My Visit to Auschwitz – Kriss Watson

In February, I took part in a project called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust.  This included an Orientation Seminar, a visit to Poland and a Follow-up Seminar.  During this time, I became a Holocaust Ambassador.

First of all, there was the orientation seminar in London, where I learnt about pre – war Jewish life and the challenges they faced.  I then heard a testimony from Rudi Oppenheimer, a survivor of the Holocaust.  He and his family, originally from Berlin, had moved to London and then Holland, eventually ending up segregated in Amsterdam, with all the other Jews.  From there, after several months, he was transported to Westerbork, a transition camp in Holland, before being moved to Bergen -Belsen, where both his parents died of illness, only a few months before liberation.  We also prepared for the trip to Poland.

I went to Poland on 22nd February.  I had to get up at 4:00 am. I was taken to London Luton Airport at 6:30, ready to fly at 9:00.  Whilst on the plane, I was thinking about what it would be like there; eerie, abandoned and quiet.  I also felt nervous and apprehensive.  We landed in Poland at about 1pm and got on the coach to journey to Auschwitz I.  Upon arrival, we headed through security and onto the entrance gate.  Written above it are the words Arbeit Macht Frei, meaning “work sets you free”.  My first impression was that it didn’t look like a concentration camp at all and in fact looked quite normal.  This is because, at first, it was an army barracks.  I walked through three blocks, in which I found some horrific sights.  Within one was the story of the Jewish people and how they were brought to Auschwitz, with the book of names at the end, and in the others, human hair from 140,000 people, suitcases labelled with people’s names and where they had travelled from, a pile of muddled glasses, personal belongings and shoes.  I also saw the cans in which the gas was concealed before use.  Following this, we were led, in our group, through the gas chamber, and then the room with the furnaces in which the bodies had been burned.  At first, this didn’t affect me, but when I got home and processed my visit and thought about it, it was something that hit me quite hard and took some time to realise what I had witnessed, a room where thousands were murdered and then burned.  I also saw the wall in front of which groups or single people would be shot.

Following Auschwitz I, we moved off towards Auschwitz Birkenau, about five minutes away.  This was a most horrible place to see.  It was deathly quiet and an oppressive air hung over the camp.  It was also very intimidating, with high wire fences and look out boxes all along the edges.  Thinking about being watched all the time made me feel very uncomfortable.  We were taken into one of the barracks in which the Jews were kept.  At each end there was a furnace for heat and in between them, rows and rows of triple bunks, sandwiched together.  You could imagine the people in these barracks, sleeping like a pack of sardines.  Also, if you got up to go to the toilet or something, you would lose your place in bed and have to squeeze in somewhere else.  We then moved on into the toilet block, where I was told, much to my astonishment, that cleaning the toilets was a desirable job, because it meant you had more access to the toilet than others, whose access was only twice a day.  Cleaners could go more often.

After this, a Rabbi came and spoke to us briefly and then we walked up to the memorial and where the gas chambers had once stood before being blown up.  You could still see where the people would go underground to strip and then into the next room to be gassed.  We moved off to another building, where the Jewish men, women and children would be sent upon arrival to be signed in, stripped, washed and then clothed in white and blue striped uniforms, with their number tattooed on them.  It was in this building we had a service to remember those 6 million who died, 1.1 million at Auschwitz.  It was led by a Rabbi who was amazing and really inspiring, talking about how we should never take anything for granted and love our family as much as we can.  Something he also said has stayed very prominent in my mind, because I do it a lot.  He said that in England, we don’t have cold, we have ‘nippy’, but we still complain.  We don’t actually know what cold is, but the Jewish people in Auschwitz did know.  Those who were d marched 600 miles or so, on a death march, in temperatures dropping as low as -20⁰c in one layer of clothing knew what cold was, and so to this day, I always try not to complain about the cold in this country.

Finally, I lit, along with others, a candle to remember those 6 million, quite a poignant moment and a time of remembrance.

My visit to Auschwitz really made me think about my life and how lucky I am to have such a good life.  It also destroyed some of the stereotypes of the Holocaust, more so in my orientation seminar, and made me realise that every one of the people affected were humans in their own individuality, particularly the book of names.  It was incredibly inspiring, thought evoking, enlightening visit, but also very saddening and as an experience, quite individual from anything I have experienced before.  I will never, ever forget the experience and the knowledge and realisation I have gained from this visit and programme.

Written by Kriss Watson

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