Last month, Year 13 students Liam Story and Maddie Harris visited Auschwitz as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust Next Steps Project.
They’ve shared with us their experience of the visit:
‘The Holocaust was the attempt by the Nazis and its collaborators to murder all Jews.’
This is one of the definitions used to describe the horrific events that plagued Europe from 1933 to 1945, however this definition does not come close to the reality and gruesome actions that took place. Up to 6 million Jews were killed, 1.8 million Polish citizens, 196,000–220,000 Roma (gypsies) and 1,900 Jehovah Witnesses are just to show a small number of the many millions of people killed. Many believe that statistics do not allow us to understand the holocaust, and while it does not explain why it happened it gives us an idea of the scale of this haunting period in history.
A short coach journey from Krakow airport showed the true effects that the Holocaust had on the Polish countryside. The small town of Oświęcim, desecrated by the Nazi collection of Jews, had a sinister atmosphere about it. However this was a stark contrast to Więźniów- the memorial and Museum, Auschwitz 1, frozen in time this eerie and scarred landscape never compared to the mental images and statistics associated with visiting a Holocaust site. The infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at the entrance to Auschwitz loomed in front of us, translating to “work sets you free”, the original cabins dedicated to the tortured Jews don’t come close to the true horrors that took place. The most striking cabin was the room dedicated to the dehumanizing of the Jews when entering the camp, only two tonnes of the hair was recovered due to it being sold and used in German uniform and clothing, the greying rotting strands was sickening and connects you to the victims it belonged to. Another striking cabin was Cabin 28, one of the drawings found on the walls was by a child, showed someone being hung. This only emphasised that Nazis took no notice of age and gender when carrying out their orders to annihilate the Jews and everyone one that was not part of the Aryan race. Moving from Więźniów to Birkenau the experience sparked a completely new set of emotions, going from an area perfectly preserved and compacted in perfect order to the barren landscape that is Birkenau. The weather made the experience even more harrowing, wearing a minimum of three thermal layers each, everyone was frozen in -25°C conditions, imagining the victims wearing nothing but there pyjamas it seemed impossible how they survived for the length that they did. The Nazi’s attempted to destory Birkenau, leaving nothing but the rubble that remains today, and the sheer size is shocking in itself reaching 40 square kilometers and taking 4 hours to walk the perimeter it seemed impossible to imagine the complexity of this regime. Statistics made it possible to quantify the extent and striking truth, however without experiencing it first hand it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend the horror each one of the millions of victims experienced.
By focussing merely on statistics, we are prevented from understanding how and why the Holocaust happened, however it provides us with the understanding of the horrors that occured. The reasoning for such atrocities is inconceivable, and as a result statistics play no part in being able to understand it. However through visiting these sites it is possible to gain some understanding of the horrors that took place, although by focusing on Birkenau, it limits and distorts our understanding casting a shadow over our interpretation of events. This is illustrated by overlooking other Nazi Extermination Camps, such as Treblinka where 700-900,000 Jews were estimated to have been murdered. In addition, Ghettos became socially acceptable demonstrating how Nazis control extended further than just the concentration camps.
Overall, The Holocaust Educational Trust provided us with an enriching and unforgettable experience. We aim to keep the memories alive of the Holocaust victims and to re-humanise those lost due to the Nazi’s actions.