It is hard to explain the effect that a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau has on each individual that visits. There is no text book reaction; some cry, some stare blankly. For the many responses, there is one resounding and unspoken link between them – the realisation. There are not many that do not know of the fate of the 11million Nazi victims, 6million of those Jewish – we learn about it at school, the text books tell us all the facts. What I have learnt is that facts never prepare one for experience, for the realisation: putting a face, a name and a story to every one of the victims of the atrocities that took place at camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, and all over Europe. The figure 11 million translates in to individuals as you walk the stairs of the Auschwitz I labour camps, uneven under foot, worn from the tread of the prisoners and perpetrators who walked them before you.
Years after my visit, there are still a number of things that remain imprinted in my memory. It was a grey day, the sky heavy with rain clouds, I remember how it contrasted with the redbrick buildings of Auschwitz I. I thought it odd that all this time I’d imagined the place in greyscale – just like the textbook photos. Walking through the barracks, through the exhibits of victims belongings touched everyone the most. Behind the glass, now an artefact in a museum, were the keys of a man who locked his front door on the morning of the transport, hoping to return one day to the house in which he grew up. In a room full of human hair, shaved from victims on arrival at the camps, were the plaits of a little girl who was gassed and burnt in Birkenau, still tied with faded ribbons. We saw the photographs that victims brought with them – the wedding pictures, the birthday snapshots, the family portraits – photographs like you have at home; smiles, laughs and memories. In stark contrast, the registration pictures of the same people as they entered the camp, their eyes not full of hate, but pleading – pleading with us across the years to remember, and not only to remember but to learn. To learn a lesson from the senseless cruelty that caused their pain, to build stronger and more tolerant communities, to safeguard the future from such atrocities. These were people no different from you or I; they were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and aunts and uncles. It is true to say that ‘hearing is not like seeing’.
After we left Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous gate and watch tower, the gas chambers, furnaces, barracks and barbed wire were all as they were upon our arrival. The only trace that we’d been there at all were the hundreds of candles we left burning trackside. A small tribute to the 1.2 million who died there, to those who, in the face of adversity, resisted, and to those who lived to tell of the horrors that occurred there.
This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day marks the sixty ninth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling and soon there will be nothing but their memoirs by which to remember their suffering. The lessons I learnt from Auschwitz have stayed with me. I can speak for all of us when I say that we left those camps the same people but with a new determination – determined that we mustn’t tolerate racism or prejudice even in the minority, determined to tell people about what we had seen, to spread our knowledge, to give people a better understanding, and to encourage people to stand up for what they know is right. Above all we must never forget, and never let it happen again.
Scriptoeris notes: Grace has been an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust since she took part in their Lessons from Auschwitz project in 2008. The trust aims to educate about and show the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust as well as to help to combat all kinds of prejudice in society today. Its Lessons from Auschwitz project takes students from around the country to visit the camp, meet survivors and encourage them to take an active role in Holocaust remembrance and education upon their return.