The Holocaust Memorial Trust
On the 7th of February, we had the honour to visit Auschwitz with the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ Program, which aims to change the way we perceive the Holocaust and the events that happened. It aims to educate students and re-humanize the victims of the events that took place.
In order to share what we experienced, we have decided to write this piece to display our thoughts and feelings of what we experienced.
Auschwitz 1, by Megan Slocombe
When most people think of Auschwitz, they normally think of Auschwitz-Birkenau; the camp where 1.1 million people sadly lost their lives, this is included myself, however, many do not know about the other camp; Auschwitz 1. Auschwitz 1 served as a concentration camp for political prisoners and for people of different ethnicities until 1942 when the final solution came into force and the mass murders began.
I was quite apprehensive before going to Poland as I was not sure what to expect and how I would feel during the visit. We had been prepared in our session before the trip on what to expect and how there is no correct way to react but it is all very well on being told these things, but it is different once you are there.
After the early start and the plane journey, the coldness was quite welcomed as it made us more alert and more able to experience and take in our surroundings which allowed us to see what Krakow was really like. Krakow was really pretty, and looked the same as it did in pictures from prior to the war but it was a shock to find out that the community was mostly Jewish before the war and only one Jewish person remained at the end- whether the others escaped or were sent to concentration camps.
From Krakow town, we then went on to Auschwitz 1, which now serves as a memorial museum, where we met our tour guide for the day. The main focus of our trip was to re-humanize the victims, so you can comprehend what actually happened; rather than just hearing the statistics, hearing the story. The one main sight that really stood out for me was seeing all the pairs of glasses that had been confiscated off of prisoners as well as their suitcases which had their initials on them- this very much felt human and personal to those who lost their lives. I believe that there isn’t anything that can really show the scale of what happened, until you see their belongings. The hardest part of the day was seeing the stories of the children, seeing their clothes and toys. Personally, when thinking about Auschwitz, I think about the people who worked there, I do tend to forget about those who never made it past the gates- but since my experience, I doubt I will ever forget that again.
The whole day, even now, still feels incomprehensible and unreal and I still can’t put my feelings of the experience into words but I know that it is one that has change my perspective on as I no longer see the number but the individuals and what they went through. I would truly recommend anyone to go and visit Auschwitz 1 & 2, if they ever get the opportunity to do so.
Birkenau (Auschwitz II), By Gemma Roche
When I first got accepted for the privilege of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, I was apprehensive of how I was going to react to what I was going to see; to hearing names, to actually see the scale of the camps, and to seeing where people lived before, for some, reaching their untimely end. After walking through Auschwitz I, although I was hearing names and seeing photos and belongings, I don’t think I could really comprehend the scale of the camp – comprehend the loss of the camp. Birkenau really changed that for me.
When we first got to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, with the guard watchtower looming over us, was awe inspiring, and you could see this immense and powerful building from a considerable distance, and you could sense how much history it held. Beyond this gate, we followed the worn path further into the camp to where the prisoners lived. Although many of the prisoner barracks were made out of wood and have since decayed or weakened since the end of the war, the concrete chimneys built in an attempt to heat the barracks still remain from the original construction, resulting in concrete pillars as far as the eye can see, really representing how many people lived there, remaining tall in their memory. As we walked from one part of the immense camp to the other, the snow, as Megan previously mentioned, created a look of barren and lifeless land stretching onwards, and as we learned more about the prisoners lives, showed how they had been the only life that had ever been within the perimeter.
We first visited the sanitary facilities within the camp, which were extremely poor, with no privacy, clean water, or change of clothes; despite this fact many prisoners were determined to keep themselves as clean as possible, to fight against the regime by having the respects for themselves so many people tried to take away. We managed to see within a reconstructed barrack, which had originally been horse stables the Nazi’s repurposed for housing the prisoners. Although it was originally meant to house 70 people, there was often up to 1000 in each one, using only their shoes as bedding on otherwise wooden frames. We also got to see where they kept political prisoners during the war, including under 14 year olds, who were usually not permitted to stay at the camp and were unusually young. These prisoners were kept separate from the main populations, and as there was adults living with these young children they had never met, there was evidence of them trying to keep the barrack as comforting as possible. There were drawings on the wall, and the adults tried to continue as much of the schooling they could. This really shows how people relied and trusted one another during their time in Auschwitz, and how they tried their hardest to act as if nothing was happening for the sake of the children.
Overall, I believe Birkenau shows the absolute conviction of people trying to remain being seen as people. It was completely eye-opening, and just really challenged everything I thought I knew about the Holocaust. Just like Megan, I would definitely recommend you going if you have the chance.