Lessons from Auschwitz

The Lessons from Auschwitz Project is a four-part course operated by The Holocaust Educational Trust.  The course is aimed at increasing knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust amongst young people and is based on the premise that “hearing is not like seeing”.  In 2017, I was lucky enough to take part in the project and this article represents the story of my journey and what I learnt.

My journey began on an April day in London where I met with other students from across the East of England to learn some facts about pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust and hear from a Holocaust survivor, Zigi Shipper.  Zigi’s story was a difficult one to hear but as he told of his time in Auschwitz and Stutthof Concentration Camps it was clear that he held no anger from what had happened and his message for all the young people in the room was one of be grateful for what you have and live each day of your life to the full.  He was a humorous 87-year-old man with a remarkably engaging story to tell.

The Market Square in Oświęcim

On 10th May, the group travelled to Poland.  Our first stop was in the town of Oświęcim, the German name of which is Auschwitz.  Before the second world war in 1939, the town had a large Jewish community which made up 58% of the population.  Today, in a population of 40,000 there are no Jewish residents.  The first thing that struck me about the town was how ordinary and normal it appeared, just like any other small eastern European town I’ve visited on holidays, yet it carried with it a huge legacy and the stigma of the genocide that took place there.  It also brought home to me the real meaning of the term “bystander” in the context of the Holocaust.  These were not perpetrators or victims of the Holocaust, but ordinary people who lived close to the actual events that occurred yet took no action and remained passive and indifferent to the persecution of those targeted Jewish people.  They did not speak out, nor did they offer shelter and hide those at risk.  There would have been many bystanders in Oświęcim in 1939 and I thought about the reasons why individuals would have chosen this course of action.  There would have been those scared for their own safety if they acted or those who felt powerless in the face of the Nazi regime, but some would have remained indifferent to the plight of the victims, perhaps too preoccupied with their own survival in the face of the war and increasing economic hardship.


The gates to Auschwitz I

Our next stop was Auschwitz I.  As you approach the camp you are met with the iconic iron gates with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – ‘Work sets you free’, and I realised I was treading the same path as the 1.6 million Jews who had died here.  They had walked through those gates full of hope and most of them had met their death there.  The irony of the words were not lost on me; the only freedom most people found in the camp was death yet the concept of hope was used as a means of mind control.  Whilst the prisoners had hope they would very likely remain compliant and carry out the daily work they were asked to do.

Photographs of some of the victims of The Holocaust

Auschwitz I is today the home of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.  This museum is home to many possessions of the prisoners, the suitcases they had arrived with, a pile of their shoes and, most horrifically of all a glass display case covering the length of the room filled with the hair of the victims which had be cut from their heads before they were led to the gas chambers.  Seeing actual possessions reminded me that each of the 1.6 million people who had died at Auschwitz were human beings with thoughts and feelings. They weren’t just a number, they all had names, young and old, they were parents, grandparents and children, all with stories to tell and hopes and dream for the future. The final room of the museum brought home this point even further with a wall full of pictures of a small number of the victims killed in the camp.

The Gatehouse and train track at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the next site we visited.  The gatehouse and train tracks felt quite familiar from films, yet the scale of the camp was quite extraordinary.  At the height of the genocide, 90,000 people were housed here.  Rows, and rows of wooden barracks, some that had housed over 1000 people.  Here we also visited one of the gas chambers and learnt about the lies and deception victims were told right until their death.  Victims were told they needed to have a shower before they could be admitted into the camp and they were told to hang their clothes on numbered pegs so they could remember where their clothes were located.

Canisters containing Zyklon B Crystals which were used to kill victims in the gas chambers

Having been packed into the shower room, Zyklon B crystals were dropped through a hole in the roof of the room and the victims were suffocated.  Their bodies were then immediately cremated, leaving space for the next set of victims to enter.  These victims were completely degraded and dehumanised and I find it hard to comprehend how the perpetrators felt.  A person had to drop those crystals into the shower knowing they were committing mass murder and killing fellow human beings.  Had they become so indoctrinated that they believed the Nazi propaganda or were they victims too, and powerless to protest.

Our final act of the day before departing home was one of remembrance and a moving memorial service carried out by a rabbi, following which we each lit a candle to remember the victims.

Before I visited Auschwitz, I had read about it and watched films about it, but nothing can quite prepare you for seeing for yourself the reality of the horrific events that took place there.  The premise that “hearing is not like seeing” is truly correct.  Following my visit, I am now passionate about passing on the memory of the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million people murdered, and preserving their legacy so that this devastation and meaningless bloodshed is not repeated by future generations.

Finally, it seems fitting to end with the words of Elie Wiesel.  A Romanian who was sent to Auschwitz with his parents and sister who were murdered there.  “The silence of Birkenau is a silence unlike any other.  It contains the screams, the strangled prayers of thousands of human beings condemned to vanish into the darkness of nameless, endless ashes.  Human silence at the core of inhumanity.  Deadly silence at the core of death.  Eternal silence under a moribund sky”


Ben Candlish


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Posted on: 15th September 2017