A-Level History students visit Auschwitz

In the first week of March, we took part in the two-part ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ Project, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust, where we became Auschwitz Ambassadors. We first attended an orientation seminar, where we learnt about pre-war Jewish life, and heard from a Holocaust survivor named Rudi Oppenheimer. At the age of 12, in 1943 Rudi, and his family, were rounded up and sent to the transit camp Westerbork, and a year later deported to Bergen-Belsen.

Two days after the seminar in Reading we travelled to Poland to visit Auschwitz. We started at the site of the Great Synagogue in the town of Oswiecim. A Rabbi explained how the Germans had burned it down during the war. But he went on to say that even though the Germans had devastated their place of worship, it didn’t destroy their faith. This was a 20 minute drive away from the camp of Auschwitz I.

Before the visit we were doubtful about the way the barracks were converted into museum rooms, however as the tour went on it helped to improve our understanding of the Holocaust and was presented in a tasteful manner, which added to our experience. We were overwhelmed by the enormity of what we saw.

One of the saddest sites was where we were able to see the hair that was cut from the heads of an estimated 140,000 victims after they had died. There was a very large amount of hair which was quite shocking to see. You could see how each person was individual in terms of hair colour and style. Additionally, in block 5, there was a display of shoes that took up half a barracks room. Most had deteriorated, and were of the same dark grey colour, expect from a few women’s and children’s shoes, which were made of red leather. There was an equally large display of suitcases marked with the names and addresses of the Jewish victims and with the names of countries on that they had thought they were going to be transported to. Some were marked ‘America’ and ‘England’.

At the end tour of Auschwitz I, we took the opportunity to remember at least one individual from the Book of Names; this included 4.2 million names out of the 6 million killed. We each remembered a name and took the time to find out more about their life, ours being Rubin Mendel who was born on 19 June 1889 in Dzialoszyce, Poland and was killed in Auschwitz.

Next, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, which unlike Auschwitz I had been left untouched since the liberation in 1945. There was an eerie silence, not even a bird could be heard. A railway track ran through the camp that brought so many people to their death. We walked along the tracks, in the footsteps of the Jewish victims, many of whom were separated from their families at this point. It was also here we were read an extract of the story of Elie Wiesel who was born in Romania and deported to Auschwitz, where his parents and sister were murdered: ‘It was here ‘an SS commissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order “Men to the left! Women to the right!” … for a part second I glimpsed my mother and sister moving away to the right… I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever’.

We were also both stunned by the scale of Birkenau, and how much larger gas chambers pulled down by the Nazis before the liberation, which clearly shows their guilt, as they didn’t want people to see what was inside. We ended our visit with a memorial led by the Rabbi, who told us the history of his relatives at Auschwitz. He sang to us a Jewish prayer in front of the photos of the Jewish people’s lives before the Holocaust. He then led us to the railway track where we were each given a candle to light and place on the tracks to reflect on our day and the many lives lost during the Holocaust. We were finally read a diary entry from one of the prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Zalmen Gradowski: ‘Dear discoverer of these writings! I have a request of you: this is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future. I pass on to you only a small part of what took place in the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is for you to comprehend the reality.’

Learning about the Holocaust and having the opportunity to visit Auschwitz is an experience that will remain with us forever. We realised that you can learn about the Holocaust from textbooks and teachers but actually standing in history offers a whole new perspective and gave us a deeper understanding of what the victims faced during the Holocaust. The most important thing we took away from this experience is that the six million people murdered need to be remembered as individuals rather than just a number. We are now able to share our experiences with friends, fellow students and family, and use this to view life differently and appreciate what we have in life.

Lily Garbandi and Ellie Twitchen, Year 12