This week I took my 15-year old son on a trip to Krakow in Poland. Once we’d decided to go, the central feature of the trip was to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau – just an hour outside Krakow. As we anticipated, it was a profound experience.
My personal experience of learning about the Holocaust has been patchy. Having never studied WWII or Nazi Germany at school, I’ve pieced together my understanding of what happened throughout my adulthood. ‘Understanding’ has two senses. There’s knowledge of the facts about the sequence of events and key people and places- and then there’s an appreciation of the relative scale and significance of events in historical terms and, most importantly, in terms of human tragedy. It’s this last part that is so hard to grasp.
I remember reading Sophie’s Choice at university. I watched the Holocaust TV series and I’ve since seen numerous films that reference the concentration camps. Some, like Boy in the Striped Pyjamas massively distort the facts but convey the emotions. Others like Schindler’s List seem more realistic but still largely leave you to imagine the scale of events.
When I was 19 I went to Israel and visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, It’s a powerful experience – the deep solemnity and reverence is powerful. Memorials are important and the work of various holocaust education groups is vital. In my last school I met holocaust survivor Janine Webber when we hosted the annual Holocaust Memorial Day event on January 27th (anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz). She described the harrowing events that shaped her childhood as she grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland including the story of her father’s death and her eventual separation from her family:
“One day we were warned that the Gestapo would be coming, so my parents dug a hole under the wardrobe which was in our room, and when we heard the German soldiers approaching we hid in the hole: my mother, my brother and myself. But there was no room for my father and my grandmother.”
Another haunting story was the time Janine saw the boots of the Nazi officer who murdered her father as she cowered beneath her bed. The image haunted her, and she continued to experience nightmares until she was in her 70s. She’d escaped and lived on a flea-ridden bed alone for several months in a barn, aged 9, fed by a farmer who kept her hidden. The loneliness and grief she experienced at that time were unimaginable.
On another occasion, at the planting of the Anne Frank Memorial Tree in Highbury Fields, Dr. Eva Schloss, 87, told stories from her time in hiding in Amsterdam during the war, and her subsequent time spent in Auschwitz at the age of just 15. Her father and brother were killed at the concentration camp.
These encounters with facts and stories from the Holocaust have been important but until this week, I don’t think I had fully grasped the nature of what took place: the sheer scale of the deliberate, determined, systematic, industrial genocide and the inhumanity of the philosophy of racial supremacy that drove it. At Auschwitz all of these things become completely vivid.
From the moment you walk under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate and see the train track, the barbed wire and the lines of brick barracks, there’s an eery hush. The thousands of visitors trudge solemnly around the buildings as the guides create a mood of serious reflection sustained throughout the whole visit. The different buildings in Auschwitz I give you a sense of the enterprise: prisoners in brutal living conditions; extermination rooms; standing-only cells; buildings devoted to medical experiments; the death wall for executions. You get a sense of the SS officers going about their work with a kind of zealous determination, with the guide informing us of the wider mission driven by Hitler and the Nazi ideology to repopulate parts of Poland with German Reich families.
The photographs capture the nature of the process: trains arriving loaded with people unaware of the fate that awaited them; the separation of people who would be kept for labour and those who would proceed to immediate extermination in the gas chambers. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the visit was seeing the collections of possessions. This is where you get a sense of each of the individual tragedies: the shoes – all styles, all sizes including those belonging to small children – the glasses; a room full of hair; the suitcases; the prosthetic limbs: all traces of the lives of real individual people, often lost in the scale of the genocide. In one of the buildings, the corridors are lined with photographs of men and women – all in their striped uniforms with their death date recorded, usually just a few months after their arrival. The individual faces help to cut through the desensitising effect of the scale.
Where Auschwitz I gives you a feeling for the personal tragedy, Auschwitz II ( Birkenau) reveals the full scale of it. It’s hard to put it into words. You have to see it. This was the product of the depraved logic of the Final Solution. Line after line of barracks, many demolished, some still standing and some re-built for the museum. It goes off into the distance. Here barracks with stone floors and wooden frames were crammed with 400 prisoners seven to a bed, sometimes over-filled to house 700 people; sanitary conditions were desperate; it was freezing in winter. People died constantly from starvation, disease and the cold. And these were the people kept from immediate extermination. The conditions were so bad in Birkenau that Auschwitz I was called ‘the hotel’ by comparison. Everyone there was in constant fear of execution which was a daily event.
For me, the biggest impact of Birkenau was to see and hear about the industrial nature of the extermination process. It’s just so hard to get your head around the numbers involved. Over 1 million people were killed here in the space of around four years. At some points well over 1000 people were exterminated every day. The infrastructure and determination to enact genocide on that scale is mind-blowing: the central platform receiving trains from all over Europe; the reception blocks; the gas chambers and crematorium (destroyed but visible); the sorting of possessions – hair, gold and other artefacts – and the disposal of the ashes.
My son and I talked about how to put the scale of the extermination into perspective. We thought about 12 Wembley stadiums full to capacity – that was the easiest to imagine but still incomprehensible. Each one of those people someone with a future, a character, family, hopes, dreams….human. And this was one-sixth of the number who were killed in the Holocaust as a whole in the other camps and killing sites across Europe.
We talked about the mentality of the people involved; those who enacted the mechanics of the operation, the relentless daily cruelty and degradation, the sheer scale of the death toll – and the mindset you would need to contribute to that, even if you feared for your own life. This is what humans are capable of doing when they lose perspective on what it means to be human, when they lose touch with what ‘humanity’ is and the truth of our absolute equality regardless of faith or ethnic origin. It’s staggering that this happened only 70 years ago. Of course there have been other genocides since – so we can’t be complacent about the extent to which we have learned the lessons.
I came away feeling more strongly than ever that Holocaust education must feature in every child’s education – alongside a drive to challenge antisemitism and racism of all kinds. A few assemblies and memorial events are unlikely to be enough even though they are a start. This should be core taught history for everyone – surely? What else could be more important than this?
Here are some websites that provide a good introduction with some excellent video resources: