Sixth Form Historians Share Lessons from Auschwitz
In their History lessons, Year 9 students have been learning about the Holocaust and have been hearing from Sixth Formers Hannah and Charlotte who were privileged to visit Auschwitz One and Birkenau when they represented South Wirral High School on the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ project.
To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this year, students were encouraged to read this poignant testimony written by Hannah and Charlotte.
Auschwitz was a place of horror and dismay, what’s left is an empty shell exposing the repulsive, corrupt minds of Nazi Germany. Over 1,400,000 people visit both Auschwitz One and Birkenau each year, gaining a minor insight into the fear those exposed to Holocaust felt. Many of you may have seen Auschwitz in books or documentaries, however, you cannot simply gain a glimpse into the true terror that was the Holocaust until you have been for yourself. Though we have visited the remains of the camps, to define our visit as having ‘been to Auschwitz’ is not the case. We saw Auschwitz as a vacant source of history; therefore we are unable to understand the emotional, physical and sociological pain felt by Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roma Gypsies among many more minorities held within the camps. Transformed into a place of remembrance, our experiences are significantly different from those who suffered throughout the Holocaust, therefore abolishing the meek conception ‘we have been to Auschwitz’.
HEARING A SURVIVORS TESTIMONY
As passionate historians, the opportunity to grasp a further understanding of the Holocaust was something we did not want to miss out on. Given the significance of the genocide within history, we are true believers one can only learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. With us both having ancestors who were involved in the liberation of the camps, we wanted to express the significance of Holocaust through the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project.
In addition to visiting Auschwitz One and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the project offered us the opportunity to hear the story of Steven Frank, a survivor who was imprisoned in Theresienstadt; a concentration camp based in the Czech Republic. We were both not only moved by Stephan’s story but amazed by the amount of courage he told it with. This alone widened both of our perceptions on what the Holocaust was; as despite only being a child during the Holocaust the level of detail Stephen remembered was as if he had experienced everything yesterday. Hearing Steven’s story first hand was incredibly emotional yet empowering. It enables you to understand that the people affected by the Holocaust, taken into camps and imprisoned were ordinary, no different to you and me.
Having flown to Krakow, Poland we visited Oświęcim. Located just minutes away from Auschwitz One. Oświęcim was a town filled with Jewish families, businesses, heritage, religion and culture before the Nazi invasion. Our brief visit here only emphasised the normalcy of Jewish life before the Holocaust; a town that was once so filled with life was now just a shell of its former self as a result of the Nazi invasions. Our visit here acted as a rather sinister comparison as we walked through Auschwitz One. It was established in April 1940 and was primarily used to house prisoners who were forced labourers.
As you enter the camp you walk under the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, which translates to ‘work will set you free’, however as we continued to walk through Auschwitz One it quickly became clear that this was not the case. The camp was seen as a temporary place of safety for the people who were coming to stay there, as they did not realise the true intentions of the place. This became apparent when we saw that people had brought their personal belongings, such as their hair brushes and their kitchen utensils; they did not know that their fate was sealed in one of the most sinister ways possible.
The Nazis had kept the fact that the victims were chosen for death a secret as if they had known they would have fought back. The true purpose of Auschwitz One was revealed when we were shown the gas chamber located within the camp. This was a very surreal moment, just simply standing in a room where so much death had taken place was very overwhelming, and just being able to leave the chamber unharmed was a privilege in itself.
The whole experience became so much more real when we saw the names of the people who came to Auschwitz on the bags they used to carry their belongings into the camp. The different size of the bags made it clear that everybody, men, women and children were left to the mercy of the Nazis. However, the most alarming part of our tour of Auschwitz one was when we saw a room filled with the hair of the victims of Auschwitz; hair makes up an important part of our identity, so the fact that the victims were made to shave their heads was part of a plan to dehumanise them. This was also the intention when the victims were made to be tattooed; they no longer had names, they were now simply a number. In the eyes of the Nazis those targeted were not human, but rather an inconvenience who needed to be removed. At Auschwitz One’s peak, it held over 18,000 prisoners, and only a fraction of them would have been able to walk freely again.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz Two, is the larger of the two death camps and is built approximately less than two miles away from Auschwitz One. What we first noticed about Auschwitz-Birkenau was that it was built across the main set of railroad tracks that stretched the entire distance of the camp. Another thing that became apparent was the sheer size of the camp; even though many people have seen pictures of Auschwitz-Birkenau in a book and on TV, you cannot grasp the actual size of the camp until you see it in person. This only puts into perspective that Auschwitz-Birkenau is the biggest graveyard in the world, with approximately 1.2 million people murdered there. Barbed wires made sure that those imprisoned couldn’t escape, and the miles of land surrounding the camp only emphasises how trapped the victims must have felt; that the only thing separating them and freedom was a fence that they could not climb.
One of the things that stood out about the camp were the toilets that were provided. Upon a first glance we did not know what the rows of stone were, but upon closer inspection, we realised that they were in fact toilets. What was even more shocking to know was when those imprisoned came to use them they only a had a specific amount of time to use them; when 30 seconds was over they had to get up, regardless if they had finished or not.
Men, women and children all used the same facility, highlighting the lack of privacy and respect the victims received. As we continued walking through the campsite we came across an old gas chamber. This only intensified the eerie feeling that was already present, as we realised that we were walking on the ground that hundreds of people had died on. This was just another shock factor that added to Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, it was to be expected considering what we had already previously seen.
As our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was coming to a close, one of the last things we did was visit a memorial wall, containing pictures of some of the victims. Again, this only humanised the whole experience; by giving faces to the names of the victims it made us realise that they were just regular people who were brutally targeted because of their beliefs. It made us realise that the people killed were not just a figure, they were individuals who each had their own lives and families, and that their murders were not justified.
The final, and most influential, thing we took part in that day was to attend a memorial that was held on the train tracks held by a rabbi. This was a very unique and surreal moment that could not be experienced anywhere else. During the memorial, we listened to a very empowering speech and were told that we were now the survivors of Auschwitz and it was now our responsibility to tell the tales of Auschwitz to people who would not know otherwise.
A two-minute silence gave us an opportunity to reflect on our surrounding and pay respect to the millions of people who had lost their lives during the holocaust, and how lucky we actually were to walk out of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the dream of all those imprisoned. 2/3rds of all Jews in Europe were killed during the Holocaust, and by walking back to the safety of the coach we had one last thought about the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, about how their lives were ruthlessly and unfairly taken, and how the memory of Auschwitz-Birkenau will always live on as long as people like us continue to visit and pass on the stories of the victims that cannot speak for themselves. It is now our responsibility to tell the tragedies of Auschwitz-Birkenau so that something like this does not happen again, as Hegel once said: “what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history”.
LESSONS FROM AUSCHWITZ – SEMINAR 2
The second seminar took place five days after our visit to Poland, giving us plenty of time to reflect on the experience and try to distinguish from the range of emotions that we had felt since the trip. After reuniting with the other students that had the opportunity to go, it was clear to see that each person had affected differently; some didn’t seem to be fazed, while some could barely bring themselves to speak about it.
What stood out about the seminar was that, despite the controversy and disgust that the Holocaust generated, elements of it still exist today. The same groups, such as Jews and homosexuals, are still being targeted because of their personal beliefs. An example of a discriminatory act that we were taught was an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, where one teacher and three children were killed. However it was not shocking to hear that acts like this still occur; we hear stories of shootings and prejudice every day on the news, which confirms Hegel’s quote.
As the seminar was drawing to a close we got to hear the story of an individual who had previously attended the Poland trip, and how he had now become a well-known ambassador who had coordinated many projects for the Holocaust educational trust. What we took away from this is just how influential we had now become, and that if we did not pass this information on then it would be a waste of an opportunity.
Overall, getting to see a place that was so historically famous was very emotionally overwhelming, however, at the same time, it was also an incredible opportunity to broaden our historical knowledge and gain a better understanding of the world’s past. Getting to see a place of such devastation made us realise how lucky we are to live the lives we do. It is now our duty to make sure that the history of the Holocaust lives on forever, by passing on the knowledge and experiences the Lessons from Auschwitz Project gave us.
We would like to thank both the Lessons from Auschwitz Staff from the Holocaust Educational Trust and the History Department for selecting us as the participants to undergo the project.