Visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

This Easter the history department successfully held its most ambitious study visit yet by taking twenty-eight students and four staff to Krakow. Although a range of activities and visits were arranged on this tour, for most students the main reason for choosing this trip was to visit Auschwitz, the notorious and most infamous death camp where the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews, gypsies and Slavs from 1941 to 1945.

In preparation the students did a pre-visit reflection, considering why they wanted to go and what they expected to see. All the students were historians and had studied the Holocaust at various stages in school. Most said they wanted to see for themselves the place where some of these terrible events took place.

Afterwards, students were asked to identify what image or part of the visit they would remember the most, and explain why this has made such an impression on them. Some of their responses are below, and where possible I have included photographs from the visit to illustrate their image.

Abbie Richards commented on the living conditions which the victims had to endure: ‘I could never imagine having to sleep in a shared bunk bed with more than one person at a time. I thought the buildings would have been bigger, as there were lots of people staying in them, but they were tiny.’

This also had an impact on Lily Tanner who said: ‘I cannot imagine anyone surviving winter in such bad conditions, although some did. They were forced to work… this shocked me. I didn’t expect survival.’

Jack Handley was shocked by the size of the camp: ‘I will always remember seeing the sheer size of the place and how big it was. It looked about a mile long, and it was horrible to think that the victims of the red army would have covered every inch.’

For many the railway tracks and the gate at the front of the camp was their lasting memory.

Jack Bowen noted: ‘I will always remember how the train tracks abruptly stopped at a point which is today marked by a bouquet of flowers. It made an impression, as I interpreted it as how life just suddenly ended for many because of the Nazis.’

Paige Bayley agreed: ‘I will remember the image of the train the most, because it was the train that brought the Jews into the camp. Also, I will remember the sign at the entrance, which in English means “Work makes you free.” ’

Chloe Yarnall agreed: ‘When you are walking on the railway tracks they seem never-ending, until the point they actually do stop, and it makes you think, what happened to these people next?’

Whilst Gurpreet Chaggar stated: ‘ “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Seeing what I saw today: the brutality and treatment of prisoners, how animals were treated better and the vivid imagery; those three words make you feel cold and hateful, even years after.’

On the visit we saw piles of human hair and personal possessions which had been taken from victims and left behind when the camp was abandoned. This had a massive impact on our group.

Niamh O’Connell said: ‘I think that I will always remember the hair and shoes behind the glass in Auschwitz as you got to see how much the SS guards actually took away from the victims. When we were on the tour, the lady told us that they had held more than two tonnes of human hair that they had taken from people of all ages. This was really an insight into how it would have affected people then, and for that I will never forget this experience.’

So too Joe Baker: ‘I will always remember the room with all the victims’ hair, as it was so surreal to me and made me put myself in their shoes and picture the embarrassment and humiliation they had to endure during their time in Auschwitz. It also sticks in my mind as every plait of hair represented an innocent human being. This makes me feel sympathy for them and made me appreciate the life I live and the people I have around me.’

…and Bradley Jeavons: ‘The part of my visit I will never forget is seeing all of the hair and shoes. This made me realise how many people lost their lives. Also, seeing the pictures of victims on the wall made me realise that these were ordinary people with lives and aspirations.’

Chandar Pal felt very strongly, he said: ‘The leftover hair. This is because they didn’t value human life and still would use their possessions, and hair for materials. Even though they despised and treated them worse than animals they still had the audacity to use their hair for industrial purposes.’

This abuse of the victims, both before and after death, had an impact on a number of our group.

Beth Allen was shocked by: ‘The experiments done on women by doctors because of how it affected the bodies. They had taken oaths not to harm others, but that was exactly what they did.’

So too was Patryk Buczek who said: ‘I will always remember the picture of the Jewish children that were experimented on by Mengele. They looked horrific from the malnourishment and experimentation.’

It was, however, the actual gas chambers which impacted most on our group. Celine Jenkins said: ‘The image of the gas chamber will stay in my memory because it caused quite a strong feeling of guilt of what had happened in there. It was so unpleasant, the lives of innocent people that have been lost, and it is such a small place for millions of Jews to have been killed. It was a sad place to visit.’

Leon Mathew said: ‘I will remember seeing the gas chambers because it was really upsetting. I don’t understand how people could kill millions of women, men and children and torture them.’

Emma Millson agreed: ‘I will remember how they put people in the gas chamber all together, with no space, and then they would die in 45 minutes because the air is filling up with gas.’

Some had a more graphic image in their mind such as Kieran O’Connell: ‘The scratches on the wall of the gas chamber because it shows how ruthless the Nazis were, and how desperate the Jews were.’

Aaron Bhoondpal agreed: ‘The door in the basements with nail marks. This made an impression because it showed me how desperate the Jews were to get out.’

This was my second visit to Auschwitz. On my first visit some years ago, I was taken aback, like Jack Handley, by the sheer size of the camp, which stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions.

This last visit however, I was taken by the collection and display of tins of shoe polish. There were tins of polish from all over Europe which indicates how the Nazis went the length and breadth of Europe to seek out and transport Jews to Auschwitz and other camps for extermination.

The Jews were instructed to bring just a small amount of luggage and the fact that so many of them took boot polish in their luggage, and obviously thought it would be vital for them, is really very sad. It reveals the pride of many of the Jews, who clearly wanted to maintain standards of appearance in even the most dreadful circumstances that they found themselves in.

It also shows the extent and success of Nazi propaganda with the Jews, as many were clearly convinced that they were being settled somewhere and as such their boot polish would be an essential commodity when they started their new life.

This was a harrowing visit and I must commend the students on the maturity and respect they showed at all times. I am sure, as these comments illustrate, that memories of this visit will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

By Mr S Burns, History Department and Group Leader

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