I signed up for the Holocaust Educational Trust’s trip to Auschwitz partly out of a sense of duty, but mainly a genuine curiosity to visit the place I’d read, and been taught so much about and see it for myself. I could describe the camps in detail; their size, their history, and the facts, yet the majority of us have had the lessons in school. I want to share what I have learned, which I don’t believe can be truly protected or mimicked in a text book, in the hope that those who haven’t been will visit, and to convey the contemporary relevance the camp has today.
Before I embarked on my visit to Auschwitz, of course, I knew what to expect. Auschwitz is a chasm of death, destruction, decay and violence. Auschwitz is the corpse of the earth. Auschwitz is the pits of hell, where its horrific history has left a vacuum in our world where time sits still. Auschwitz is a graveyard of memory. There is no life; no birdsong; no vitality. It is a world of its own, detached from nature. Yet, as I got off the bus, the sun was shining. I could hear birds chirping, and cars’ driving past on their everyday business and the air was fresh and cool. How could this be? Surely it should be raining, snowing, or a storm? Surely the sky should be bleak, grey, and ominous? It felt so wrong. It felt surreal.
At Auschwitz 1, we were given an audio tour of facts, figures, and statistics. Maybe the statistic of 6 million dead should have shocked me, but I found myself not listening. In actual fact, a more accurate figure is 5.5 million. If it’s a few less is it much better? If there is one thing this trip has taught me, it is that numbers are futile. Numbers dehumanise people. They automatize us into a single category.
In Auschwitz, women, children, men, devout Jews, people of distant Jewish heritage, gypsies, homosexuals, doctors, lawyers, grocers, writers, people across the entire social spectrum perished. The things I have taken away with me are not the numbers, or the facts- but the things that reminded me of the individual people. The house keys someone packed with them, expecting to return home. The single pair of red slip on flats similar to mine at home, buried in a mountain of abandoned shoes. The small cream china bowl embroidered with an intricate blue and red pattern on the rim. People of different taste, and different styles, and different religious views, and different dreams. We lost an entire generation; entire cultures and ways of life were obliterated to ashes, and merged as one in a mass pile of human hair now encased in glass. I found that part of the trip was the most harrowing, the room seemed to swallow you whole, the air thickened, and you felt suffocated, as though suddenly confronted with the dead bodies themselves.
We visited Birkenau next. I was taken aback by many things- the sheer size, the might of the fences, and the futile barracks which would have been crammed with hundreds of sleepless bodies awaiting slaughter. Despite being faced with the reality of this nightmare in the flesh, the thing which struck me the most were the rabbits bounding and hopping over the rubble of a former gas chamber. This reminded me that this place is not some parallel universe or cursed land, but a creation of man, human beings, normal people. It is a field, now overgrowing with trees and nature. Yet how could mankind do such a thing? These people were not bloodthirsty creations from hell, who suddenly murdered millions of Jews for no reason other than a monstrous, primal urge- they were normal men. For example, Rudolph Hess, the ruthless Commandant of Auschwitz was a family man, who cared for his wife and his children. The answer is simple- prejudice and dehumanisation. Prejudice nurtured through derogatory terms, generalisations and propaganda, which can manifest itself in society so easily and be perceived as truth. The Nazis acted cruelly on a race that was viewed as sub-human as a result of hundreds of years of persecution. Bit by bit, through prejudice, we can erode people’s reputation in the eyes of the public, and this is one of the single most dangerous characteristics of our society.
The single most important thing I learned from my visit was that we can still learn from these mistakes today. We like to think we have learned from history, and this kind of atrocity is a relic of the past. I used the word “dangerous” very deliberately, as it seems to me that we commit these acts every day, without even realising we do so, or the potential long term implications. Prejudice is a flaw of our human condition, whether for self-gratification, scapegoating or even fear. I came to this realisation some weeks later after watching the news, where people are dehumanised again and again. I see groups of desperate refugees being referred to as “swarms”. I see countries protesting that we “have no room”, Governments not wanting to accept the responsibility, Migrants being turned away from the Hungarian Borders by fences, people saying refugees are a threat, and will endanger our way of life. These instances and excuses are of an almost exact parallel to the treatment of Jew’s fleeing persecution. For example, just before and during World War 2, the decision to cast group suspicion on European Jews and deny most entry was on the grounds that with relatives and ties to Europe they might be ‘spies’. Or take the story of the St Louis cruise ship, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany that was turned away from The USA and Cuba, and forced to return back to western Europe, where a quarter of them were murdered in the Holocaust. If we had listened, if we had helped, if we had abandoned our prejudices, think how many lives could have been saved? Yet we see today, the same excuses, the same discrimination, and the same ignorance.
My visit to Auschwitz taught me so many things, both historical and personal. The trip truly changed my outlook on life, and how I perceive the world. I think the most important lesson to be learned from visiting such a place is that we cannot change the past, but that does not mean we should ignore it. We must, as a society, actively acknowledge our history, no matter how harrowing, and try to learn from our mistakes. This is why I feel education about the holocaust, and visiting the camps is so important to enable us to learn from history, and never forget the millions of innocent people murdered through prejudice and ignorance.
Rose Macaulay, S6