the 6 million people that were murdered weren’t just a number. They had an identity. The second display case, which was the same size as the first, contained a ‘wall’ of hair. In this ‘wall’ were ponytails and buns, sprawled up like dead rats, and due to deterioration they were all the same shade of dark grey. After the intensity of viewing the display cases, we were invited to take a look inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz 1. The hollow, numb feeling brought about by this cramped room is something that cannot be conveyed through words. The indents of fingernails on the walls, the opening in the roof through which the Cyclon B crystals were dropped and the crematoria in the next room left me overwhelmed.
The next site we visited was Birkenau, the purpose built extermination camp where around 1.2 million people died. Once again, it was the things I’d seen before that were most impressionable, notably the gatehouse and train tracks. I felt thankful that I at least had some prior knowledge of what I was about to see; Kitty Hart-Moxon, a survivor of the Holocaust, described a “sickly, fatty, cloying smell” upon her arrival to Birkenau. The camp went on for as far as the eye could see, and housed 90,000 people at its peak. This was an incomprehensible figure, so I had to find something to compare it to. You could fill Tupton Hall School 40 times over, and still be some way off that staggering figure. As we entered the barracks we were told that 1,200 people could be housed in each, and that the only way to sleep was by sitting in rows, back to back, with knees pulled up and feet touching. This degrading treatment, to a stage where the Jewish community were branded as sub-human, is unimaginable.
The gas chambers in Birkenau, which we observed after visiting the barracks, revealed to me that even though the perpetrators were products of the society they lived in, they participated in calculated, ‘industrialised’ murder. Those being sent to the chambers were encouraged to believe they were being sent to the showers prior to being admitted to camp. In the undressing room there were numbers on the clothes pegs, and those undressing were reminded to remember their peg number so they could find their clothes after showering. The deception continued right until the point of death. The chambers themselves would be so packed that people would have died standing up, given that they weren’t even afforded the room to fall to their death after suffocation.
Out of the several invaluable lessons I learnt from the visit, there is one that I try to abide by in everything I now do – we have more in common than distinguishes us. We must live by values of tolerance, and especially in a climate of increased political tensions, we must stand up against discrimination, whether it be against a religion, a race, or anyone. Propaganda, legislation, and blaming others for our collective shortcomings, are the first steps to genocide.
James, Year 13