EARLIER this month two Forfar Academy pupils, Eilidh Collins and Matthew Steel, made a one day visit to the former Nazi extermination and concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau near Kraków in Poland.
Organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project seeks to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and to highlight clearly what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.
Although Eilidh and Matthew were the only two pupils from Angus on this particular trip, there were around 200 pupils in total, from all around Scotland, involved.
They flew into Kraków Airport and then the pupils, plus the associated educators from the HET, boarded coaches, which would take them from Kraków to Oświęcim (Auschwitz), which was about an hour’s drive away.
A Rabbi accompanied them and as they travelled around the town of Oświęcim, he told them that Oświęcim was a very vibrant town, a town just like any other before the Holocaust.
After briefly visiting the town itself, the group travelled on to Auschwitz One, the second largest of the three Nazi-led concentration camps at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz One was originally an army barracks and these buildings remain today. A tour guide showed them around the camp and told accounts of the atrocities that happened there.
The camp was originally just for Polish prisoners but as Hitler’s mass extermination started, it changed to hold any type of prisoner. The former army barracks were extended by the prisoners themselves, under the instructions of the Nazis, by building another storey onto the single storey barracks so that the camp could hold between 15,000 and 18,000 prisoners.
Auschwitz One today is like a museum with each barrack holding objects that tell of what life was like for prisoners during the Holocaust. One room, which was about fifty feet long, was filled with the human hair that was shaven off prisoners. Another room was filled with shoes that were taken away from prisoners to be used ultimately by those in Germany.
After the museum-like Auschwitz One, they travelled the short distance to Auschwitz- Birkenau, the largest of the three camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a former army barracks. It was purpose-built in 1942 over 400 acres for the mass extermination of Jews and any other race, with which the Nazis did not agree. The layout was organised like a factory with Jews in one part, gypsies in another and so on. It was clear that the Nazis viewed the prisoners as objects, not people, judging by the appalling living conditions as well. At the far side of the camp from the entrance, there were five huge gas chambers which could kill 1500 people per day. Beside the gas chambers, which were blown up by the Nazis, were the burners which would have to destroy the bodies after death. The ashes were then dumped in a nearby river.
At the end of the day a service, conducted by the Rabbi, was held at the memorial beside the gas chambers to remember those who lost their lives throughout the Holocaust, not just those at Auschwitz.
It served as a reminder that we must never forget what happened. When the service finished, the group left the camp and travelled back to Kraków for the flight back to Glasgow and the day at Auschwitz was finished.
“How does one even begin to explain a visit to Auschwitz death camp?
“All describable emotions seem too weak to be used in such context. To be in a place where so many people were mercilessly murdered at the hands of the ruthless Nazi Party is beyond lucid comprehension. To walk where so many took their final steps, to breathe where so many were denied that simple privilege, is, for me, always going to be a little past the realms of the explainable as far as emotions are concerned.
“However, there is one emotion in particular that I can describe; anger. Anger that humanity is capable of such a monstrosity. Anger that so many people were not just killed, but done so in the most horrific ways. But most of all, anger at the fact prejudice still, after the horrors of the Holocaust, seems to have a place in today’s society.
“Auschwitz is the type of place that demands you to rearrange your priorities. For me certainly, I returned to school the next day with a sense that trivial things were somewhat less significant than they’d been prior to my visit.
“Far too often, we take for granted the small things in life, and don’t appreciate all that we’re lucky enough to have.”
“It is only by visiting Auschwitz that I truly understand what the Holocaust was and what it meant for the people affected by it.
“We may read about the Holocaust in books or learn about camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau in school but the trip to the camps themselves not only aided my understanding of the Nazi Holocaust but also taught me the lessons we need to learn from the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi-occupied areas of Europe.
“Auschwitz-Birkenau today is somewhat of an educational tourist attraction, a place that is not feared. But during World War Two it would have been a place that was feared, an appalling place where mankind would commit acts of torture against mankind on a daily basis.
“I could still get a sense of the nature of torture when I saw the dismal living conditions and the huge gas chambers that would kill innocent people, a thousand people at a time.
“It made me realise that there is no place for racism or persecution in our society because, at the end of the day, all of the killing and hardships that the Jews and other prisoners suffered were the result of one man’s hatred of a certain race of people.
“The only difference between racism at a basic level and the racism shown during World War 2 is that the racist was given a lot of power.
“This, to me, shows how dangerous racism can be.”