Lessons from Auschwitz is a programme established by the Holocaust Educational Trust, where it gives the opportunity to two students from each school participating to be a part of the programme. The programme consists of two seminars and the trip to Poland. The first seminar is where you meet your Educator and your group; it is where discussions are had and opinions and views voiced on the Holocaust. We were fortunate enough to also be able to meet and talk to a Holocaust survivor, Steve Frank. It was very interesting to listen to him and learn what it was like for him as a ten year old to live in Auschwitz and be one of only seventy three children to survive. Steve Frank mentioned something that hit home with many of the students – “each day the amount of children were getting less and less until you could count them all on your hands.”
The visit to Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau gave all the students the opportunity to be present in the grounds where such tragic events occurred. This gave us a real life perspective on what the people went through. As we approached the end of Auschwitz-Birkenau the guides left us in a room where thousands of photographs hung on walls; these were photos which had been brought and hung by people as keep-sakes of themselves and their families. These photos were a way of showing the human side to the victims and stopped them being seen as just a number in a graph, on a map, in a textbook, on a shelf - left to gather dust.
Many years later, a poem was found within the soil of Auschwitz-Birkenau written by one of the Nazi Guard, it read “I only had one job, it had to be fulfilled.” Later on, investigators also discovered many other letters and poems that had been written and left by the Jews in the hope that they would be found and read one day.
Any thoughts people have about what Auschwitz is like are completely different to the reality of it. When you first step into Auschwitz you know immediately that your expectations were wrong. No one can imagine what it was like and the just the scenery surrounding the camp helps to explain it all; it is eerie and uninhabited.
Being open minded helps when processing all of the information being communicated throughout the tour. We ourselves knew very little about the Holocaust and were therefore open to hearing as much as possible in the little time we were there, but it turned out that the words we heard were not what affected us the most, it was what we saw! Any thoughts of what we imagined we would see were gone and we were left feeling shell shocked.
Rabbi Garson spoke to everyone at the end of the day and he couldn’t have been more inspirational. He spoke about three things - fear, hunger and evil. Do we really understand what those words mean today, because for the Jews those words came to have a very different definition? What we feel as fear isn’t the same as the fear they felt - when we think we are starving, they were actually starving and how whatever we believe evil is, they saw true evil. Realisation of these facts hit home to us at that point, not only where these people tortured and killed, but they were dehumanised as well.
The atmosphere travelling back was the complete reverse of the journey there. Small conversations were heard between new friends all processing the day and sharing their thoughts. The groups went from chatty and humorous to quiet and thoughtful; no one could immediately process what they had seen and to be honest nobody really wanted to believe it.