Holocaust Memorial Trust - Our Trip to Auschwitz
A report by Gareth Dodd and Tara Fredrickson
We went on a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland with the Holocaust Memorial Trust as part of their LFA programme. This programme involved the taking of students across England to the most well-known concentration camp that existed during the Holocaust to and from Poland within the course of a day.
Firstly, we attended a seminar which included information on Jewish life before the Holocaust and on what the trip itself would contain. This part of the course was targeted to prepare us for what we should expect on the trip and to show us that our emotional response to the trip will not be something we can anticipate. We also met Rudi Oppenheimer, a Holocaust survivor who told us his own personal story at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Meeting Rudi was not only eye-opening in terms of learning more about how camp life was but also in showing us the contrast of Jewish life before the Holocaust.
On the actual day we were instructed to get to the airport for 5am. We were prompt to arrive and get on the plane for the four hour flight. By the time we arrived it was 11am and we were taken to the town of Oświęcim (the town in which Auschwitz camp is situated) via bus. Once in the town we were taken to the town square; here business thrived in the once prominent Jewish community. The LFA wanted to highlight the difference in Jewish life here before and after the war as many Jews left the town following their persecution there by the Nazis. Now no Jews currently preside there, as opposed to pre-war when roughly ¾ of the population of the town were Jewish.
The first part of the camp we visited was Auschwitz 1. Initially intended for POWs and political prisoners, the camp was expanded to include the thousands of Jews who were being persecuted ruthlessly across Europe by the Nazis. We were walked through several blocks, past the infamous sign which reads ‘Alber Macht Frei’ (work makes you free). We saw collections of the shoes of prisoners who had been taken there, the pile of hair, the pictures of children photographed in their “uniform” of thin, striped pyjamas. Included on the site now exists a small museum of sorts; here we could see projections of film which depicted ordinary Jewish families living their lives before the war. It was here our tour of Auchwitz 1 ended and we went to Birkenau.
Birkenau was strangely different to Auschwitz 1. The buildings weren’t really buildings, they were made from wood and it was clear to see their purpose as stables but not as shelters for humans. Yet, they were used as such. Into these freezing huts with wooden bunks for beds the Nazis would cram beyond room as many prisoners as they chose. On one bed five people would share, there was no heating, no way to stay warm in the perilous winters. Outside of the huts, below the intimidating watch tower the floor was gravelled and without life. The picture of the place in winter only emphasised our horror and devastation at what we were seeing and how we were imagining it could have been for the victims who were forced to inhabit there. We were walked down to the bottom of the site, and later we experienced a vigil here. The vigil commemorated all the victims who tragically lost their lives during the Holocaust, and also recognised their bravery and their determination in living. Before leaving to catch our flight, we all lit one candle and placed it upon the stones which remain at the site in memory of those who died there.
Why I went and how it impacted me
I have always been interested in this part of history and passionate in learning as much as I can about it, therefore when presented with this opportunity I didn’t want to pass it up. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the horrors that happened at Auchwitz-Birkenau and I also felt obliged to learn more about it due to its importance in history and the importance of understanding that something like this should never be allowed to happen again. Following our visit I felt emotionally drained and exhausted. Having seen and felt the coldness and sadness that existed within the camp, I felt as though I had absorbed it. What struck me the most was the film of life before the war; when I saw the domestic videos of ordinary families enjoying their lives I felt sickened just knowing that they would be the victims of the horrific crimes committed by the Nazis in camps like this one all across Europe. However despite the emotional exhaustion, I felt I came away with something valuable from the experience. Learning to be appreciative of the littlest things is just one of the lessons this program has taught me and I would recommend the course to anyone I know.
Why I went and how it impacted me
I’ve always been intrigued by the Holocaust and the glaring difference between Jewish life pre and post the horrific event, so when I was offered the chance to go to Auschwitz, the iconic centre of unadulterated discrimination and death, I leapt at it. I’ve always wondered how something so abhorrent could take place less than a century ago. This trip was my way of finding the answer to that question. I must admit, that despite my inquisitiveness on the matter, nothing I read online ever seemed to make sense to me, so I figured that the only way I’d truly discover my long-sought answer was by visiting the place itself. Unbeknownst to me, I’d find more than just statistics and logical reasoning, I’d find lives snuffed out too early and emotions I didn’t even realise existed.
Never before have I experienced such a tsunami of emotion, each new piece of information engulfing my soul in more sorrow like the voracious water would a small town. Each new fact about the lives of the victims shook me to my core; as I repeatedly heard of the despicable atrocities the Jews had to endure, my stomach twisted. These were people, ordinary people with families and passions, no different to you and me. Yet the Nazis could so easily treat them like the dirt between their feet, because they were; at least to them. As we progressed through Auschwitz, I was swallowing one proverbial pill after another, each one making me violently shake with pure contempt for the Nazi monsters that could do this. However, I was forgetting one key fact. A fact many of us ignore, a fact many of us do not want to face because it goes against everything we have been taught; that the Nazis were the evil perpetrators, and the Jews were the innocent victims; but Nazis were people too. They were their own victims, the victims of an oppressive regime. We are too quick to forget that. While I tried to block this truth out, the LFA insisted that everyone to do with the Holocaust are to be seen through the truth of personhood. They insisted that Jews are not to be statistics, that every respectable member of society should treasure their lives and history, and that Nazis are not to be seen as the remorseless monsters that our history books make them out to be, but are people who made the best of the dire situation known as Nazi Germany.
As for the sites themselves, they held some sort of horrid beauty in their practical design. They were Thanatos’ playgrounds, and they were made just for that reason; reflected in the smooth execution of unutterable pain. It had me both spellbound and sickened. Nevertheless, for me, Auschwitz II had the most impact. Much like the Nazis’ influence, the camp spread as far as the eye could see; barren land host to massacre. Our tour guide – a woman burning with passion, her stare intense with conviction – did not fail to leave out a single drop of information, she was dedicated to telling the story of the people of the Holocaust, and I was enthralled. The truths she told us, the truths she showed us, were as cold and bitter as the wind.
This kind of experience cannot be communicated through mere words, but solely by one’s own senses. To wholly comprehend the suffering that occurred is an impossible task, but by experiencing the invasive fog of death that still looms on that site, you’re one step closer.
To conclude; our experience was one of great value and something that will remain with both of us. We cannot thank the LFA enough for the opportunity to learn about this subject and further our understanding of what happened to the millions of victims of the Holocaust. We can, however, recommend the program to everyone reading this because if there is one thing we have been taught from this course it is that we cannot afford to forget what happened in the Holocaust if we ever want to stop it from happening again. Take a look at the website to discover more on how you can broaden your mental and emotional understanding on humanity and our history, it is a valuable experience.