A sixth year pupil at Brae High School, MARIA IRVINE and fellow student Clare Stout made a trip to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland last September through the Lessons for Auschwitz project, which was set up by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Here, Maria gives an account of what she learned.
Three million. That’s a lot of people. Certainly too big for a single Shetlander to comprehend, who comes from a county whose population cannot even fill what people down south would class as a “small” football stadium. The figure instantly washes over you. But one thing that hit me hard during our short memorial service in the camp was the speech that Rabbi Barry Marcus, who is a martyr of the Holocaust Educational Trust, made: “To put it into perspective, to reach the equivalent of the total number of deaths in Auschwitz, we need to have 9/11s everyday for about four years. Or even more recently, it is the equivalent of having a 7/7 every hour for about year.” Or, as I have calculated, it is roughly having every Shetlander randomly murdered about 136 times. But enough about the figures. Worst of all, none of these three million people did anything wrong. Each and every one was innocent. And that is what the Lessons for Auschwitz project is all about – remembering the fact that all of the Holocaust victims were as normal as you and I. Before the Nazi oppression, they lived their lives the same way as any other civilised people, the only difference being religion. They were very unfortunate to have their dignity and their lives stripped from them by the monster of the Nazi regime.
On the 9th of September, Clare Stout and I, along with about 250 other sixth year pupils from around Scotland, went to Edinburgh to attend the opening seminar of the project. Here, we had a brief introduction to what the Holocaust was about and learned that the victims were as ordinary as any other person, a fact normally white-washed over in some versions of the Holocaust. We were shown photographs of some of the victims and what their lives were like before the Holocaust – holidays, birthdays, first bike … all landmark events in any culture. This personalised the victims to all of us.
We also heard testimony from a survivor of Auschwitz, Kitty Hart-Moxon. She explained to us her outrageous journey through that terrible time, fleeing Nazis, being separated from her family and, of course, the terrible conditions of Auschwitz itself. They were treated as cattle. Those who did not suffer the fate of the gas chambers suffered from raging disease, exhaustion from being overworked and malnutrition. Kitty described her survival as “pure luck”, due to her working in a less dangerous place in the camp and her mother being there, one’s support keeping the other alive. It was very hard to believe and to relate to the fact that the woman standing in front of us had been through this terrible experience, constantly fighting to keep herself alive.
On 18th September, we went to Poland itself. We first visited the town of Oswiêcim next to Auschwitz, and went to its Jewish cemetery. We were shocked to find what awaited us. There were piles of stones, pieces of what were formerly gravestones, lying around under some of the trees. This was the result of an anti-semitic attack in which 39 gravestones were smashed and swastikas were painted on the walls. This attack was carried out in 2003. Anti-semitism still exists in Poland to this day, which I feel is deeply shocking. There are no Jews left in this town – the last Jew was a victim of the Holocaust who died in 2000. According to the curators, he is the only person in the graveyard whose body lies under the correct gravestone, as the others have been used to pave roads. Bits of broken gravestones have been put together to make a monument, which is liberating in some way as it shows respect.
Then we moved on to Auschwitz itself. The overwhelming experience itself is indescribable. It is hard to describe how you feel when you are walking on ground where many people have died, a place of mass suffering, and the fact that you can walk out of it alive whereas three million people didn’t. But here are some of the bits that I found the most shocking and overwhelming: a wall where many flowers had been laid where thousands of people had been shot; one of the huts that displayed all of the personal belongings of the victims – millions of suitcases, pairs of shoes etc. But the most daunting thing I saw was a display case about the average size of one of the classrooms back in Brae filled with women’s human hair … how could a person look at that and not feel the slightest bit overwhelmed? Another thing was the place where the person in charge of Auschwitz – Rudolf Hoess – lived with his young family (he was hanged after the war).
Also, standing at the top of the watch tower in the second of the three camps in Auschwitz and trying to comprehend the sheer size of it; seeing the rubble of what were formerly gas chambers where millions of people lost their lives; standing at the place where thousands of families were separated and saw each other for the last time; looking at the photos of victims that had been discovered in the camp only a few years prior to our visit while having a young Israeli Jewish group holding a memorial service in the background; my list could go on …
As we discussed in our follow-up seminar on 25th September, it was all too emotional to take in in one day. But I have learned a few lessons out of this experience. One is that we should all be proud of where we come from and should do our best to preserve our local heritage, as it can easily be wiped out of existence by a strong force outside of our control. Another is that we should treat all cultures and other people’s beliefs with respect, to make sure that this monstrous mass genocide does not happen ever again. Also, one of the biggest lessons of all is to appreciate life itself. How lucky we all are to live in the way we do and that we have not suffered, and hopefully will never have to, what those unfortunate innocent people had to endure.
I would therefore like to thank the Lessons for Auschwitz project and the Holocaust Educational Trust for giving Clare and I this once in a lifetime opportunity that opened our eyes to the fact that racism, no matter how big or small, must not be tolerated. We would also like to give a special thanks to our group leader (we were separated into 10 groups) Emma Mckean who had catered for any extra needs. In other words, thanks for the sandwiches! The sadness of this story is that racial hatred and war still exist to this day – in small and large forms. Some people even deny the fact that the Holocaust itself occured. Well I can tell those people, personally, that it did. I have seen the evidence. The main and most poignant reason out of the whole lot is that this must never be repeated ever in the history of mankind. As Jerry Springer said when he followed the Holocaust trail in search of his ancestors on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are: “I wish I could tell you that this happened 800 years ago in the past, however, it happened in my parents’ lifetime, my lifetime …” One of the emotions I went through was disbelief that where I had stood, millions of people died, some even younger than my grandparents. But they did. Thus, I can never wear the trainers I wore that day without being reminded of the silence of Auschwitz.