On 9th February 2023, we were lucky enough to be chosen for a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps in Poland. This trip was a huge eye-opener into the experiences of Jewish prisoners within these camps during the Second World War. One thing that particularly struck us was the wide range of emotions we felt during this trip as well as what we actually saw.
Though the emotional aspect was particularly high in the camp, there was still a lot to look at on the online courses. We had activities to do on the online learning platform for LFA. The one that I remember best had numerous case studies of Jewish people from different areas of Europe. One was a Jewish football team from Hungary, another a married couple from Czechoslovakia. It was astonishing to see the individuality of these people since Holocaust victims are typically viewed collectively. That message of individuality was pushed greatly throughout the project. Every person had a story, a family, and a home.
Similarly, the individuality was again shown when we got to hear the account of Holocaust survivor Eva Clark. Although Eva was born shortly before the end of the Second World War in Treblinka, another camp, her story was full of emotion as she recounted the hardships faced by her mother and father, the latter of whom did not live to see Eva. Despite this, the part that struck me in particular was when Eva and her mother returned to Czechoslovakia to find their entire family, besides one aunt, was gone. The idea of that loneliness made me feel a great deal of sorrow for Eva’s family, and I have immense respect for her since she remained composed throughout her story, which was both touching and slightly disturbing in places.
There was lots to see in the camps during the trip itself. Auschwitz I was a museum with pictures and artefacts from the Holocaust. There were clothes, suitcases and dishes from Jewish people all piled up behind glass walls. The most upsetting part of the trip was within Auschwitz I: ‘the hair room’. Though it is not actually called this, the room containing locks of Jewish women’s hair that was shaven from their heads before they entered the gas chambers almost brought me to tears. It made the suffering a bit too real. The model of the gas chambers with little people cramped inside was also disturbing. In another building, of which there were 27, there were pictures of victims with names and dates lining the walls. Looking at their faces was incredibly intense, not least because we saw pictures with women’s shaven heads right after the hair room. The book of names was, in my opinion, the most interesting part of Auschwitz I. The book was about 2-3 metres long with massive pages, each with hundreds of names of Holocaust victims. We were each asked to look within the book and choose one name. Mine was Samuel Wasserman. Not only was his name the first I saw, but since my name is Sami it was easy for me to remember. I still remember his name over a month later. That exercise once again delivered the key message of individuality. Walking through the gas chambers in complete silence was another emotional experience, as I could imagine the hundreds of people that once stood where I did for those mere 2 minutes, except I wasn’t screaming for my life.
Though there was no souvenirs of Jewish victims, Auschwitz II – Birkenau showed the conditions in which Jewish people lived. One thing that still haunts me is the room in which prisoners used to go to the toilet. From the centre of the room to the end ran a concrete cuboid with holes in the top of it. These were their toilets. They were given 2 minutes every morning and night in there. It was humiliating and insanitary. The bedrooms were also disgusting, with long bunk beds that would hold 8-9 people a bunk. Many died from cold since there weren’t enough blankets and many would release urine or stool on those below them, worsening the conditions that were already ripe for disease. The food was also minimal in portion size and nutrition, causing more death.
One positive emotion I hold from the experience is gratitude. I did not enjoy myself on that trip, and I’m not sure anyone would say they would. However, I got to represent the school, go to a unique and important place, and learn things that most don’t. I was also given the chance to read a poem aloud in front of everyone. Usually I’d be scared of someone laughing or judging me, but everyone quietly listened and appreciated the words of the poem. This proved to me that the people on this trip were chosen for a reason, and I’m glad to have been amongst them. The final part of the trip where everyone lit a candle and placed it at a memorial further emphasised the message behind this trip: stand together since hatred divides. There were many different backgrounds in the camp that day, yet we were treated as equals. This message of equality, as well as the individuality of Holocaust survivors, were my two key takeaways from LFA. It’s an experience we will always hold dear.
By Sami Zahid 12DGR & Zain Choudhrey 12IBE