Lessons from Auschwitz Programme – Meghan McCauley

The Lessons from Auschwitz programme is run by the Holocaust Educational Trust and has four stages – it begins with an orientation seminar, then a trip to Poland, which is followed by another seminar, with the final stage being personal work to educate others on what we learned during the project.

The orientation seminar was designed to teach us about pre-war Jewish life and prepare us for the trip to Poland, both practically and mentally. We looked at individual Jewish couples, families, and communities, all of whom were perfectly assimilated into the everyday societies of their respective countries. The aim of this time was to begin to humanise the Holocaust, and stop thinking of the people who were killed as statistics, but to think of them as people. This idea of humanisation really hit home that day when we heard the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, called Rudi Oppenheimer, who came into the building to talk to us. His honesty made the experience more emotional. Rudi and his family spent some time in a camp called Westbork where they were looked after fairly well, as Rudi’s sister was born in England, making them ‘Exchange Jews’, so that the Nazis could trade them for German prisoners of war being held by the Allies. They did, however, get sent to Bergen-Belsen for some time in 1944, and held some privileges as ‘Exchange Jews’, but not for very long. Rudi, his brother, and his sister managed to survive and moved to Britain after the war – their parents, however, did not.

Although the educators at the seminar did their very best to prepare us, nothing truly could tell us exactly what it would be like to visit Auschwitz. The visit covered two camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Auschwitz I was a confusing place to walk into – with the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign looking exactly as it does in the pictures, and the perfectly uniform buildings, it almost felt like entering a photograph from a textbook, with absolutely nothing out of place. Having been built originally as army barracks for Polish soldiers, Auschwitz I did not have an immediate feeling of being a place of murder, and the route that we took consisted mostly of going through the buildings that had been turned into museum-like displays of the belongings of the murdered and the records made by the Nazis. Some of the rooms we went through had screens playing clips of Nazi speeches and marches, and some had projectors showing images of Jewish families. These images were not a surprise to any of the people in our group, with all of us having had a good education of the Holocaust, but what truly sent the first shockwave through our group was entering the room that contained four tonnes of human hair. This was the first evidence we had seen for ourselves that allowed us to truly begin seeing the Holocaust as the murder of individuals rather than just a big group of people. We also saw items such as tins of shoe polish and hairbrushes, placed there to show us that the people taken to the camps were expecting to maintain some kind of an ordinary life, and to show us the extent of what was stripped away from them. It was also here that we entered what used to be a gas chamber. The building was completely bare, completely empty of any evidence of the deaths that happened there, and somehow this only made it more chilling, and being in there even for the short time that we were was almost unbearable.

Auschwitz II, the camp built as a concentration and death camp, was a five minute drive from Auschwitz I. By the time we arrived, darkness was falling and the temperature was around minus ten degrees, and with just a few steps into the camp it was very clear what the camp had been built for. Although the temperature and the light levels certainly did not help the mood, it was clearly the most desolate place I had ever been, and it was huge. No one in the group seemed to expect the size, myself included, and during the long, cold walk across the camp, we were forced to imagine what it would be like to be there as a prisoner. We were taken to the sleeping areas, which were in fact the equivalent of stables with wooden beds three levels high, and we were told each bed at each level would contain around eight people, despite being not much bigger than a standard double bed. The building, being a stable, had gaps in the walls and only one heater in the middle, and it was impossible not to think of trying to sleep here, either on a winter night as cold as the one we were experiencing, or even a summer night with no way to cool down while surrounded by stranger’s bodies.

Our final stop at Auschwitz II was a building near the back of the camp, which was where the prisoners of the camp would be taken to be shaved, and to have their possession taken off of them. We spent some time here, listening to a Rabbi speak about the importance of educating people about the Holocaust, and sing the Jewish prayer for the dead in Hebrew. The building was a series of rooms, with stone walls and floors, and due to the room we were in being filled with people, we were fairly warm sitting on the floor, which was a welcome relief from the now snowing, minus thirteen degree outdoors. This is the time that has since stuck with me the most, as nothing could ever have prepared me for the disgust I felt at feeling relieved to be in this building away from the cold, where a million people had had their individuality and freedom taken away from them.

The trip was like riding an emotional wave, from feeling surprisingly unaffected, to feeling incredibly sad, to almost feeling a bizarre form of survivor’s guilt despite not even being alive during the Holocaust. At the follow up seminar, I was relieved to find others feeling similar things, and many of us found great comfort in the idea of stage four. Stage four is where we get to educate people from our school that were not lucky enough to get this opportunity – the trip to Auschwitz achieved exactly what the Trust aims to do, which is humanising the Holocaust and trying to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Members of the Trust admit themselves that their slogan ‘Never Again’, is currently quite wishful, as even to this day people around the world people are persecuted and killed for reasons similar to  the reasons that Hitler and the Nazis had for persecuting and murdering the Jews.

I was fortunate enough to go through this experience with fellow Sixth Former and history student Kriss Watson, and he and I are pleased to be able to share what we have learnt with other students here at the Bicester School and to possibly reach an even wider audience.

Written by Meghan McCauley

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