Horror of the Holocaust - students learn “hearing is not like seeing”

Pictures at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Pictures at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Citizen Chief Reporter Sarah Cliss joined a group of around 200 students from across East Anglia on a day trip to Poland to visit the former Nazi death camps at Auschwitz.

This is the fourteenth year the Holocaust Education Trust has run its ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project. The aim of the government funded lessons is to show thousands of students each year just what went on in these killing centres and why it is important that people remember and to guard against it ever happening again.

Gateway to Auschwitz with its infamous words

Gateway to Auschwitz with its infamous words

Students from Whittlesey’s Sir Harry Smith School together with others from Kings’ Lynn, Ipswich and Harlow as well as North Norfolk took part in the day-long tour, which was preceded by an orientation day, where they met and heard from a camp survivor. The visit will be followed up with another seminar, where the students will have an opportunity to discuss what they have seen and heard.

The fact-filled day ended with a moving service of remembrance at the ruins of Crematoria II in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here Rabbi Barry Marcus, who accompanied the trip and is the architect of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project, chanted the Hebrew prayer of remembrance before inviting everyone gathered to place a lighted-candle of remembrance.

Students were allowed to choose their own spot to leave the glowing tribute and so candles were placed on the main memorial on the site, along the tracks into the camp, at the gas chamber entrances and on the steps of a lone cattle wagon used to transport prisoners.

It was a sombre process, completed in respectful silence as all participants worked to understand just what had been perpetrated by the Nazis at this place.

Suitcases on display at Auschwitz

Suitcases on display at Auschwitz

Below Sarah gives her own account of the day and what it meant to her.

Sarah, a name, a popular name, a Hebrew name, my name. Princess, the meaning of my name, but in Nazi-occupied Europe my pretty name had an ugly purpose.

It was the name chosen by the Nazis that all Jewish women with non-Jewish sounding surnames had to adopt as their own middle name to help identify them as a Jew. For men Israel served the same purpose. So as I stare through the glass of the huge display case at the Auschwitz Museum at the hundreds of brown and battered suitcases piled high I spot my name time and again painted with care on the side of those cases.

Cases which would have been packed diligently as the owner prepared for a ‘new life’ in the East forced on them by the Nazis.

The watchtower at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The watchtower at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Shoe polish, pots and pans, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, shaving brushes and favourite toys, all were deemed essential items for those being transported unknowlingly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where none of those items were in fact needed.

Packed like human sardines in cattle wagons, up to 100 in each the Jews from across Europe, from places as far afield as Norway and Greece arrived at Auschwitz.

As I stand on the platform where these human-beings would have been unloaded like a herd of animals, greeted by snarling dogs, yelled at by gun-toting SS guards, it is impossible not to imagine the sheer horror they felt.

This was no ‘new-life’ in the East, this was terror on a scale too huge to comprehend. Families ordered to abandon their carefully packed suitcases, ordered to separate and face either the camp commandant or Dr Josef Mengele as they made the decision, choosing those who will live and those who will die.

Students with candles of remembrance

Students with candles of remembrance

Men and women wrenched apart, children with their mothers sent one-way, the strong, able-to-work men the other.

Over 70% of those arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau saw little more than the platform of their arrival, with its iconic looming watch-tower gateway and the barbed-wire fences.

These huge numbers - in all 1.6 million in total including 500,000 others such as gypsies and homosexual men - went directly to the gas chamber. Chillingly sent on their way to death with the reassurance that after a cleansing shower they would be reunited with their menfolk.

Stripped of their clothes, children ordered to tie their shoes together so they wouldn’t get lost while they showered. Into the shower room, up to 1,400 at a time. But while the false shower heads gave the illusion of truth in what was being said, the locking of the doors, and the dropping of Zyklon-B pellets brought an horrific dawning of reality. Death. Up to 30 minutes of dying, choking on the deadly gases unleashed, in part, through their own body heat.

The gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis just prior to liberation. Whether those responsible were ashamed of their hideous actions, or were simply acting on the instinct of self-preservation it is difficult to know.

But the rubble of these mass killing rooms remain as a ghastly reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Of what prejudice, left unchecked can bring. And it is this that the Lessons from Auschwitz aims to highlight.

Rabbi Barry Marcus leads the service of remembrance

Rabbi Barry Marcus leads the service of remembrance

The Holocaust Education Trust and its school visits to this most poignant of places wants to remind new generations of what was perpetrated by one set of human-beings on another. And why it must never be allowed to be repeated.

There were 210 of us on my visit. Students aged 17 and 18 from schools across East Anglia and their teachers, together with journalists and Harlow’s MP.

The day started with the normal exuberance and chatter you’d expect from an excited group of young people on a trip out of school.

But it ended in stunned or numbed near-silence as everyone, young and old alike, tried to assimilate the mass of information imparted during the gruelling day by specialist educators and guides.

The day started with a stop at the old Jewish cemetery in Oswicism, with snow falling softly over the grave-stones we listened in groups to our educators.

Learning that the town had a 58% Jewish population before the war, and not one Jewish family living there now.

Only one man returned home after the war, Syzmon Kluger. His burial place among the mixed up grave stones of his ancestors.

The Germans smashed the cemetery, tearing down gravestones when they occupied Poland. After the war dedicated volunteers re-erected the headstones, but they no-longer stand over those whose names they bear as it was impossible to know where individual graves were.

Auschwitz I - the first of the Nazis death camps, saw us walk through the gateway with the words Abrecht Frei (Hard-work makes you free). Words designed to give false hope to those passing through that they could survive.

Here we were led though rooms full of gruesome displays. Gruesome mostly because of what they symbolise not what they actually contain. Although in one room there was a huge cabinet about the length of a tennis court, full of human hair, cut and shaved from thousands of victims, found at a material factory, all containing traces of Zyklon-B, a tangible proof of what went on at Auschwitz.

Horrifically the hair was destined to become mattress stuffing or to be woven into nets or material used to stiffen the collars on Nazi uniforms.

In another case shoes piled high, of all shapes and sizes, many of them obviously their owner’s best pair. Then there are the suitcases, hundreds of them all with the names and addresses of their-long lost owners emblazoned on their sides.

But for me it was a small display case tucked at one end of a room that brought home the evilness of what the Nazis did to these people.

It contains tins of shoe polish, all with different languages on them. A testament to just how wide spread the Nazis’ hatred of Jews spread across war-time Europe.

It also showed the pride these victims had, their desire to maintain high standards of personal appearance, the hope they had of a future as they set out for the new-life promised in the vague ‘East’. Some victims were even duped into paying for new businesses, shops and farms for this non-existent future.

Auschwitz-Birkenau , the true death camp had an eeriness to it, whether it was the bleakness of the day. Freezing cold, with blizzardy-snow, or whether it was our own emotions, knowing what this place represented it is hard to tell. But it was definitely a sombre place. True, unlike the myths, the birds do still sing in Auschwitz, but there is a silence unlike any I have felt before.

At one point there was up to 90,000 people imprisoned here. All would have worn the grey-striped uniforms, all with their heads shaved. Crammed into small barn-like huts up to 1,000 in each with no chance to lie down to rest. Instead the prisoners, who would be forced-marched 10km or more to work and back each day, would have to sit back to back, toe to toe. In winter the huts with a gap at the top would be impossible to heat, in summer the blazing sun would make them impossibly hot.

The toilet block, three rows of holes in a long concrete block, seating up 200 people at a time. Allowed to use these crude facilities only twice a day, the prisoners had no opportunity to wash themselves or their clothes.

Disease was rife, in fact the average life of a prisoner sent to work rather than directly to the gas chamber was around three months. Guards contracted the diseases and new methods were needed to keep the prisoners clean and uncontagious. A bathing block, state-of-the-art, the best in any prisoner camp of the Third Reich. And yet more humiliation for the prisoners. They were forced to strip, be shaved of body hair, before being showered in either scalding hot or freezing cold water and left to dry seated on a cold-concrete floor without towels or clothes for hours on end.

This building has become a display area for a sample of photographs found among the massive stores of the victims’ possessions. They are the photos of their lives before the war, taken with them on their journey as reminders of the past as they set out for their ‘new life’.

There are family groups enjoying picnics, young couples newly wed, baby pictures obviously taken by proud new parents, all bearing faces that could be you or I and our families.

And that is the sobering thought. Those killed at Auschwitz were not criminals or bad people, they were just people with a certain religion. Picked on by a warped regime, who took genocide to an industrialised-extreme.

The perpetrators, the guards and staff of the camps were also ordinary people, just like you or me. In fact the camp commandant lived with his family in a villa at the gates of Auschwitz I.

The by-standers, those neighbours, friends and townsfolk from the homelands of the victims were also ordinary people, just like you and me.

And the question I found myself asking is this: What would I have done? I’m an ordinary person. I would like to think I would not do what those people did, but in the right circumstances, with the right pressure can I or indeed any of us truly be certain of how we’d act.

And it was that ‘Lesson from Auschwitz’ that will stay with me for a long time to come.