Today’s post is a bit different to usual ones and one which associates a serious topic. In March of this year I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to go on a 24 hour trip to Poland where I would go and see Auschwitz.
The first question I am sure you are all asking is “why Lizzie are you writing this post in June if you went in March?”. The answer to that question is simple. Visiting and experiencing something like Auschwitz, it is not immediate to you about how you feel about things. I mean obviously you’re devastated and sad that such a thing could even happen but at the time of the visiting you’re just so overwhelmed by the experience, you don’t know what to think or feel. In fact on the visit day itself, when asked my leader how I was finding things I was speechless. I didn’t know what to tell her. I was so overwhelmed with the experience I couldn’t comprehend the experience. It is only since the visit and having the reflective seminar, speaking to friends and family and looking through the photographs I took whilst I was there that I have had time to reflect and be able to talk about the experience. I am writing this blog post now that I have had time to reflect to explain to people about how harrowing the experience actually is and no matter how hard you try you just cannot imagine what they went through. I hope this post really highlights the impacts of the holocaust and encourages people to view differences differently and respect the differences we have in society. The Holocaust is just one of many examples which shows what can happen when extremism is allowed to flourish and rather than disrespecting people who are different than us, we need to respect each other for who we are and the differences we have.
Under the cover of the Second World War, for the sake of their “new order,” the Nazis sought to destroy all the Jews of Europe. For the first time in history, industrial methods were used for the mass extermination of a whole people. Six million were murdered including 1,500,000 children. This event is called the Holocaust.
The Nazis enslaved and murdered millions of others as well. Gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, trade unionists, political opponents, and prisoners of conscience, homosexuals, and others were killed in vast numbers.
Imperial War Museum, London, UK
Before I go into details about my visit and sharing my experience with you, I’m first just going to give a bit of background information. Auschwitz opened in 1940, during the second World War, and was a Nazi controlled zone where later they setup concentration camps and the event known as the Holocaust occurred. Auschwitz was split into three different camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II Birkenau and Auschwitz III Monowitz. During the time of these concentration camps, at Auschwitz, one in six of the all the Jews that died in the Holocaust died there – approximately totaling 1.1 million.
I cannot begin to explain what the experience felt like. I don’t think it is even possible to put into words how it made me feel or how harrowing the experience was. Before the visit itself, I attended an orientation seminar where we were given details about the Holocaust and the trip but also I got the opportunity to listen to Zigi Shipper’s personal testimony and how he survived the holocaust. Hearing him speak about the events, what he saw and just trying to understand what he went through brought a lump to my throat. It was the most surreal moment. It was so hard to comprehend that someone was stood there in front of me telling me about how he had witnessed many people be murdered and how he had escaped this deadly event. It is impossible to imagine what happened or what they went through. Even now, after I have visited I still cannot comprehend what it must have been like for everyone. The most captivating and inspiring moment of Zigi’s testimony was his courage to share openly his story with and his determination to educate the future generations about the atrocities. It was so encouraging and inspiring that his message behind his testimony, other than educating us about the actual event, was his wish for us all to be positive and spread a positive message. Despite the horrors of the stories he spoke very optimistically about future and how he did not hate anyone and encouraged us to not hate them for what had happened to him but focused our attention on respecting the differences in society so we could avoid history repeating. I believe Zigi definitely knew the destructive nature of what hatred could do and the way he encouraged us to be positive and move forward and educate people rather hate them .I cannot describe the admiration I had for Zigi. How much I admired how open he was with us or how I admired the message behind his testimony. Most of all I admire his strength and bravery to tell people of the harsh realities. It really was a life changing moment in so many ways and made me feel so many things I didn’t know I could.
The day trip to Poland was both mentally and physically exhausting. Words cannot even describe how tired I was after the day.Whilst in Poland I did not quite know what to anticipate. The pre-Auschwitz trip to Oswiecim was interesting as it highlighted pre-war Jewish life in one town. Whilst in the town we visited the Jewish graveyard. Despite there being no Jews lefts in the town, it was amazing to see the solidarity.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, I didn’t know what to feel. It was all a bit surreal. I had read so many books, watched so documentaries and seen so many films and now I was in the actual place. It just wasn’t sinking in. Walking around the place, listening to horrors that the tour guides explained I could’t help but feel guilty. The sense of guilt remained with me the whole day. I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the walking around the place where thousands of people had been murdered, knowing that on that same evening I would be leaving. The majority of people once they had entered the camp never saw the outside of the camp again; never saw there families or friends again; never lived again. It’s just completely indescribable.
As the day progressed, I found myself feeling even more guilty. I felt guilty too that I didn’t cry about this whole experience. I mean, I know I probably sound so heartless. How can you visit a place where a million people died and not cry? I don’t know is the answer. I had gone thoroughly prepared to cry but just was so overwhelmed by the experience,the knowledge and being there that I just couldn’t cry. That doesn’t mean I didn’t find the experience emotional because I found it very emotional. The whole experience was and the whole connection to camps was. Seeing the hair and shoes of just a tiny fragment of those entered into the camps and the personal belongings they brought with them which had been confiscated was so touching. For me personally one of the most touching moments was hearing stories of how people lost their identities when entering the camp and how they just knew themselves by a number. The experience really emphasised to me that although numbers, figures and statistics matter, they only overshadow the personal stories and lives effected and this for me is important to remember. It is important to remember the individuals for who they were, their stories and the families of the victims who matter.
One of the most traumatising moments was walking through the gas chambers. Again I felt a huge sense of guilt. Those who entered these chambers never left but I was. It really hit me hard when I was walking through the chambers where so many had been murdered and persecuted for their faith or , and its important not to forget about the other groups discriminated against, having a disability etc. It was so dehumanising.
Towards the end of the visit, there had been a special room dedicated to remembering the victims of the Holocaust. This room consisted of a book which filled the entirety of the room with the known names of the victims of the Holocaust. It was unbelievable! It was uplifting to see measures that had been taken to remember those who died, sadly though this book only contained approximately about 4 million of the 6 million who died during the Holocaust. After being entered to the camp and assigned a number it was so hard to track who had been entered into the camps and for this reason many names are stilling missing of the list. I will insert a picture of the book at the end of this post so you can all see how amazing it truly is.
One of the most emotional times of the visit was the memorial service. With services conducted in Hebrew it was really touching to stand at the railway lines and just imagine the thoughts of thousands of people that had died in that very place you were standing. It was also a time to honor those people who stood strongly by what they believed in and us lighting a candle was nowhere valuable enough to signify their death. Although the harsh realities of the camps still remain, nowadays, in many ways, in my opinion, the camp has sort of an uplifting spirit with candles and singing, flowers displayed to remember and even people making pilgrimages to pay their respects to the victims. It some ways it is actually beautiful. This new uplifting sense around the camps, doesn’t come close to diminishing the the realities of the camp and no matter how many memorials are set up or pilgrimages made, there will always be that sense of guilt walking around the place and the remembrance of all those that died.
After the visit to Poland, I had plenty of time to reflect on my experience and began to share my journey and thoughts about my visit to others, educating people on what it was really like. Now I have come back from Auschwitz, it has made me more determined to learn about the truth behind these events. In ways, it’s not just about knowing the facts and figures, although these are very important, it is important to understand the realities and the continued effect it has had on society. For this reason I believe it is of paramount importance that we educate ourselves and learn how important it is to not only tolerate but celebrate differences in society to avoid the same mistakes happening again.
The experience itself was truly remarkable and eye-opening. It will definitely remain with me for the rest of my life and will never forget walking around a place where so many had been murdered. It’s just unimaginable. It was a very rewarding experience, but strange at the same time and certainly takes some time reflect. As cliché as it sounds, it is a life changing experience and you do perceive things a lot differently.
Lastly I would Like to thank Lessons From Auschwitz and the Holocaust Educational Trust for taking me on this trip and allowing me to have this experience as well as gain a greater depth of knowledge into this period of history. I am very grateful for the opportunity and it has been an invaluable experience that I will never forget and I just hope more and more people become more knowledgeable about matters such as this so we can prevent anything like this from repeating itself. Thank you to everyone who has read this post. It wasn’t the easiest to write and I know it’s a lot different to those that I normally post but it was, I believe, to be of paramount importance for people to really understand the event and pass on information to remove the misconceptions we have. Also, below I have inserted just a couple of photos from my visit so you could have a little look at a few key bits if you wanted too. Other than that, feel free to leave any questions that you may have about my experience or what it was like there and I will do my best to answer them!
Thank you everyone!