In September 2014 I visited the largest concentration camps from the Holocaust: Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz Birkenau where at least 1.1 million people were murdered. I took part in the experience through the Holocaust Educational Trust in a project called “Lessons from Auschwitz” where two people from my Advanced Higher History class were chosen through an application process. This experience was one which was wanted by so many, so I was honoured to be one of the two chosen and I am now a Holocaust Ambassador for the Trust. I feel that writing this post today is very important as I want to inform people what I saw and how I felt. My main aim with this is to ensure that people never forget about the Holocaust and we must try our best to learn and teach about the events to ensure something like it will not happen again.
The experience consisted of three stages- an orientation seminar, the day trip to Poland and a follow up seminar.
During the first seminar we heard a testimony from Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke. Eva was born in Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in April 1945, so though she would not be able to remember the events herself, she was able to tell the story of her mother’s time in the camps and her survival of the genocide. The thing that struck me most in Eva’s testimony was the fact that no one noticed that Eva’s mother was pregnant until she began to actually give birth. This helps highlight the sheer strength and bravery of her mother. In Eva’s story, all her mother’s family were separated from one another, like many others who lost their lives and loved ones, yet Eva’s testimony helps to highlight that each person involved in the Holocaust was a human being with their own extremely different experience and her story stuck in my mind while we were in the camps. On this day each year I think of Eva as 15 members of her family were murdered in Auschwitz Birkenau.
Visiting the actual camps was one of the most horrifying and moving experiences of my entire life and it is something that I will never EVER forget.
The quote we heard in the first seminar “seeing is not like hearing” described how I felt perfectly. I saw for myself the infamous Auschwitz 1 gate which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” and I found this chilling because so many prisoners of the camp would have believed this. Making our way through Auschwitz 1, we saw 2000 pairs of shoes, pots and pans, hairbrushes and suitcases with the prisoners’ home addresses on them really brought the propaganda and horrors of the Holocaust into a larger perspective as it showed that the victim’s really believed they would be using such belongings and their lives were going to change for the better, only for their life to be stripped away from them. For some, their lives were taken in a matter of minutes. I feel the part which moved me the most was being in Block 4 and seeing 140,000 people’s hair. This upset and me so much as this is someone’s DNA and by shaving their hair it completely dehumanised them and to the Nazis, it made all prisoners seem the same. Though I have given statistics for a lot of the belongings we saw, it is extremely impersonal and through seeing them for myself I know that each prisoner in Auschwitz was their own individual with their own families, friends, homes and backgrounds.
The trip to Auschwitz itself taught me so much that I could ever imagine. It brought everything I had learnt during the first seminar and everything I learnt about the Holocaust in History lessons to life and it felt so surreal. While in Auschwitz, we were taught that everyone in the Holocaust were individual human beings. Of course there was the millions of victims, but we were taught the terms ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’. The perpetrator is the person who committed an evil act, such as a Nazi murdering victims. I also know bystanders were important in understanding the Holocaust as they were often people who would witness things such as families being taken away from their homes and not telling anyone about it. Though some of these people committed terrible crimes, we must always remember that each and every single person who is related to the Holocaust in some way is a human being and will have been affected by the genocide in so many different ways.
The most important part of the project is your Next Steps. This is where you have to teach your school and community about the horrors of the Holocaust to ensure that it is never forgotten. Sydney (the other student taking part in LFA) and I gave lessons to all 7 second year history classes. We taught them a little bit about the Holocaust and what the LFA project consisted of. They then asked us questions about Auschwitz which we could confidently answer due to being taught so much valuable information at the seminars.
However, for our second part of the Next Steps we were lucky enough to have a Holocaust survivor come and speak at our school. His name is Harry Bibring and he was born in Austria in 1925. Sydney and I got to spend the whole day with him and go out for a meal at night with our history teachers. He is such an interesting and kind hearted man. Harry’s story was about his childhood and how he was put on the Kindertransport to Great Britain with his sister. Harry enjoyed things such a speed skating and going to the cinema, but when the Nazis took charge in Austria Harry could not take part in these hobbies. His father owned his own business which was destroyed in the Kristallnacht. Harry’s family’s plan was to join him and his sister in Britain, however, his father died of a heart attack and his mother was taken to Sobibor, a death camp in Germany. Harry’s story was so moving, but so very different to Eva’s which I feel is extremely important in understanding my previous point about how every person involved in the Holocaust had a different experience and story to tell.
On this day, the 27th January 2016, I feel that that the Holocaust is still very relevant in this day and age. It is the 21st century and yet there is still anti-Semitist attacks and sheer racism happening, not just in the UK, but all around the world. I feel that we should learn from the Holocaust and never ever allow anything like it to happen again and as a teacher I WILL be teaching about the Holocaust and how we must learn from it to ensure something like this NEVER happens again.