Sunday 7 April 2013

Stunned into Silence

Tonight marks the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day that we remember all the victims of the Nazi genocide. A genocide that many deny, others delight in and some wish to enact all over again. The amount of times I have been told to "go back to the gas chambers" or that someone understood why Hitler left some Jews and that was so that the world would understand why he killed the rest is horrific. Perhaps the world will never be rid of such ignorance and hatred but this post is not about that. Rather it is about my trip to Auschwitz.

Just over a year ago now I visited Auschwitz with my school on a History trip. I did not know what to expect. I mean I knew what happened - I had learnt about it in school; watched programmes about it; read books written on it but with all the knowledge on the Holocaust in the world nothing could prepare you for visiting Auschwitz. You can try and picture the horrors but no matter how many pictures you have seen; irrespective of the videos you have watched and regardless of the knowledge you think you have acquired, nothing will quite compare to actually walking around the crumbling death camp and experiencing the surroundings that were, for 1.5 million people, the last things they saw before their lives were cruelly taken. Sometimes I go through the pictures I took, 4 of which appear here, and try and remember how I felt walking around taking them but I simply can't. It is a place you have to experience to understand.

"To the memory
of the men, women and children who
fell victim to the Nazi Genocide.
Here lie their ashes
May their souls rest in peace."
Understandably, I was nervous on the coach ride there. I was worried that I would not feel anything inside, that emotionally I might not react as would be expected of a Jew.  I need not have worried. There was an eerie silence, a mist appropriately covering the perimeter of the camp and I instantly felt chills go down my spine. From the moment we got off the coach until we sat down for lunch and then until the end of the day, I do not think a Habs Boy uttered a word out of turn (if at all) and the only sound to be heard was the occasional clicking of a camera and the tour guide who every so often would say something about where we were. There was no obligation to listen to her, we were left to wander around freely and take in the site in whatever way we felt appropriate. Silently, slowly and subdued in our case.

It is impossible to take everything in. As I walked around, I was constantly hit by the thought, "This is a place that people were brought to be killed, the purpose of every building on this vast patch of land was to aid, in some way, with the killing of innocent people." Just think about that for a minute. It rendered me immobile on many occasions, whether I had just seen what remained of living quarters or heard stories of children being instantly separated from their parents. The whole thing is literally incredible.

Every so often I would walk close enough to the guide to hear what she was saying. Almost every time it shocked me, just when you thought the horrors of Auschwitz could not get any greater, they would. The most chilling comment, the comment that I can still picture her saying was as we were stood next to one of the memorials (to the left above). There were quite a few of those stone blocks dotted around, always appearing as fours - in Hebrew, English, Roma and Polish. We'd stopped, broadly in our group, gathered around the first set of four we'd come across when she uttered a few words that shocked me to my very core:

"...And it is a sad fact that wherever you walk in Auschwitz you are walking on the ashes of people whose bodies were burnt after the Nazis murdered them..."

She went on but I do not remember what else she said. I lifted my foot up nervously. You could not see anything other than grass but to imagine that, with certainty, you had stepped on the ashes of someone murdered by the Nazis, perhaps even a child, was an image that I do not think I will ever be able to erase from my mind.

The rest of the day followed the same pattern. We would slowly walk around, silently, and every so often something else would be seen or said that would shock us a little bit more. We would see a chimney of a gas chamber; an exhibit of all the hair shaven from the individuals at Auschwitz or hear about the trainloads of Jews arriving on those iconic railway tracks (below and above), many whom were immediately marked out for death. There was no rush, there was nowhere we had to get to and everyone took the day at their own pace. Boys paused and looked around, trying to understand what had happened there; trying to picture what 1.5 million dead bodies would look like but you can't. The more I thought about everything, the more I could not believe that something like this could have actually happened. And then it hits you, "But it did, it actually did." The moment of stunned realisation happened to me many times during the day.

I had never heard so little from a group of Habs Boys before. Of course, you could argue that is not surprising. Sure Habs Boys are loud and whatever else, but when it comes to it very few people, least of all supposedly intelligent ones, could be disrespectful walking around Auschwitz, so of course they were quiet, they were just being respectful. There was something else though. There was a feeling, at least for me, that even if I tried to speak words would not come out. That is what Auschwitz does to you, it renders you speechless so shocked you are by what happened on the very ground you are walking.

If you have not been to Auschwitz, I would recommend it as an experience that is incomparable to any other. You will not enjoy it, that is not the point, but you will learn a huge amount about the unspeakable inhumanity that humanity can show. A lesson that, unfortunately, needs teaching. Dwight D. Eisenhower is alleged to have said of the Holocaust:

“Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses -because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened,”

and how right he - or whoever said this - was. 

The systematic plans to exterminate an entire race of people from the face of the Earth is something that, hopefully, we will never ever witness again. That is what we mean when we say never again. 

Those words will stay with me for the rest of my life