Wednesday 30th April 2014 is a date I am certain to never forget.
It’s not because of the early start. It isn’t because of the delays at UK border control and it isn’t because of the early morning bedtime. It isn’t even because of the slight madness of visiting Poland in a day.
It is because I visited Auschwitz.
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Enrico).
We attended an orientation seminar last Sunday in London with the LFA Project that was designed to prepare for use for what we would encounter.
I had concerns already.
Would I become an uncontrollable weeping mess in front of my three students? When studying the events of the past, and indeed being affronted with them in the present, I have found the darkness within man utterly terrifying and beyond comprehension at times. I have even felt guilt and shame that I am a part of a human race that is responsible for such atrocities.
I then started to consider an even worse possibility than tears and overwhelming emotions: a disconnection and a sense of ‘nothingness’ as can so often occur when I am overcome by something so great. I wouldn’t want to partake in such an important experience without feeling the impact of it in as full a way as possible.
My problem with the holocaust has always been that I’ve been unable to comprehend the numbers and the scale of this atrocity. When faced with the stories of what occurred, I feel as though it’s an event that could only have come from film or fiction. Perhaps this is because I don’t want to fully comprehend it because if I did truly understand what had occurred in those years then the truth would be too much to handle.
Despite all my apprehension, I was looking forward to the trip… If that can even be said of such a trip but I was looking forward to the journey ahead- whether it would be tear-filled or not.
This is where my reflections become difficult to communicate. On the morning after the terribly long day before, colleagues and students asked me how it was. This question proved impossible to answer. Any kind of description seemed feeble compared to what I had seen: I was doing the event and its history an injustice however hard I tried so I stopped trying. I concluded that I would no longer write about my experiences as I had intended. Yet here my post is. Nothing can emerge from these words that could truly help you to understand what I experienced but I’m hoping that my attempts will go some of the way and that’s important because I must try. The history is important to remember and I feel it is my job to pass it on and I feel that writing things down could help in some small way to help me come to terms with what I experienced.
I have determined to write this post based on the most remarkable moments of my journey so far (because I acknowledge that after a visit to Auschwitz, the journey will last far longer than one day). I shall accompany the post with images, which might go some way to aiding my words in expressing what I saw and how I felt. These images were found on Flickr and not taken by me. I thought I might take some photographs to record the day but it just didn’t feel right once I got there.
On arrival into Poland, I was struck by the green of the environment. I don’t know what I had expected of this country but it certainly wasn’t green.
The first place we stopped was a Jewish cemetery.
We were asked questions, given time to reflect and I remained quiet. I am often an internally reflective person and I can only comment and share my views once they have formed fully in my mind.
After a discussion session, we were given a very short amount of time to have a wander. It was in this time that I did some reflecting with one of my students. Sometimes, my thoughts can be formed through the helpful insights of others. It was my students (perhaps because I work with them regularly) who had the capacity to do this during the day. Sorry to ‘other’ students, but you’re just not ‘mine’!
It was in this short chat with one of my students in the cemetery that I reflected upon what we had just been asked during the discussion. We had talked about the death present around us but I could not think of anything but life. Not because the gravestones represented these individuals because I personally don’t think a grey stone can do this but because of the wild nature growing all around. It couldn’t be ignored and it was certainly making its overgrown presence felt. This was something that I was able to reflect on all the more as our trip continued but at the time, I thought that we had been shown this green cemetery with gravestones to contrast with the bleak place we were about to enter.
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Maria Miller).
As we entered Auschwitz I (I hadn’t realised it was split up into more than one camp!) the sun was gleaming down. The architecture was interesting and we were fooled into a very false sense of security, much as the prisoners of Auschwitz I may have felt with the prisoner musicians that were forced to play at the gates. Yet at the same time, those sounds must have felt too sweet to be true, especially with the juxtaposition of rows of people and SS guards in their intimidating uniforms.
I don’t know whether it was the sunshine but the site we walked around had not given me the chilling and eerie feelings I had more than fully expected.
It was when we had been shown into an exhibition room, told we could read a poem and reflect alone that a chill shuddered down my spine. Literature was being introduced. This was all about to become more real and I knew it.
With trepidation I stepped carefully towards the doorway and was confronted with mounds and mounds of hair. I turned away from it whilst I read the poem with a huge lump in my throat,
I walked slowly again towards the glass. I hadn’t expected that reaction to hair. We all have it yet I’d suggest that almost everyone’s hair reflects their identity and many of us fear the loss of it. The fact that it was then made into fabrics and rugs was a true testament to the depth of hatred that the nazis showed towards these people.
We then headed down the stairs. I was trying to fight back the tears and stayed close to the back of the group so that no-one could speak to me for fear the tears might fall. The next room held a bottomless pit filled with pots and pans. This almost tipped a tear dribbling down my cheek. It was the starkest of all reminders that these people had arrived at Auschwitz having packed all of their possessions. The terrible reality of what was about to happen had probably not been apparent to most.
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Pablo Nicolas Taibi Cicare).
The final room that caused the lump in my throat to grow to the size of a small rock was the room of shoes. There were endless mounds of shoes. It was when you noticed the types of shoes and the patterns within them that you could almost see the people behind them, especially the women (knowing how much I love shoes myself).
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Pablo Nicolas Taibi Cicare).
It was as we headed back out into the dazzling sunlight that I needed to escape. I took my headphones off and walked along slowly trying to control my emotions. I tried to calm myself and the only way to bring on the calm was to stop thinking about what I’d just seen but I felt guilty for doing it. How dare I not give these people and events my full consideration?
It was on the walk towards the shooting wall that I felt an entirely different emotion. I was pacing slowly behind my group when I looked up to see them all walking towards the wall. It was as though I had seen through the eyes of one of the guards into the past when the group before me were moving towards their wall, a bullet and their death.
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Jaysmark).
It was after this point that I couldn’t prevent this thought from floating back into my mind. I saw groups of people entering the gates of the site,marching down the regimented pathways and into buildings. I had expected to feel horror at the way we were treating the site like some kind of museum but that feeling never came, despite my trying to force it. These scenes were a small doorway into the past and it was a doorway I felt uncomfortable peering through.
The gas chamber did not have quite the effect I had anticipated either. To a certain extent I could imagine the innocent people standing in the room, undressing for the promised shower before being murdered. I was having my ‘holocaust’ problem again though. What occurred in that space was so horrific that it was impossible for me to be able to even remotely comprehend.
We drove over to Auschwitz Birkenau and it was here that I was most overwhelmed by the vastness of this site. I cannot possibly describe the size. We climbed the stairs to the top of the tower and could see the buildings stretching out in rows all the way to the horizon on every side. It hit me hard that this vast site had been constructed, all with the primary purpose of killing. The image below only goes some way in indicating its size.
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Jim Winstead).
The nature that had struck me at the Jewish cemetery was so present here. I had heard comments that there was no life at Auschwitz. I couldn’t have been so struck by more life. As we sat by a destroyed gas chamber, I was almost deafened by the sounds of birds chirping and the trees rustling around me. The terrible atrocities that occurred here were not acted out by the natural world; it was all man-made and no matter what humans do, nature will continue regardless; defying all evil. Somehow, this offered some comfort.
The final moment that hit me was when we stood before images of many of the people who had died at Auschwitz. Their faces looked out at us and I was reminded of the fact that these people didn’t always lead their lives in fear of death. They once took pictures as we would; smiling with friends, families and lovers. A particular picture of a man with glasses, staring into the camera with a flirtatious look, his collar up and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth made me smile. This was certainly a moment I had not expected.
It was Rabbi Marcus who spoke directly to me at the end of our short ceremony at the end of our visit. He stated that the question he often gets asked is, ‘Where was God in all of this?’ He stated that the wrong question was being asked. It should be, ‘Where was man in all of this?’
Where was man? Part of the answer is that they had the wool pulled over their eyes. The Nazi propaganda effort was so deceitful and something I hadn’t really known existed before visiting (sorry for the naivety). The rest of the answer does not exist. Engineers designed gas chambers that would kill up to 2000 people at a time and held ovens to burn the bodies. Architects designed the site that would hold an inordinately large number of people. Hitler is not the sole person to blame in all of this. Every man and woman involved in allowing this to happen is to blame.
This day began at 4.15am and ended at 1.45am but the memory will follow me around for far longer. If you ever get the chance to visit, grasp it with both hands and have a tour guide. It isn’t the abomination of tourism I had expected; there were no tacky souvenirs or a shred of disrespect for what had taken place. It is an experience that will last a lifetime and as teachers, we have perhaps the greatest responsibility to educate young people about the evil of humanity’s past.
As I snuggled up in my wonderful bed in the early hours of the morning, having set my alarm for 6.15am, I felt, not the full weight of the day, but a large measure of it. I had spent a tiring day at a concentration camp: walking under the hot sun after a long and tiresome journey, unsure of what awaited me. Yet I had been able to get into my very own soft and comforting bed at the end of it all. I did not have to sleep in a slanting bed (because they could fit more in this way) in a warm and smelly stable with around 700 other people awaiting my fate.
(Image taken from Flickr- Creative Commons- Enrico).
I have heard two survivors speak now and have read other survivor testimonies. What baffles me more than the events themselves is how neither of them holds any blame towards their perpetrators and nor have they lost faith in humanity. They each had such a wonderful sense of humour, a zest for life and a youthfulness beyond their years. I think I need to read more about the efforts of resistance groups and individuals who defied what was taking place for my own faith in humanity to be restored. That’s if it can be… many current events lead me to think this might be the most difficult journey of all.
(Featured image from Flickr- Creative Commons- Bill Hunt)