Sunday, 15 November 2015

Lessons from Auschwitz

If you look into Auschwitz-Birkenau from the top of the watchtower above the entrance, the only things you can see are huts. Unlike the ones in Auschwitz I, which were used by the Polish army before World War Two, these huts were built by the Nazis with a specific purpose in mind: to hold Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, soviet prisoners of war, and political opponents.

If your eyes follow the railway tracks west through the centre of the camp, and past the rubble remains of the six crematoria, there is a lining of Birch trees (which is where the name Birkenau originates). It is within this large area, surrounded by 13 foot electrified barbed wire fences and partly-hidden by birch trees, where over 1.1 million people died during the holocaust.

On 22 October 2015, I, along with around 200 other students from the North of England, had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz via a project ran by the Holocaust Memorial Trust. A week before the visit, all attendees were invited to a seminar in Newcastle to listen to the testimony of Zigi Shipper, a Polish Jew and holocaust survivor.

Zigi spoke for an encapsulating hour about his life. Starting from when his father left for Soviet Russia when he was just a boy, all the way through to 1947 when he moved to England, met his wife, and started a family.

In 1944, following the liquidation of the Łódz ghetto where both Zigi and his grandmother lived, they found themselves on a cattle truck to Auschwitz. He said when he arrived the first thing he noticed was the terrible smell and smoke rising from chimneys. There were rumours that it was coming from a crematorium however he was still too young to even know what that word meant.

Within a few weeks, Zigi left Auschwitz to work in a series of concentration camps until 3 May 1945 when he was liberated from his German captors by the British army.

He lived in Germany for a while after the war until 1947 when he was reunited with his mother who was living in London. However, Zigi explained that she didn’t feel like family because he hadn’t seen her since he was four-years-old. His real family were his friends - who he had endured the holocaust with. To this day, he manages to stay in touch with these friends. They travel to Canada, the USA, and France among other places to see each other.

After Zigi’s touching testimony, there was then a chance for fellow peers to ask Zigi questions about his experiences. One person drew comparisons between the current refugee crisis and the large amount of refugees after the Second World War who needed to be relocated. She asked if Zigi thinks the attitude to refugees had changed since then. Zigi replied by saying that he thinks that people are just as compassionate now.

All the way through the question and answer session, Zigi stressed that race, religion, and sexuality are irrelevant. As long as you are a good person, that is all that matters.

The following week, on 22 October 2015, we took a 7am flight from Newcastle to Kraków followed by a bus to Oświęcim (where Auschwitz I is).

I imagined Auschwitz to be in some dark corner of the countryside hidden by tall trees with one road in and out because I assumed that if too many people found out about the place and what was going on there, something would have been done to close it down. Instead, the camp existed on the edge of a suburb, metres away from regular civilian life and nobody did anything… Hell, Rudolf Höss’ house was only a few feet outside the fence – where he lived with his wife and five children.

Rudolf Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz
Unfortunately due to plane delays of just over an hour, the organisers had to keep a tight schedule so we were hurried around the museum which now occupies the interior of the barracks at Auschwitz I. Because of timings, I felt unable to digest all the information that I would have lied to. Auschwitz is not a place that you should rush round. In homage to all the people who were once forced to live and die there, I was disappointed not to have had more time to read every testimony, watch every video, and study every map to gain more of an insight into true life at Auschwitz.

It’s easy to hear that over 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, however to comprehend that number is near impossible. In Auschwitz I though, there are large rooms full of suitcases, glasses, prosthetics, and shoes to try and humanise the holocaust statistics and make you realise that each victim had family, friends, dreams, and ambitions just like you and I. The one room which shocked me the most was the one full of hair. Behind a large glass pane was hair from approximately 140,000 people. Hair is used in the current day as a form of expression and identity, and learning that millions of people had this robbed from them, against their will, was chilling.

It was by this point when I was starting to feel uncomfortable with where I was as I wasn’t quite sure what behaviour to adopt because I wasn’t sure (and I’m still not sure) what Auschwitz is today. Is it a museum, memorial, tourist attraction, or a combination of all three? Many, like myself, had come to explore the museum and learn more about the atrocities which took place. Others were lighting candles and placing wreaths next to the notorious “Wall of Death” between block 10 and 11. And, others were walking around with selfie sticks, snapping shots in front of barracks whilst they smiled with their friends. It seems like a juxtaposition that Auschwitz could be all three of these at once. For me, a place where tourists go to take souvenir pictures for Facebook couldn’t also be a memorial where people pay respects. A museum, which goes into the intricate details of what happened at Auschwitz, seems insensitive since many were using the same place as a memorial for their lost grandparents/great-grandparents. It left me in awe that Auschwitz seemed to have these three purposes: memorial, museum, and tourist attraction.

However, at the same time, it needs to be all three of these things. People need to be aware of what happened in Auschwitz and to never forget. Visiting the place helps you to learn more than you ever could from a book. Whatever people’s justification for visiting the site, if they learn just one thing from the visit and pass that on to a friend, surely it has made the visit worthwhile? It’s important that the victims are being remembered and to continue to raise awareness about the dangers of being a stander by – which is the theme of 2016’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

The “Wall of Death”
After our visit to Auschwitz I, we headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was the place where people would arrive in overcrowded cattle trucks before being lined up for their fate to be decided by an SS officer. In one swift glance, the officer would decide whether they would be fit enough to work or if they should be sent straight to the gas chambers for execution.

After going up watchtower which looms over the entrance, we were shown two huts: one where men were put and one where children were put. The children’s hut was dark however writing and drawings on the walls could still be seen. The platforms for sleeping resembled large shelves. We were told that three children would be forced to occupy one. Words don't even begin to describe the living conditions children must have faced… but they carried on regardless because they had no other option.

At the other side of the camp was where men lived. The hut which we went inside had little light and the interior had been stripped. Only wooden beams and a hole for the toilet remained.

To round off the exhausting day, everyone who had come on the visit walked the kilometre from the entrance to the back of the camp where, next to the remains of the six gas chambers, a new memorial stood. It was here, Rabbi Garson made a powerful speech and read prayers before everyone lit a candle in remembrance of the 6 million who died in the Holocaust.

Rabbi Garson said that the last thing people said to each other when they realised they were going to die in the gas chambers was ‘I love you’. It shouldn’t take the fear of death for people to remind their close friends and relatives of this so Rabbi challenged every one of the 200 people on the visit to text a loved one and remind them that they do love them.

I took the long walk back to the bus in silence. Walking through the middle of one of the largest cemeteries in history is eerie to say the least. There was so much suffering in Auschwitz, it’s difficult to picture how some people managed to survive such a place. When I ask myself this question I think of the speech Zigi gave a week earlier. When he explained how he managed to survive, he said it wasn’t through some physical superiority or because he could out-wit anyone else. He says his survival was down to sheer luck.

The only picture I took on 22 October 2015.
This was a visit that I didn’t want to experience through a lens and screen.