When Chesterfield student Nick Baskerville, 17, visited Auschwitz with a group of A-Level students, the experience left him profoundly moved. This resulting article is an account of what he saw and carries a plea from the heart to all of us to learn the lessons from the past.
I DON’T expect that many of you will have heard of the town of Oswiecim. Which is rather strange when you consider its history.
The town itself is completely unremarkable – not unpleasant – but not anything unusual. The countryside around it is quite pleasant; lots of slender birch trees and open fields. All in all Oświęcim is a standard town in a standard area of southern Poland.
Yet when I reveal the German pronunciation of its name, shivers will no doubt rattle down your spine.
Because Oświęcim is the small Polish town within comfortable walking distance of the site of the largest mass murder in all of human history. Auschwitz. I, along with group of around 200 other A-level students from the East Midlands, visited Auschwitz as part of The Holocaust Educational Trust – Lessons From Auschwitz Project.
After a coach trip from Krakow through the Polish countryside and a brief stop off in Oświęcim (which I’ll return to later) I find myself walking under the infamous iron words “Arbeit Macht Frei” [Work will make you free]. I am now in Auschwitz 1. The former Polish military barracks turned intensive labour camp, a former hell on earth whose modus operandi was “vernichtung durch arbiet” [Extermination through labour]. This is where the Nazis sent Polish political prisoners, Soviet POWs and the occasional hardened criminal in the days before “The Final Solution”. There was no pretence to what was happening at Auschwitz at that time. You were sent there to be killed. Not immediately and not directly; the main weapon at Auschwitz 1 was not the bullet or even the infamous Zyklon B (though those were both used) it was hard labour, insufficient sustenance, bad sanitation and regular beatings. But make no mistake about it, regardless of it being called a forced labour camp, if you were sent to Auschwitz 1 you were intended to die.
The first thing to strike me about Auschwitz 1 was that on a nice day, as it was, with its long straight paths bordered by grass and the occasional tree and its neat rows of large sturdy red brick buildings it looked almost like a idyllic little housing estate.
However one glance at the electric fence with its little sign reading “vorsicht hochspannung lebensgefahr” [Careful - High Voltage - Danger to life] or the ominous guard tower brought me back to earth with a thud.
Before I know what’s happened I’m standing in front of 2 tonnes of human hair - this is the paltry amount that the Nazis failed to destroy as the war drew to a close. It’s a strange thing to look at, one doesn’t quite know what to think and so I found myself thinking what I spent most of the day thinking. Absolutely nothing. You don’t think, you don’t talk, you just float from place to place like a spectre not wanting to comprehend the horror of where you are. Like many points throughout my time at Auschwitz I had to keep reminding myself of the history. That each and every hair in that enormous pile was, not too long ago, attached to a head. Each head contained the thoughts, wishes, desires and loves of a real, breathing, thinking, feeling person. And each one of those people, I can say with total certainty, spent the last portion of their lives having the humanity starved and beaten out of them until, finally, they were allowed to die, a skeletal shadow of their former selves and their bodies incinerated like disposed rubbish.
The next stop was block 11. The so-dubbed “prison with the prison” and where some of the most shocking events of the Holocaust transpired. Block 11 is where prisoners were sent when they broke the “rules”. These apparent transgressions could range from stealing food, in a desperate attempt to stave of inevitable starvation, to just looking at a guard the wrong way.
Block 11 was home to a plethora of different torturous punishments which were designed to kill a prisoner in the most painful ways possible. In Block 11’s basement there is an assortment of different cells. There’s the starvation cells, the suffocation cells and worst of all, the standing cells. The first two looked almost identical to any other cells except in the starvation cells prisoners were locked in there with no food or water until they died. Suffocation cells had a metal case over the vent so as to impede ventilation, resulting in a protracted, lingering death by asphyxia. The third type, the standing cells, were a particularly ingenious invention; they were ludicrously small spaces that as many 3 or 4 people could be forced into at a time and their operation was simple: prisoners were forced to stand. At first glance this doesn’t seem so bad. But think of a day when you were on your feet for most of it, remember how much your legs begin to ache. Now think about it again. These prisoners were malnourished and exhausted from months of hard labour, their bodies were ruined and after hours upon hours of work each day and insufficient food they were forced to spend the night in a cell of no more than half a meter squared (if that), sometimes with 2 or 3 other prisoners. It is no surprise then that most of those sent to the standing cells died of exhaustion.
Block 11 is also where, in 1941, a group of a few hundred Russian POWs and Polish prisoners died from cyanide poisoning. The source was Zyklon B. This was the first time the ghastly pesticide was used at Auschwitz and the start of what would make it the most feared symbol of the Holocaust.
I should at this point also mention that I had the opportunity to go inside the gas chamber and crematoria at Auschwitz 1. I will say only that it is a hideous place which filled me with the most profound sense of dread, which stayed with me for a good while. I won’t elaborate further, there really isn’t a way to describe such a place; it may be a cliché but this genuinely is something that must be seen in the flesh.
After a few hours at Auschwitz 1 it was finally time to visit the place that made the Auschwitz camp the site of the biggest murder in all human history. Auschwitz–Birkenau. As you approach Birkenau you’re faced with the image that became the symbol of the Holocaust, the so called “gate of death” - the entrance to the biggest killing machine of all time. On first arriving at Birkenau I did something that the 1.2 million people deported there never could, I went up to the top floor of the “gate of death” and got to see the entirety of the camp. Nothing prepares you for the scale. I’d heard it was big, but neither words nor photographs do it justice. Even from this privileged vantage point you struggle to see the furthermost fence and from ground level (the prisoners perspective) the camp fills you’re entire horizon, the outside world might as well not exist and I suspect, as far as the prisoners were concerned, it didn’t. But it is from the top of the main gate that you can fully appreciate what, for me, was the most troubling aspect of Birkenau. It bears a terrifying resemblance to a factory. Its symmetrical layout with women on one side, men on the other, each section containing almost endless rows of neatly organised barracks. Then cutting directly through the middle is the deadly straight railway track that must extend for over a kilometre. To me, the whole site exhibited horrifying levels of planning and organisation; Birkenau was a mechanised killing centre, each of its 4 gas chambers could kill 2000 people in 20 minutes and in 1944 Birkenau showed its true capacity for killing when over 400 000 Hungarian Jews were deported there and the vast majority killed in just over 2 months.
Birkenau differed substantially from Auschwitz I in that it was an extermination camp. Of course, large numbers of people died at Auschwitz I and there is no doubt that is why they were sent there but at Birkenau some 75% of all who arrived there were sent directly to the gas chambers and many were dead within 2 hours of arriving. Birkenau wasn’t built to work the prisoners (though this did happen) it was built to kill, plain and simple and it did so with horrendous efficiency.
Throughout my taking part in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project there were always a number of aims and, for me, there were two which seemed to be the most important.
Firstly there is the aim to re-humanize the victims of the Holocaust, to appreciate that behind the daunting statistics there are individuals; this is a fact that is all too easily forgotten and one which we must all recognise.
Secondly there is the aim to learn from history. To recognise what happened during the Holocaust and why it happened so that we might prevent it from ever happening again.
Now, I would think that there are few people indeed who would wish the Holocaust or anything like it to happen again. However what so many people fail to realise is that the Holocaust wasn’t just the result of a small group psychopaths, it was a demonstration of what happens when prejudice goes unchecked.
The only way to prevent genocides is to combat the root – prejudice.
We like to think that we live in wonderful, multicultural, tolerant society where everyone is free to be who they are and can live without fear of being persecuted. This is a delusion. I go to a fairly nice secondary school in not too bad an area; the average student is thoroughly middle class and has a stable, comfortable upbringing. However even here, in a nice school, in a nice area, in the 21st century there is prejudice everywhere.
A walk down the corridors is seldom free from some homophobic or racist comment. Were you to talk about gay people or Muslims or Gypsies or even Jews to the vast majority of students you would be appalled (I hope) by what you would hear. Moreover, it is not just a phase that most kids go through and grow out of quick enough, it persists even into the sixth form and I strongly suspect (though I cannot as strongly testify) that it persists beyond this point as well.
The rise of far-right groups like the EDL and the BNP is testament to the growing intolerance in our society but while most people recognise that such groups are dangerous they fail to recognise the wider picture. What must be made clear is the direct link between seemingly harmless little “comments” and “jokes” and events like the Holocaust. Yes, of course the Holocaust was an extreme event but it is incontrovertibly linked to much smaller, everyday prejudices; it was intolerance writ large.
Therefore, I write this as an appeal, a plea, to everyone who holds prejudiced viewpoints and everyone who encounters them.
I would not dream of telling anyone how to think, I simply ask that you re-examine your views, consider why you have them and most of all, consider what their consequences may be. Be aware that what may seem harmless can, in the long run, be anything but, because ultimately it was individual’s prejudices and intolerances that lead to the Holocaust. It was the bigoted views of the masses that allowed so many millions of people to be persecuted, tortured and murdered simply for being born into the wrong social group. Be aware the next time a prejudiced thought crosses your mind or an intolerant word passes your lips that it was thoughts and words just like those that caused the Holocaust.
Now I hope (though sadly I doubt) that I am talking to the minority here but I will now address the majority.
It is not enough that you are not racist or homophobic or prejudiced in any other way, you must also challenge it wherever you find it in others. Don’t just ignore or pretend that you don’t hear it when someone is spouting their bigoted views; challenge them. Ask them why they think those things, explain to them that we are all human beings and no one of us is more valuable than another. Ultimately it is we, the people, that make up this society and therefore it is we who decide what sort of society it is. If we want to stop the Holocaust happening again we must learn from history, we must become intolerant of intolerance and we must never let bigoted views no matter how harmless they may seem become acceptable.
I said right at the beginning of this article that I would return to the brief stop in Oświęcim that we made before visiting the Auschwitz main camp. That’s because it was something that I learnt in Oświęcim that has been the most enlightening part of this whole process.
In Oświecim there is a Jewish cemetery. It was present before the start of the war along with a vibrant Jewish community that constituted around 58% of the town’s population. When the Nazis invaded Poland the cemetery was destroyed and the gravestones were reportedly used as paving slabs. After the war someone rounded up as many of the gravestones as they could and rebuilt the cemetery. Now, over 60 years since the end of the war there is not a single Jew living in Oświęcim (the last – Shimshon Klueger – died in 2000). This is perhaps not surprising given that the town lies so close to the site of the largest tragedy to ever strike the Jewish community. However, what is surprising is that the cemetery is kept locked; in-fact it had to be opened specially for us to be able to go in and was locked as soon as we left. Why? Because in recent years people have been smashing gravestones apart and, most appallingly, spray-painting swastikas on them. This shocked me more than anything I have learnt about the Holocaust because it showed me that even less than 3 miles from the site where so many Jews were exterminated simply because they were Jews, anti-Semitism can still exist. This is the most potent of reminders that we cannot just assume that something like the Holocaust could never happen again. As long as prejudice exists there will always be the chance that It could happen again and it is our moral imperative to do all we can to ensure that it doesn’t. We must keep the memory of the Holocaust victims alive and most importantly we must learn from our history, lest we repeat it.