On the 15th of February, my classmate Caleb Evans and I took a 7am flight from Cardiff airport to Krakow in Poland with around 200 other pupils from across Wales as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project. On our visit, we visited the town of Oświeçim, before experiencing Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The town had a population of around 12,000 at the beginning of the war, of which roughly 7,000 were Jewish. Today, there is no Jewish population in Oświeçim. That day, I saw what happened to an entire community of people, among the 1.2 million people that lost their lives at Auschwitz.
One of the most surprising moments of the entire trip happened on the coach, when we were taking the minute or so journey to the concentration camp itself from the town. A pupil behind me said “Hey, look out of the window!”. And there it was. Auschwitz I. Rows upon rows of large brick buildings. I was genuinely so shocked to see the place so close to the road, as if it were a road-side café or something. Seeing that gate, in the flesh, made everything seem suddenly much more real. A gate displaying the words ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ across it, meaning ‘work brings freedom’. As if ever such a thing existed there.
Auschwitz I, the prisoner camp, is now a museum, each block where prisoners were once kept an exhibition of belongings, photos, and artifacts linked to their lives. From brushes to glasses, shoes to prayer shawls, and that room just full of hair, each person once there was reduced to a belonging amongst millions of others. The worst collection for me was the glasses, as a wearer of them myself. I hated and still hate the thought of people wondering around not being able to see, vulnerable and disorientated.
Auschwitz II, called Birkenau, is a couple of kilometers from the first camp. It may be more familiar if you’ve seen Schindler’s List, with the tower and the train tracks. On seeing it for the first time, I felt like I was in the film. It was incredibly surreal walking through the gate and along the tracks; it is such a vast expanse that stretches for miles. We went into barracks, ones that the Germans used to keep their horses in. At Birkenau, they housed people. The women’s barracks still had the bunks in them, large planks of wood that up to 8 women would sleep on. We were told horrific stories, of people waking up to dead bodies, live people being too weak to defend themselves from rats that would attack them. And heaven forbid you were on the ground bunk, because many suffered from starvation diarrhea, and did not have control of their bodies. In buildings known as ‘death’ barracks, women were locked in and starved to death, to avoid the unnecessary use of gas. Outsiders recalled hearing women screaming, begging to be released. Never a chance.
If you have ever seen the film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, you might recall the final scene where the two boys enter the gas chamber. Well, one part of Auschwitz I brought that scene to mind. There were five crematoria in total, partly destroyed now due to the German attempts to destroy any evidence of them existing. But I cannot get the image of the steps leading down to one chamber out of my head. I was picturing innocent people, stumbling down those steps to what they believed was a shower, but never returning back up them. I struggled to leave that spot, where someone had placed a single red rose.
The final destination of our trip was the registration block, where prisoners who had undergone selection would be entirely stripped of their identity. The last room of the block was filled with photos retrieved from victims’ belongings. This brought it home that these people weren’t just prisoners, but human beings with minds and hearts and lives they were supposed to live. I cried only once that day, and it was as I placed my lit candle on the railway track at the end of the day. I will never be able to fully explain how I felt that day, but in that moment I was entirely overwhelmed, and completely lost experiencing feelings I never had done before.
The day itself left me drained, both physically and emotionally, for days after. I was awake for almost a full 24 hours, and my head was a total mess. But the follow-up seminar was of great help, and I was genuinely happy to see my group and educator again after over a week of individual contemplation. The last step of the project, Next Steps, is what I am doing now. To educate and be educated in the Holocaust has made such an impact on the way I live my life. I think more, I appreciate more, and I live more. If I can encourage at least one person to start a conversation about the Holocaust, or to do some online research, or even just think to themselves how lucky they are to be alive, I will be content. With everything that is going on in the world, I want to spread knowledge, but also love and positivity to every single person that will take it. All I ask in return is that you do the same. Because there is always someone who is and has suffered more than you, and you are so lucky to be alive.
I would like to thank Mr.Richard Evans, the school and the Holocaust Educational Trust for providing me, and so many others, with the opportunity to experience all that I have done in the past few weeks. I’ve only discussed the tiniest fraction of my journey with the Lessons From Auschwitz project and my experience at Auschwitz, so if you would like to find out more about the work HET do, go to www.het.org.uk.