Seeing Is Believing

posted 19 Jan 2009, 03:32 by alex@southedinburgh.net   [ updated 19 Jan 2009, 03:47 by South Edinburgh Net Admin ]
In 1940, when local prisons could no longer accommodate the mass arrests of Polish citizens, the Nazis established what would become the largest concentration camp for European Jews: Auschwitz. One in two of the 400,000 people registered was Jewish, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. And of all the prisoners — Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Soviet POWs and others — more than half lost their lives before liberation in 1945.

In September, two students from Liberton High School travelled on a school trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Chosen by the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, Stuart Wilson and Megan Bryant, with teacher Sharon Keane, acted as ambassadors for South Edinburgh while visiting the camp in Poland.

Here, The Echo’s voluntary reporter Stuart takes us through the experience.

5 a.m. Time to check in at Edinburgh International Airport. I am reminded this is definitely not your average history trip: More than 200 students and teachers, as well as press and MPs, are congregated in the departure lounge. Having been briefed about the day beforehand, the idea of a set routine for a day like this seems quite hard to stomach. I am not a Holocaust expert, but am more than aware that more than 5 million Jewish people alone were killed in camps like that of where I am travelling.

At the airport there is a sense of excitement, perhaps a disguise for the jangling nerves that are probably running through the majority of our minds. This experience was not going to be enjoyable — more of an eye-opener. Seeing a catas
trophe like this is much easier to read about than visit. Still, I am glad to be here and look forward to tackling the emotional obstacles that I will face during the day.

10:30 a.m. Having arrived in Krakow airport, we depart by bus to the town of  Oswiecim — translated into German as Auschwitz. The purpose of the visit to this town before the camp visit is to remember that the Holocaust is far too often regarded just as a vital and brutal statistic — 6 million lives lost. The Project encourages students to think outside the box, to grasp the realisation that before the Holocaust, these 6 million “victims” were normal, everyday individuals.

Oswiecim is very old, many of the buildings poorly constructed. The place had an air of depression, a lingering sense in the atmosphere that just several miles down the road in the fields lay one of the greatest genocides sites in history. It’s no wonder locals are more than fed up with visitors, who visit primarily to see the fields.

Oswiecim, however, had a strange and almost awkward feeling of home about it. Perhaps it’s the climate, or the landscape — but once you get past the descript buildings of Poland, it appears much the same as Scotland. The same sort of rivers, valleys and mountainous trees appear on the motorways, and this was perhaps my biggest realisation of just how many normal and innocent civilians died in the Holocaust. Before, I had thought of them as people from a foreign place do, with so little in common. Yet, the people living there could quite easily be mistaken for people living in Gilmerton or Gracemount - it’s the same day-to-day activity. There is work to be done in Poland, no point looking back at the past.

Indeed, the main purpose of visiting this town is to emphasise the fact that normality can be so easily disrupted. Before the Nazis took over Poland, 58 percent of the town’s population were Jewish and many great synagogues existed. Now no Jews live there, and only one synagogue remains, which we were allowed to visit and learn about the Jewish culture. One man’s ideas wiped out a small community — and the 42 percent of the population who were not Jewish did nothing when death was just over the hills and on their doorstep. To get a scale of this, just imagine going on holiday and returning to South Edinburgh to find everyone gone.

12:30 p.m. The hardest part of the day without a doubt. Missing lunch completely, we are taken to Auschwitz 1 concentration camp. Situated minutes away from Oswiecim, Auschwitz One was an old Polish Army barracks that was transformed into a camp for all Nazi enemies. In order to house the “final solution”, there were specialist guards sent to patrol the camp and issue work to its inmates. Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and Russians were all sent to the initial camp, all being told that “Work would lead to freedom”— the sign above the entrance to Auschwitz, for many the last sign they would ever read.

The camp houses images that the majority who know about the Holocaust do not see. Often forgotten about due to other camps in the nearby area, Auschwitz One had a classic barracks layout with steel and razor sharp wire almost suffocating the inmates and preventing any form of escape. On arrival, inmates were stripped, cleansed like diseased cattltle, given striped prisoners’ uniforms and sent to work. Any child under the age of 15 was killed immediately as with anyone disabled person or person older than 65. There was a small memorial to illustrate this, a story read to us of a women and child aged under a year old being shot by a firing squad.


The Jews completed grotesque and hard work. They had little rest; they had few comforts. Most Jews died of starvation, others of disease. We were shown the living cabins of the workers, one small room with a capacity somewhat bigger than purposely built for. We are told stories and then led to one of the day’s most harrowing experiences.

We enter a room, a memorial. It houses human hair recovered form the dead corpses of Jewish inmates. We see luggage cases containing the belongings of those Jewish people who treated the exercise, such as their innocence was, as a holiday. I start to realise that the belongings in the luggage were deemed much more valuable than that of Jewish life. Another room, another story — this time children’s shoes, piled up stories high after the gassing of children who were too weak to work. Imagine that, a room full of your children’s shoes — nobody to wear them.

We leave this building to enter the gas chambers, the source of 1.1 million people’s deaths in this camp alone. Realisation does not hit me, nor does it even brush me; such is the immense overwhelming power of disbelief I feel. How on earth could 1.1 million people have died in a room that seems no bigger that that of my schools P.E hall?

We leave Auschwitz One. At this point, I feel extremely strange, although the immense overwhelming power of this experience has yet to hit. Perhaps it’s the denial that only three generations before mine permitted this atrocity. I feel little remorse, as if I was at a funeral of someone I did not know. There is an emotional feel to the place, but it is yet to hit me. How would you react standing in a room where 1.1 million people have died? Crying is not the most normal approach; the most normal is to reject the idea, to believe it is someone else’s problem. That again is how the Holocaust happened in the fist place.

3 p.m. We visit what most associate to be Auschwitz. I had not realised that Auschwitz was more than one camp, but Auschwitz Two, or Birkenau, is a concentration camp that housed the overwhelming amount of Jews at Auschwitz One. They brought Jews to Auschwitz Two from places as far away as Malta.

On a shock scale, this camp significantly tops the other. The camp is enormous, stretching some distance. There is a watchtower planted in the centre of the camp entrance. The ground stretches out far beyond eyesight and there is the iconic rail track that runs through the place. On the left of the camp is the women’s barracks, the men on the left. Again, children were killed on arrival.

Without questioning the severity of what happened in these camps, I would much rather have been sent to the first Auschwitz. The second camp abounds with a natural chill. We visit in the summer and it is still cold. The barracks’ construction resembles more of a barn than a house. The barns should house 100 inmates. Our tour group consisting of 40 felt squashed. Jews were made to enter the huts 800 at a time. That’s the population of Liberton High School inside a room no bigger than their corresponding dinner hall. The toilets are simple holes. Eight-hundred people in the early morning, with only about 50 holes resulted in discomfort and spread disease.
Again, work was hard labour. We are told of people whose prime job was to search the dead bodies’ clothing for items that could then be sent to Germany. Others had to clean toilets with a bucket that they also ate from.

Emotion starts kicking in for me as I realise the nature of this camp. We see the separation ramps where innocent Jewish children were taken from their parents and gassed. From a teenager’s perspective, the thought of being separated from your parents in a time like that is unbearable. The trip concludes with a memorial service held by a rabbi. We are quiet, each individual with their thoughts and feelings. Here, the death toll was about 1.1 million people — twice the size of Edinburgh. We leave scaling the rail tracks, knowing that we are of a minority of people who were able to walk out this place. What amazes me is how the locals of Poland get on with their life, as upon leaving the place we encounter a busy main road.

9 p.m. Leaving Poland was like leaving any other place. For the small period of time I had been there I did indeed become attached to the place. Its simplicity and likeness to Scotland was very welcoming to me. However, the actual trip to Auschwitz was completely differing — a most harrowing experience. The fact that there is little left of Auschwitz Two, which is a mix of rubble and grass, shows that the Nazis were so embarrassed about what they had done that they had been intent on destroying it.

I would recommend the trip to anyone, that’s for sure — but it has to be treated with caution, for it’s important to distance yourself from reality when entering places like this. What happened at Auschwitz will remain in history as one of the world’s biggest tragedies.

Waking up the next morning, I think Auschwitz hit me. I am flooded with emotion, mainly that of sorrow for the amount of innocent life that had been lost in ethnic cleansing. I have been to a place suffocated in death and dismay. I did indeed learn many a lesson from this experience — especially to appreciate life’s smallest pleasures.  But what hits me most, and thus I wish to share with my community, is the role of the bystander in the holocaust. If there is one lesson I pass on from this let it be this: atrocities like this are not rare, and they still happen to day. In Africa, there is ongoing ethnic cleansing. Russia and Georgia have great tension right now. Even Britain has been culpable of holding prisoners in concentration camps, with Irish Political Prisoners being tortured during their respective troubles with our country.

The message I learned from this experience is that when atrocities like this happen, it is easy for us to distance ourselves from it. When we are safe, we can stand back, let it happen. But why do we not stick up for the oppressed? Surely, we would hope they stood up for us if the tables were turned. But how many of us can seriously say that we would stand up to overwhelming forces if it’s to save the life of a complete stranger?

- Additional reporting by voluntary reporter Patrice Holderbach.

The Holocaust Educational Trust is an organisation set up by the government intent to give students a real-life experience of understanding Holocaust events. The Trust empowers students to share lessons they learned with their local community in the hope of raising awareness and preventing future atrocities. For more information about the Trust and the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, visit http://www.het.org.uk and http://lfaproject.org.uk/home.

Auschwitz U-Turn
Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, has recently performed a U-turn on plans to shelve trips to European concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Last year, it was revealed that Ms Hyslop had refused to continue subsidising the trips, aimed at highlighting the dangers of prejudice and promoting Holocaust awareness. In December however, a statement announced that the Scottish Government would continue to provide the £214,000 a year needed to run the scheme.

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