Religious Studies Department – Ambassadors to Auschwitz 2019 - ‘Reflections’

Our MACS ‘Ambassadors to Auschwitz’ have commented on their educational visit with the Holocaust Educational Trust in February. With the ambassadors Abby Davies and Kieron Thomas commenting:

“We have been given the amazing opportunity of traveling out to Poland to visit Oświęcim, Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau. It was a hard hitting but an eye opening journey. We have learned so much about the Holocaust and grown as people from every part of the trip including the orientation before the trip. We were able to hear the testimony of Eva Clark, which we were quite apprehensive about after learning Eva was born a few months before the Holocaust ended. We were shocked to hear how Eva explained her mother’s story with every detail being explained. Being able to hear a survivor’s story was a very informative and important experience as it not only gave us a few faces and names to apply to what we would see in Auschwitz, it also allowed us to hear a Holocaust survivor’s words in person, which is becoming a rare opportunity as time progresses and many of the survivors are either too unwell to make a journey to somewhere where they can speak or, as many have, simply passed away due to their old age. During the orientation we looked at different topics surrounding the main subject, humanising both the victims and instigators of the Holocaust. This whole experience has inspired us to go and continue to teach others about the Holocaust and to not allow it to be forgotten as, if it is forgotten, so will the lessons that we must learn from it. The biggest thing that changed for us after the Holocaust was recognising not only the victims but the instigators as humans. 


(Auschwitz Birkenau)

When we first arrived in Poland we went straight to a small town called Oświęcim. This visit seemed out of place at first as we visited a seemingly normal town with a few shops and buildings. However, we were given a series of pictures that illustrated the town nearly 100 years ago, where we discovered that the buildings had been altered ever so slightly to become ‘more German’. We also went to the place of the Great Synagogue of Oświęcim, where 53% of the population living at Oświęcim at the time used it as the main synagogue of the town. Unfortunately the Synagogue was destroyed in the war and all that is left is a patch of grass with a few trees. The significance of the visit to Oświęcim was to show the impact the Holocaust had on communities. Before the start of World War II, Oświęcim was a Jewish community with hundreds of Jewish people living there. Due to persecution and the Holocaust there isn’t a single Jewish person left living there today.

Auschwitz 1 has been converted into a museum which is used to display many pictures and items of significance to the Holocaust. Going around the first camp and being fed information we were shocked that neither of us had a strong emotional reaction like we had expected. Instead, we both felt a strange, eerie, sickly feeling which is difficult to put into words. We were shown a glass cabinet full of hair that was taken from the people before they were killed. It was difficult to look at for long because the shear amount of hair and attempting to visualise the number of people that the hair must’ve belonged to was unimaginable. Whilst on the trip, we toured around the camp and visited one of the gas chambers. Until this point we were able to hold ourselves together, but seeing the place which, for many was the last room they’d see was too much to just witness. The most harrowing of rooms in Auschwitz 1 was a narrow corridor, the length of a swimming pool. On either side behind glass panes were mountains of old shoes that were taken from the Jewish people. Whilst walking down the corridor you could sense a shift in the atmosphere as everyone fell silent as we walked up and back down the corridor. The mountains of shoes, not a pair the same showed the sheer amount of people that were affected during the Holocaust. Once we left we spoke to each other briefly about the absolutely abhorrent nature of how the Nazi’s murdered people and how it was difficult to imagine that so many people were able to distance themselves from the suffering that they caused. However we were constantly reminded that the Nazi’s weren’t monsters, they were normal humans like you and I, that made bad decisions or in some cases were forced to make bad decisions. As we arrived at the second camp it was difficult to remain calm and collected as this is what we thought of when we imagined Auschwitz. The barbed wire fences, rows of barracks and the train tracks. After we had entered the camp and saw what living conditions would have been like, we walked down the long path to the platform. It was hard to not think about the hundreds of thousands of Jews that walked the same path that we did over 70 years ago. Unfortunately they had no idea that they were walking into a selection process where you were sent to live in Auschwitz Birkenau or you were sent to be gassed and killed.  As we came to the end of the long path, on either side were piles of rubble. The Nazi’s attempted to hide the atrocities they had committed while the allied forces made their way towards Auschwitz, by destroying the gas chambers. It was difficult to look into the empty space in the ground as we know this was the death place of hundreds of thousands of people. At the very end of our visit to Auschwitz Birkenau we entered a room that didn’t seem significant. This room was mainly empty apart from 3 double sided walls, full of photographs of victims of the Holocaust (like the one below). It is very significant that the room we ended our visit in, was the room victims of the Holocaust started their lives in Auschwitz Birkenau. All these photographs simply proved that these were normal people who had normal lives. They were all individual human beings who were persecuted due to a religion that was associated with them.

Once we arrived home, the next few days were strange. We both had several people ask us ‘How was it?’ or ‘Did you enjoy yourselves?’. Although many people knew where we had been it was just the default thing to ask two people who had just been to a different country on an aeroplane. We don’t feel enjoyment from the trip as it wasn’t a trip filled with joy. However we do feel privileged do have been given the opportunity to visit Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz Birkenau. We felt that we have learnt much more about the Holocaust that isn’t possible to learn or comprehend when learning about this event in a classroom.

After we re-collected our thoughts about the trip, we attended a follow-up seminar that would sum up our visit and allow us to share our thoughts and feelings about our visit to other people who visited Auschwitz. During this seminar, everyone was still almost shocked by the visit, with most if not all people still processing not only the visit itself but the shocking nature of it. It may seem silly that not many people were not able to think of what to actually say about their thoughts and feelings during the trip but coming to the understanding that we visited a place on Earth that was designed for the sole purpose of efficient mass murder of an industrial scale is overwhelming to say the least. After finally re-collecting our thoughts, we returned to school where we will try to make sure that people understand the Holocaust on a much deeper level than what most people know. People must know that an event like this must never happen again!

 

(The Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz Birkenau with 22 unique plaques in 22 different languages to remember everyone affected by the Holocaust).