Written by Molly Waring, Y13 History student
Having woken up at 2am, Maddie and I found ourselves on the way to Manchester Airport, questioning why we had signed up for such an unusual trip. We were on our way to the most notorious historical site in Europe and the feeling couldn’t have been stranger. The experience was extremely eye opening, but also an experience worthy of reflection as it brought such a horrifying event to life. If we were to hold a minute of silence for the 1.1 million victims murdered in Auschwitz alone, we would be silent for two and a half years.
Once we landed in Krakow we were greeted by the bleak Polish weather, a reflection of the experience we were soon to endure. The first place we visited was a small square in the town of Oświęcim. Here we spent some time in the Auschwitz Jewish Centre, a museum based in the only surviving Synagogue of the town. Oświęcim, was home to over 8000 Jews which was over 50% of the towns population and by 1941 the entire Jewish population had been deported to concentration camps, most likely Auschwitz. The story of one man stood out to me in particular, Szymon Kluger. Following the war, only he and two of his siblings survived, both siblings soon emigrated to America but Szymon remained in Poland. He lived solitarily in his family residence and was the last Jew of Oświęcim, refusing to give the Nazis any ounce of victory. This was a great place to start our journey, giving us an insight to the lives of the Jewish community before the atrocity known as the Holocaust.
The next part of our journey was to Auschwitz I. Having not knowing what to expect from the visit, it very soon became clear that the site lived up to its stereotypes as an eerie, isolated and empty place. As we walked around the site, in the exact footsteps of those millions of people who lost their lives, we saw a number of exhibitions which only proved the sheer scale of the Holocaust. We saw masses of suitcases, shoes, glasses, utensils and even hair, all which once belonged to a real individual. The purpose of our visit was to ‘rehumanise’ the victims of the Holocaust, and seeing things such as personal belongings only helped in achieving this aim. It is important to recognise that those 1.1 million people once had their own life, with their own family and own house but lost everything through extreme acts of hatred. Also on the site of Auschwitz I was a narrow corridor lined with mug shots taken by the Nazis. Both walls filled with portraits of the prisoners, all sharing the same absent expression. Again this represented the sheer scale of the Holocaust and the enormous amount of people affected.
Possibly the eeriest moment of the trip was standing in the exact spot outside of the gas chamber. Here was the last glimpse of light many victims would have seen as they were forced to strip off and enter the chamber. Disturbingly, this wasn’t the most chilling part about this place. As just to the right, no more than 50 feet away was the home of the camp leader, Rudolf Höss. This is where he lived with his wife and where his children played, such as short distance away from the brutality of the camp.
About half an hour drive away was Birkenau (Auschwitz II). On arrival we spotted the infamous train track leading into the camp where millions of people were transported in horrendous conditions. First of all I wasn’t expecting the camp to be so HUGE. Whichever direction I looked, all I could see was countless identical barracks on my left, extending for miles, and just a few barracks and destroyed buildings on my right. Birkenau was considerably larger than Auschwitz I as it held more than 90.000 prisoners at a time and more than 90% of the Jewish Holocaust victims were killed there.
Part of Birkenau had been restored into a memorial, here all 150 members of the Lessons from Auschwitz project lit a candle in memory of the victims whose lives were taken. The experience on a whole was extremely eye opening but I truly believe that it has to be seen to be understood.