Lessons from Auschwitz

Lessons from Auschwitz

Lessons from Auschwitz is a 4-part project run by The Holocaust Education Trust that aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.  Since 1999, over 34,000 students and teachers have taken part in this project and I was fortunate to be able to secure places for myself and two 6th Form students, Jibreel Kirkwood and Victoira Sanders, to participate in this year’s ‘South West’ visit.

AuschwitzThe first part of the project took place last Sunday at a seminar in Exeter where we learnt about life for the Jews in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II and prepared for our visit to Poland.   We also had the privilege of meeting and listening to a Holocaust survivor, Mala Tribich MBE.  Mala was born in 1930 in Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland and at 9 years old found herself living in one of the first ghettos.  After becoming a slave labourer she was later deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp and then finally onto Bergen-Belsen where she developed typhus.  She was seriously ill when the camp was liberated by the British army and was taken to Sweden with many other children where she eventually recovered. 

Listening to her recount her experiences was very moving and at times difficult, but gave us an invaluable insight into the realities of life in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Despite this, I don’t think we were truly prepared for what we saw and heard when we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Our visit started at Exeter airport just before 5am with 180 other students and teachers.  The plane had been especially laid on for our trip and after an uneventful flight we landed in Krakow at just after 10.30am (local time).  From there we travelled about 50 minutes by coach to the town of Oświęcim where we got further glimpses into life before the Nazis came.  The temperature at this point was somewhere in the region of -14 degrees before wind chill and we didn’t stay outside for long.

We travelled the short distance to Auschwitz 1 where we were accompanied by a guide who took us through many of the original buildings and museum displays, including the ‘famous’ piles of suitcases and shoes.  Some of these were heart breaking.  For me however, the most difficult part of the whole day was the next part of our visit when we went down inside one of the remaining gas chambers and crematoria.  I still cannot put this experience into words.

We then moved on to Auscwitz-Birkenau with its iconic railway and entrance building.  We had an opportunity to go up into the tower which most visitors are not able to do.  The true scale of the camp was visible stretching some 25 square kilometres into the distance with the white snow a stark contrast to the black wooden watchtowers and the remains of the wooden huts.

This site was more exposed and with the windchill the temperature dropped to -24 degrees.  Our guide led us to some of the reconstructed huts before we quickly moved along the railway platform where the fate of so many Jews was decided simply by the flick of a hand.

We passed a large stone memorial and the site of  two of the destroyed gas chambers and crematoria before coming to a building known as Canada 2.  This was where the Jews were ‘inspected’ upon arrival and their goods confiscated and stored. 

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This building now houses displays of some of the many photographs that people had taken with them in their suitcases.  This was a fitting reminder of the fact that these were individual people with lives, hopes and dreams.

We held our own memorial service here which was led by a Rabbi who had travelled with us.  Jibreel and several other students were asked to read poems written, some by survivors, and some by those who perished within the camp.  The Rabbi then read Psalm 23 and led prayers in sung Hebrew.  This was very moving and beautiful and allowed a moment of quiet reflection in what had been an incredibly busy day.

From here we returned to the coaches and back to the airport before arriving back in Exeter at around 11pm. Next Monday we will return to Exeter for a follow up seminar which will give us an opportunity to reflect on our experiences and consider the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust.

The final stage of the project involves Jibreel and Victoria creating a ‘Next Steps’ project which includes their own personal reflection and the sharing of what they learnt with others in the school and possibly the wider community.

As a result of participating in the Project, they will become Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassadors, raising awareness of the Holocaust and challenging prejudice and racism today.

Kate Richards

Released On 1st Mar 2018

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