Lessons from Auschwitz

Knowing where we have been tells us about where we are and where we want to be heading; seeing it makes it impossible to ignore.

End of the Line, Auschwitz II-Birkenau

There is something about talking to eyewitnesses that cannot be replicated. I experience this feeling most when talking to older people, like grandparents. It feels like the person facing you is the most direct connection between your life and the distant past. If they know how to spin a yarn, that past is suddenly revived and revitalised, as if you can step right into it. As a self-confessed history fiend, I love this feeling. Knowing where we have been gives us a sense of where we are, and where we want to be heading.

As much as I am in awe of my granddad’s ability to tell a good story, to the extent where I am happy to listen for the 12th time about when US President Ronald Reagan came to Downing Street, one other person’s story sticks out more in my mind. Six years ago, I met Zigi Shipper. Zigi is a friendly character who speaks with a warmth that draws you in. Zigi spends his days at schools and in seminars, talking to young people about his life. Zigi also survived the Holocaust.

A question for the reader. Have you ever spoken to a survivor of tragedy? Do you know the feeling of gazing into eyes which have borne witness to the deepest and most depraved actions that humanity can inflict on itself, whilst that man or woman shares their story with you? Sat in a conference room in Canary Wharf, I listened for hours as Zigi retold his story. The power of a first-hand account is tremendous. I respect the historian’s craft, but the issue with an historian’s account is that it is their interpretation, and with each interpreted version the account loses its effect. Recalled memories offer something unobtainable elsewhere. The past shifts into reality. Statistics become people. Abstractions take shape.

I hope I do not need to inform people about the Holocaust in the basic sense. It seems unlikely that someone can grow up and avoid even hearing about the six million people murdered in a few short years during our grandparents’ lives. We are educated about this crime against humanity, in school and elsewhere. Like other aspects of the past, it tends to be pondered over, sworn against, and consigned to the books. ‘Never again’, we might say every year, or if we pass a memorial in town. Then life continues, hatred builds, and people forget until they return to the same memorial day the following year. The atrocity is separated from our existence, an event isolated in another time.

For me, the Holocaust is more than an historical artefact found in museums and history books. It is a real event driven by themes and motivations which taint society today. This interest began six years ago, on Thursday 12th March 2015. A day I remember so vividly, before coronavirus, before university, before Brexit. It is quite a thing to compare, between then and now, how I saw the world and my surroundings, and in what ways it remains the same or has changed. I am not indulging myself with nostalgia, I am not staring at a snapshot of simpler times. Six years ago, one particular experience changed the way I have looked at almost everything else since. That was when I met Zigi, and when I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I woke up at 3am. Over the following 21 hours, I was to catch a flight to Poland, travel to Oświęcim, tour the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and return home. On four hours’ sleep, the day was never going to be easy. It felt surreal. This was actually happening. I was to visit the final resting place of over a million people, a location synonymous with persecution and efficient death. My mind was racing with anticipation, if such a word is appropriate. Famous and infamous locations from history evoke a morbid curiosity, for reasons I cannot explain. That curiosity was soon to be answered. Headphones in, music on loud, welcome to Krakow.

Travelling toward Oświęcim, the modern-day town near Auschwitz which existed long before the Nazi regime, was strange. Winding roads through thick forest, the trees seemed to huddle together like mischievous children trying to hide a secret from me. Before the camps, we visited a Yiddish cemetery, which housed among its many graves a single post-Holocaust tombstone. The purpose of this visit was to consider how people would like to be remembered, a contrast with what the Auschwitz machine did to them. Many of the graves had pebbles laid upon them.

The trees need not hide their secret; it was in plain sight. When describing Oświęcim as ‘near’ the camps, I was not using the term lightly. Auschwitz I was five minutes from the city centre. The entrance to the concentration camp faced some houses and a hotel. Life goes on, I suppose.

The concentration camp

Auschwitz I is ‘small’, with space for 10,000 prisoners. It is well-preserved, and has been turned into a museum. One room had two glass cabinets, one either side of a corridor. On display was a mountain, built from thousands of pairs of shoes ascending upwards to the back. Imagine the old football terraces, with throngs of sepia men swelling backwards and reaching the rafters. If this sight was striking, the next was stupefying. A large room, possibly the size of two classrooms at least, in which photography was prohibited. One wall was glass, behind which lay a sobering sight. Human hair. Endless, enough to submerge a crowd, grey and coarse from the 70 years of decay. Hair was harvested to sell on as material for fabrics and carpets, so it was not held for long at the camp. Thus, it must have been collected in January 1945, days before liberation. All of this hair, in a matter of weeks. What about the rest of the Holocaust? I could not bear the thought.

After so many people began to fill the camps, the SS gave up photographing every prisoner; it was too time-consuming. Still, two corridors now display some of the photos three rows high and along both sides. The date of birth, date of arrival, and date of death of each prisoner is listed. There were glimpses into the lives extinguished here. One prisoner died a few days after arrival, another outlived her twin sister by two months. The Nazis shaved every prisoner to make escapees easy to spot, but also to take away the prisoner’s identity. I had no idea whether I had already seen a certain face, as the same expression was repeated again and again, the same pair of eyes staring back at me 20,000 times over in each corridor. The only glimpses of identity were their names, the dates, and the number. Zigi still remembers his: 84303.

The gas chamber was one of the more sinister places to walk through. Once again, no pictures were allowed. Entering the building, a memorial with a lit candle welcomed us. To the right was the chamber, a room not much bigger than an average gym changing room, yet 700 people would have been crammed in here at a time, and suffocated with Zyklon B within 20 minutes. The silence was eerie. I believe that this was the first time I had stood upon a spot of mass death. I hated that room. I hated how we were allowed to walk in there. Leaving it did not feel much better. Walking among barbed wire fences and ominous sentry posts, my mind raced frantically, coming to terms with the experience, whilst a strange smell lingered in the air.

The extermination camp

What is commonly known as ‘Auschwitz’ is actually a complex consisting of multiple camps and subcamps. Auschwitz I was set up in existing army barracks; Auschwitz II-Birkenau was purpose-built for the cause, and was primarily for extermination rather than imprisonment. The latter camp is 10 times the size of Auschwitz I. Here, it was harder to humanise the Holocaust as most of it was either destroyed by the SS guard covering their tracks, or dismantled by survivors so they had firewood to live out the winter. We visited in March, and it was unbearably cold by 5pm, so one can only imagine walking round in rags during January.

Entering Auschwitz II, I was horrified. Its size was grotesque. Between the first guard tower on the left and the last on the right stood a kilometre, and the same from front to back. The capacity when in use was pushing hundreds of thousands of people, spread out across stables which would house 400 each. With around one square metre for themselves and their belongings, these people were deprived of the minimum space needed to exist. Efficiency was the theme for most aspects of the camp; tall omniscient towers at the entrance required few guards, and the bunks were at an angle from the horizontal, allowing for more capacity in each stable.

We were taken round what was left of the camp. Once again, that strange smell from the previous camp lingered in the air. We heard about the selection process, and how mothers would throw their sons to the line of male prisoners so they would work initially rather than be murdered on arrival. It is a peculiar thought, a mother deciding that slave labour is best for their child, but it was the only hope for many. We also visited ‘Kanada’, the area where all the arrivals’ luggage would be brought, and prisoners would be tasked with retrieving valuables. At this point the size of the camp had not been realised until I looked back and could not see the guard house. It is very large, around 4 stories, pointed roof, contrasted against the blue sky. Yet I could not see it. This killing machine was horrendous, huge, vast.

At the International Memorial, some students offered readings, and a service was given by a rabbi. The rabbi spoke with passion and emotion. He emphasised the horror of the things which occurred, and spoke about how man’s biggest obstacle is man itself. ‘A minute of silence is normal when respecting the dead,’ the rabbi observed, ‘but to respect all those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, with a minute of silence for each fallen soul, we would be stood on that spot for two whole years’. He began singing a hymn. I am not religious; quite far from it. Yet I felt compelled to join in, as if I at least owed it to the memory of those who perished there, and I sang.

After the service, we were offered candles to light in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. When I lit my candle, that lingering scent filled the air again. I realised it was not a scent which reflected death, suffering, or anything negative. It was the scent of the memorial candles, placed around the camps, that I was smelling at every turn throughout this relic of hell. The memory of the dead, and their very souls, persisted. I thought back to something I was told in the cemetery in Oświęcim. ‘The rabbis believed that putting a stone at a grave was appropriate, since flowers were only afforded by the rich, yet everyone is on equal terms in death. And flowers die soon, whilst stones are immortal, like the souls of people living on through death.’ I placed my candle at the end of the camp train track (where millions were told to go left or right), and a stone next to the candle. The souls of the fallen live on.

The purpose of the trip was to rehumanise the Holocaust, and not only its victims but also its perpetrators. Agents of genocide are not irrational beings with different features to us. However, at the end of my trip to Poland, I initially despised humanity. I was appalled by its capability to commit such atrocities, to want to exterminate a group of people for as little as being different. It is so hard to comprehend. My granddad says that he lost faith in God the day that 116 schoolchildren were killed by a collapsing coal heap during morning assembly in Aberfan, Wales, in 1966. It therefore amazes me that Zigi is still religious, despite the horrors he experienced. He said ‘when asked “where was God when it happened?” I say the question is “where was man when it happened?”’.

Six years on, and I am more reflective than negative. I doubt I will be able to forget my visit to Auschwitz, nor will I ever forget the lessons I learnt from it. Reading about the Holocaust is incomparable to visiting the actual locations, or hearing the accounts of survivors, told by themselves. Since Auschwitz and Zigi I have visited Sachsenhausen and Dachau and listened to other survivors, each time understanding a little more about what humanity at its worst is capable of, each time feeling woefully out of my depth.

I think everyone should endeavour to make the journey to Auschwitz or indeed any other concentration camp at least once in their lifetime. It is not a hardship to spend just one day, not only to pay respect to the dead, but to also gain a perspective on one’s life which is hard to explain. The purpose is not merely to satisfy a morbid curiosity that I believe is normal to have if one has not witnessed, and therefore cannot comprehend, true horror. There are lessons to be learnt from the Holocaust that we as a people have not yet taken. Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur. What will it be next? Xinjiang? In the words of George Santayana, ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.’

Zigi told us we should not hate, as it kills us through the energy it takes. He also said that there is nothing we can do about the past, but we can do a lot about the present and the future, and it is up to young people, the most important people in the world, to make that happen. On both counts, I think he is spot on.

Further Reading

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