Content Warning: this article discusses the Holocaust and Auschwitz
A year ago, I was given the opportunity to visit Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust with the aim of rehumanising the Jews and the people who helped to collaborate the act of the Holocaust – whether they were the perpetrators or bystanders. In today’s blog I will discuss the importance of remembering the Holocaust in our daily lives.
‘the holocaust was the murder of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War’definition of the Holocaust
Before flying to Poland, we had an orientation seminar where we discussed the Jewish community and listened to a Witness testimony.
We were reminded that everyone was human, and the Jewish community were all integrated within society where they were proud to show their faith. However they were still slightly segregated in their religion throughout specific youth groups to celebrate their faith. Overall, the Jewish community was respected for their help within the First World War as well as them being across Eastern Europe.
We then listened to a witness testimony and ours was told from Hannah. At the time of the Holocaust, she was just a young girl. During this time, she never really understood what was happening until many years after where she was able to create modern links with her experiences. A memory she vividly remembers from this time was when she saw her mother die to protect her. Her family has a ‘pact’ which made sure that her grandfather was properly buried in his hometown to allow her family to keep their beliefs and values strong. Before her family left their town, they buried a box hidden with photographs which she was able to retrieve and show us. Hannah has regrets from not being able to pull her friend into the hay to save him from his death and is haunted by the vicious dogs which would threaten the villagers.
Yet whilst listening to Hannah, she was calm. Her experiences had not changed her faith in God. As she recalled her testimony, her memories flooded back in emotions which no one would be able to ever fully understand. To me it showed how surreal and recent the Holocaust still is. The Holocaust happened and if we cannot change the past, surely we can prevent it happening again within the future. However today we can still see antisemitism, for example some of the white supremacists who stormed Capitol Hill last month. The Holocaust was over 75 years ago and still people are uneducated on the history and horrors from this time.
Within the photo on the left, you can see Jewish children in a youth group making the star of David. Zagreb is in Yugoslavia and around 12,000 Jews lived here. In April 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Hitler allowed Croatia to become a separate country controlled by Croatian Fascists which passed a law to remove Jews’ rights. In June 1941, they started sending Jews to concentration camps in Croatia and most Jews were killed by the end of 1942. By May 1943, any Jews who were still left in Zagreb were handed over to the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the majority were killed in gas chambers when they arrived.
The town of Oswiecim:
Once we arrived in Poland, our first visit was to the town of Oswiecim. Here we looked at old photos of the town and compared them to the town today.
As shown in the black and white photograph, the town of Oswiecim had a large Jewish community of around 58% in 1939. The market square was very important for trade and business. After the outbreak of the war in September 1939, occupying forces burnt down the Great Synagogue in the town to show their authority which as a result removed all Jews from this town. It was soon renamed Auschwitz and was the closest town to the building of the Auschwitz concentration camps. The large church by the water remains however the synagogue which proudly stood next to it was burnt down. This shows how before the town of Oswiecim was well integrated, everyone was respected and proud of their identities. Today there are no Jews in this town.
We then visited Auschwitz I and were giving a tour guide from one of the local workers. Before my visit I was expecting it to be solemn, reserved, quiet, monumental, historic and thought provoking. During my visit, I found it to be some of these characteristics. It was historical and monumental however it was bright with green grass, yet the buildings were plain and simple. In a way, the buildings were reserved, solemnly quiet – as if reflecting on their purpose within the Holocaust. It was neither silent nor loud instead more peaceful as we all took in the true history reminding ourselves that the Holocaust unfortunately was very real. It was so recent for such inhumane evil activity with the brain washing included. In a way I learnt how it was unintentional the mass murder, with the gas being used to prevent the outspread for diseases yet this is a worrying thought.
In the top right photo you can see the ‘gate’ reading Albeit Macht Frei. This translates to work sets you free.
‘They beat us between the cars and the gate. They gave us such a hard time. There was a young boy standing next to me, maybe he was sixteen, fifteen even, and he was crying, tears were falling. We were afraid, we didn’t know where we were. It seemed to me that we found ourselves in hell. You cannot describe it any other way. And it turned out that this was hell.’This is an extract from Jerzy Bielecki whom was on the very first transport to Auschwitz of 728 Polish political prisoners at Tarnow on the 14th June 1940. Its tales Jerzy describing his arrival at Auschwitz prior to the construction of the current entrance building.
Excluding the top right photo, all the photos show the belongings the Jews and others brought with them to the concentration camps. As soon as they arrived, they would’ve been stripped of all their belongings and their identities. Their hair would be shaved to be sold to factories in order to be used for wool – though much was never sold and sent to factories. The suitcases are all named with returning addresses and many prosthetic limbs from those who were disabled or needed them after them helping in the wars. There were many pots and pans as well as glasses frames, keys, shoe brushes and prayer mats. However, what surprised me most was the shoes. There were many different styles, shapes, sizes and colours, making you question what pair of shoes would you have worn and how a single pair of shoes can define and individualise every person who arrived there. Also, those who brought keys with them, would they have known it would be the last time they locked their home?
The top right photo shows empty canisters of the gas used within the gas chambers. These hadn’t been destroyed and the gas was originally used to try and kill those who had diseases and were ill. However someone soon told the ‘hierarchy’ who gave the order to be used within the gas chambers. No one knows who or why.
The top left photo shows the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. This was around 10-15m away from the camp owners house who lived with his family where their children played in the garden, they would be able to see all which was happening. This goes against the whole idea at Auschwitz – to dehumanise the Jews whilst the children were enjoying their lives. The bottom left photo shows the striped pyjamas the ‘prisoners’ would wear.
The middle photos show a book of names, of all those who died or suffered during the holocaust. The book is incomplete and merely shows a proportion of those who suffered as a result of the Nazis actions. Block 10 was used for experiments and block 11 was used as a prison where there was a mass shooting between both these blocks. Near these blocks lived the ‘bird watcher’ who would go around spotting birds at Auschwitz and would be paid for his findings. After the Holocaust ended, he was rewarded with a job as I believe to be a professor. Was he a bystander or a perpetrator?
Auschwitz II – Birkenau:
Auschwitz II – Birkenau was known to be the end. This was where the train track stopped and ended but in reality, this was the end of everything leading up to arriving here to face your death.
The top left photo shows a train, cart which would’ve arrived full of passengers to Auschwitz Birkenau. There were no windows and seemed like a cargo for livestock and goods. There would be a single bucket for a toilet on what might be a 9-day journey from Corfu. The drivers of these were they a perpetrator? Many bought a home return ticket as well expecting to return home.
Once you got off and had arrived you were greeted with a guard. A thumb left meant you would face death up at the gas chambers and a thumb right meant you’d be able to work. Many lied about their age and claimed skills in order to survive.
The photo on the right shows one of the two gas chambers. In the moment leading up to the defeat of the Nazis within the Second World War, they tried to destroy all evidence by collapsing the gas chambers and burning the wooden barracks in the area they called ‘Canada’ which held the belongings of the Jewish community to be searched through and sold on.
The middle photo shows the turning of the thumb left and right. The bottom right photo shows items in ‘Canada’ being sorted through by the prisoners as work. The bottom left photo shows the brick huts where many would’ve been squashed in to sleep and live. They were triple bunks and there was also holes as a toilets, more than 700 people would be living in here. One worker who worked in the toilets felt as if their job was royalty. They would be able to talk to the others in the toilets as no SS guards would come in from fear of typhus and catching any diseases. The worker was able to hear stories and find out about the camps gossip.
The top left photo shows the site of where a wooden barrack once would’ve situated and within this barrack would’ve held more than 200 Jewish children between the ages of 2 to 16 being kept as prisoners. Many of them were twins who were being used for criminal medical experiments.
The top left photo shows the section of Auschwitz Birkenau which was called ‘Canada’. Lots of workers would want to work in ‘Canada’ to sort through clothes and items. The Nazis burnt down this section of the camp and so only the bottom bricks remain of what once were wooden barracks. If you were a worker, first your belongs would be stripped and men and women would be separated. Then you would burn or steam your clothes before having a shower to clean yourself. Everyone would gather into the same room (of each gender) before boiling hot or freezing cold water was tipped down. Your hair would then be shaved before getting your tattoo and then getting your clothing to wear (the striped pyjamas). The photo on the left shows more photos of items and belongings people brought with them.
Some may say the Jews were free and the guards were the prisoners ‘locked’ up being held captive. This is shown by the Jewish community using the moon as guidance to remind them of their heritage through their festivals. Even through the Nazis dehumanising the Jews, they were still able to fight back and hold onto the remnants of their self belief.
After my visit I reflected on what I’ve learnt about human beings. I’ve reinforced the idea that everyone is equal no matter your beliefs however at Auschwitz, everyone was dehumanised and torn away from their own views for being so called ‘wrong’ yet they stood stronger together and became more resilient despite their lives completely being torn apart.
The key points I would like to share and hence take away from my experience is the harsh reality of the ‘production line’ at Auschwitz Birkenau, including the items each family brought with them to continue their ‘new life’ at the camps which were rapidly stripped from them. Another concept I would like to reinforce is where can we draw the line between a perpetrator and a bystander – in a way both their actions, however big or small, consequently it all added up and made the holocaust happen.
Nazi Germany tried to kill all the Jews through dehumanisation in the following ways; Concentration camps, Gas chambers, Murder camps (Auschwitz Birkenau), Shooting, Starvation, Beating/Strangling and Mass murder -when they realised that they were not sufficient in their methods.
The words perpetrator and bystander now mean two new things. A ‘perpetrator’ I see is someone involved within the act of the Holocaust. They were the Nazis, the guards, the bird watcher, the farmers who provided food to the camps, the photographer and the train drivers. Yet more importantly as such this act never would’ve been carried out if the ‘bystanders’ who knew what was happening but did not act against it would’ve done something. They include country leaders and governments, families of Nazi believers, the local community who watched their Jewish community be removed from their towns and villages. However, both terms link as the hierarchy cannot run without the bystanders.