Year 12 Students, Will Moon and Gareth Coleman report on their trip to Auschwitz.
We were fortunate to be chosen to represent Trent College as Ambassadors for the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ (LFA) project. After writing letters to Mrs Sunderland underlining our interest in regard to visiting Auschwitz and being part of the larger Holocaust project, we were then invited to a Seminar at the Nottingham Albert Hall. There, we were given a talk by a Jewish ex-prisoner of Auschwitz, Ziggy Shipper; the 82-year-old gave us his testimony of experiencing the Holocaust as a 10-year-old Jew, and being a prisoner at Auschwitz. Both of us were extremely moved by his words, and the harsh reality of being part of such an atrocity. It accentuated our bewilderment as to how human beings could treat their own countrymen like animals in such a short time period. We then discussed the whole prospect of visiting Auschwitz, and how we could prepare ourselves as much as possible emotionally before the day.
On Wednesday 29th February we were flying to Krakow Airport from the East Midlands. After the 2½ flight, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the road travelling through Poland in a coach to the small town of Oswiecim. Here we examined the pre-Jewish life before Jew’s were targeted as the public enemy during the build-up to WW2. After looking at the sights where seven Synagogues were burnt to the ground by Nazis in an area which was home to eight thousand Jews, we felt harrowed at how human beings could be so cruel and disrespectful to members of their own society. We then went inside a refurbished Synagogue which wasn’t burnt down (the Nazis used it as a weapons armoury) where Rabbi Marcus informed us about Judaism as a religion, and the way Jews lived in ‘tremendous harmony’. Again, this made us feel sick about the discrimination of such a peaceful race.
We then took a short coach journey to Auschwitz 1, the original concentration camp, where Jews and other ethnic minorities such as Gypsies and the disabled were farmed like animals. We observed the tiny rooms in which many prisoners were forced to sleep, and we saw photographs of Jews participating in backbreaking labour - like digging or building (maybe the very building in which they were to be gassed or have their bodies burnt to ash). The different blocks we explored had different rooms in which stored the confiscated belongings of the prisoners. Some of these sights were horrendous; the quantity of possessions that were stacked from floor to ceiling in these rooms brought the whole prospect of ‘The Final Solution’ to life, and emphasised are disgust as to how an entire race could be so harshly mistreated. We saw rooms full of glasses, shoes, pots, hairbrushes, prosthetic limbs (which may have been taken from ex-German soldiers who had fought for Germany in WW1) and probably most spine curling of all, a room full of human hair (that the Nazis used or sold to make carpets or uniform). Unfortunately, the sights weren’t going to get any more pleasant. We made our way over to Block 11, probably the most famous block in the whole of Auschwitz 1 in which prisoners were experimented on, tortured or murdered. We went down to the cellar and looked into starvation chambers, and tiny areas where about four prisoners were squashed and forced to stand for long periods of time; this certain punishment lead to their death via starvation or exhaustion. Outside we visited the shooting range between Blocks 10 and 11, where several thousand prisoners were shot. We could not believe that we were effectively standing in the death place of so many innocent people; it just didn’t make any sense. Finally we walked over to the only remaining gas chamber (which wasn’t burnt down because the Nazis used it as bomb shelter), which was used before they decided to gas prisoners on a much larger scale at Auschwitz-Birkenau. No amount of words can describe how emotionally drained I felt as I walked into that large room. The fact that hundreds of people were once screaming, clinging onto their loved ones and banging on the doors made us shudder. We were told that two Nazi motorbikes were revved up to drown out the screaming (that lasted for about twenty minutes), but even that couldn’t drown out the horror. Next door was the crematorium, where bodies were carried through and burnt. I cannot express my hatred towards the Nazis at that point.
We then took another coach journey down the road, where we followed a train track that led up to the infamous entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was a wide building where the train track led straight through. We climbed the stairs to the watch tower where the SS guards used to overlook the camp. From here we could see row upon row of huts that continued into the distance; the scale was mind blowing. A small moat – probably dug by the prisoners – surrounded the camp with lines of barbed wire; guard towers were also present about every twenty metres around the camp’s perimeter. Afterwards we walked down where the tracks split into three, and we could imagine the chaos of the sorting procedure that would have occurred around seventy years ago. This was the place where millions of people would never see members of their family again. On the track was a preserved horse carriage in which prisoners were transported in. Eight horses could fit inside, but the Nazis managed to cram up to ninety people in, with one bucket and few air holes.
We had a look in some of the reconstructed huts, including the women’s latrine which had holes cut in stone for toilets, no washing facilities and lack of privacy. Another hut was stuffed with bunk beds, with three levels. In each layer of these wooden beds slept seven people, and in one hut alone could contain hundreds. This caused many diseases to spread rapidly throughout the camp as people were literally living on top of each other. We walked down the path next to the train track, which for thousands were their last walk; we approached the gas chamber. What we saw were ruins. The Nazis had tried to clear all evidence of what they had done to prisoners; this clearly depicted how the Nazis knew that what they had done was wrong, and so it was confusing as to why so many went along with the idea. We could still see the gas chamber, and the steps leading down to it; this sight was very harrowing as we knew that millions had been murdered in there. Next to it was the crematorium where bodies were burnt to ash. Again this had been demolished by the Nazis, but we couldn’t believe that this was the spot where so many people had their bodies burnt. We visited the cleansing building, where prisoners were taken to be ‘sterilised’, and inside saw where people had to strip naked, shower (in either burning hot of freezing cold water depending on the season), had their hair cut off (usually with blunt instruments that tended to injure the victim) and then the space where prisoners changed into their blue striped pyjamas. The whole building was like stepping into a nightmare, but it had actually happened.
As it became darker, we made our way over to the end of the railway track, and Rabbi Marcus discussed what we had just seen. He then sang a Jewish call to prayer, and everything else was completely silent. It was such a magical moment for all of us, and is a feeling which we will never forget. After the service we all laid down candles over the end of the railway track, and this again was a very magical sight.