Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the 6 million Jews who lost their lives during World War 2. Back in 2011, I visited the largest of the concentration camps
At the beginning of November 2011, I visited Auschwitz and the surrounding area as part of a college programme. When deciding that this was something I wanted to do, I could never have prepared myself for what I was going to see or how these things would make me feel.
Around 25 of us made the trip having had regular meetings in the lead up, which included meeting Holocaust survivor, Harry Olmer, a Polish Jew. Having heard Harry’s story of being moved from no less than 5 concentration camps, we were also given a talk by the Holocaust Memorial Trust on what we should expect from Auschwitz.
We landed in Krakow, Poland in the early hours of Sunday morning and travelled into the heart of the city where we were staying. Once we had arrived at the hotel and dropped off our luggage we headed down to the historical district of Kazimierz, in Krakow. The district was home to the Jewish Community dating back to the 14th Century and up until the Second World War. Many of the buildings and structures still remain and we ate in one of the many Jewish Cafes that surrounds the square. We were told how Kazimierz was mostly deserted after the Second World War and was crime-ridden and had a reputation for being unsafe at night right up until the 1990s. However, Cracovians have repopulated the district without abandoning its historical and cultural roots.
We wandered around Kazimierz, where Steven Spielberg shot many scenes for “Schindler’s List”. We discovered that this was a recurring theme in a lot of the places we visited, despite very little of the action happening there. We also visited Remuh Synagogue which is still in use. This gave us an insight into the Jewish culture and community. The more we understood about their way of the life, the more difficult it was to understand what led to them being persecuted during the Second World War.
Having visited the Galicia Museum, dedicated to Kazimierz and its involvement in the Holocaust, we ventured to the outskirts of Krakow. This is where the Jewish Ghetto “Plac Bohaterow Getta” was located and we looked at the memorial that lies at the heart of it, symbolising their imprisonment before being taken to camps. Nearby, we passed by Oskar Schlinder’s factory, where he saved many Jews from being sent to concentration camps. We also visited Plaszow, the site of a former concentration camp which now serves as a memorial .We were surprised to find it used as a country park where many Poles were dog walking before dusk.
In the evening, we went back into Krakow and were allowed to explore the main part of the city before dinner. The Market Square was very busy and surrounded by cafes, shops, restaurants and many churches. At six o’clock we turned our attention to St Marys Basilica, on the edge of the square where every hour, a bugler plays the Last Post.
The next day we had an early start in order to get to Auschwitz and Auschwitz- Birkenau which are around an hour and a half from Krakow. None of us really knew what to expect as we headed towards the first site. The sun was shining brightly and it was a fairly mild day, shattering all our illusions of Auschwitz being a cold, dark and gloomy place. We arrived at Auschwitz (1) which was the concentration camp site, the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes you free) sign looming above our heads. Although hard labour was the main purpose of this camp – as our guide, Lucas, took us around – it was plain to see that many deaths took place.
The blocks which housed the prisoners were former military barracks and now hold items such as suitcases, hair and shoes belonging to those captured. Amongst the horrors were the execution wall, cells, hanging post and the gas chamber. Walking through these places, it was very hard to imagine what these people had been subjected to for no apparent crime.
In the afternoon we visited Auschwitz- Birkenau, sometimes known as Auschwitz 2. This site was the death camp part of Auschwitz and is where the iconic railway line is.
The camp is on a vast area of land with dilapidated buildings dotted over the fields. These buildings were former stables so were wooden, cramped and cold. We walked around the camp and through the shower block which is where the prisoners were first taken when they got there. Here they were stripped of their clothes, shoes, valuables and most importantly torn from their families. Children and the elderly were often sent for instant extermination. While we were walking around the tour guide read individual accounts of experiences from prisoners and thinking about their suffering and struggle really got to me.
Before sunset, we all gathered around the memorial at Auschwitz- Birkenau. Here, we all held candles and read prayers and poems aloud as our own personal tribute to all those Jews, Roma Gypsies and many other minority groups who lost their lives.
Walking around the camps was a very surreal experience and for the majority of the group, including myself, the enormity did not sink in until we arrived back in England. It was a mixture of emotions; sadness for the lives lost, shock at the conditions and pain they were subjected to and anger that so many died before the liberation of the camps. How could other countries not know what was going on or stand by and let it happen?
Before we left we were given the opportunity to visit a school in the city and meet some Cracovians of our own age. All the students spoke very good English and we were able to communicate our ideas about the Holocaust, stereotypes and the differences between our cultures. We also were able to explore the city with them, finding places and landmarks that no tour guide could.
Every year, Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated on 27th January. Although it is something I have been aware of in my teen years, this year I will look on it with a deeper understanding than before having visited the scene of the horrors of the Holocaust.
I was given this poem to read as we lit candles after visiting the camp and it really struck a chord with me. I felt like the words chosen really summed up how I felt about my time in Poland.
I HAVE SEEN AUSCHWITZ
– Fritz DeppertTranslated from German by Gabriella Deppert.
Why did my eyes not get blind?
Why did my ears not get deaf?
Why did my feet not get lame?
Why did it not take awaywords out of my mouthnor gestures from my hands?
Why did my heart not break?
I have seen Auschwitz.
How was I capable of followingthe trails up to their end?
How did I find my way home?
I have seen Auschwitz.
In my day – and nightdreams women’s hair, children’s boots,frames of glasses and empty suitcases piled up to mountains;
how did I get over them?
I have seen Auschwitz.
I still live and will live on and will never more keep silent about
I have seen Auschwitz.