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Holocaust Candle Day

A teacher of mine once told me that you should take every opportunity that comes you way and he was right. 9 years ago, an opportunity arose for me to be one of two students from my school offered a place on a trip to Auschwitz. The trip involved a pre visit seminar, a trip to the Nazi death camps and a post visit seminar.

The pre visit seminar was held in a synagogue in London. On the day we were prepared (or as prepared as we could be) for our visit a month later. During the day we were privileged enough to hear from a survivor of Auschwitz – Kiity Hart-Moxon whose story seemed harrowing yet somehow unbelievable. What Kitty was saying seemed almost alien, and until you have visited Auschwitz, I don’t think you can fully comprehend stories, testimonies, even pictures of what happened during the Holocaust.

At 1am on the morning of the 8th March 2006, I left my home and departed with my RE teacher and friend to take the trip to Auschwitz. Although the day was long, and the temperature was below 0, the memories I made on that day will be with me for life.

There are three camps which make up the Auschwitz complex, Auschwitz 1, which now holds the museum, where the famous ‘abeit macht frei’ gate stands, Auschwitz Birkenau, the second and biggest part of the camp which was designed as a purpose built killing factory, where the famous watchtower and railway lines are and Auschwitz Monowitz – a factory which was set up to create ammunitions for the Nazis. My visit entailed visiting both Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz Birkenau. People often try to describe Auschwitz, and I myself have been asked what it was like – I can never quiet explain what I saw and felt on that day. Some people talk about the quietness of the place, how not even a bird can be heard singing, and they are right.

My first thought on entering Auschwitz one was the normality of the place, just like army barracks, because originally it was. Auschwitz one now houses a collection of possessions seized from the inmates by the Nazis. Rooms filled with suitcases, artificial limbs, glasses, even hair. The most haunting part of my day was seeing a room, almost floor to ceiling with glass, full of shoes. I thought back to my own wardrobe and the shoes that I owned. How could a pair of shoes be worth more than a human life? I stood for what seemed like an eternity, frozen in that room.  The final part of our visit to Auschwitz 1 was a visit to a gas chamber. This is the only remaining gas chamber and crematorium left in Auschwitz due to the others being destroyed. The chamber we entered was only used for a few months before the purpose built factory of death – ‘Auschwitz Birkenau’ was completed, where thousands of people could be killed per day. The crematorium at Auschwitz one could manage but a small percent of this. What I remember is standing in the gas chamber, noticing the blood stained floor and the scratch marks on the walls where people had tried in vain to escape. The only reminder of the people that were once there.

My first thought on entering Birkenau (the second, purpose built killing factory of Auschwitz) was the vastness of the place. The only way I can describe it was much like a farm, only there were no animals and everything was so still. Birkeanu is a bizarre place. On my visit the ground was covered in snow and I was so cold even though I had several layers of clothing on. My thoughts turned to the poor people imprisoned there and how they must have felt, dressed only in a simple pair of ‘pyjamas’ with perhaps a pair of clogs. There are two parts of Birkenau which stick in my mind. The first is a part called Kanada, which was the sorting house for the belongings brought in by those who perished there. Today, there are photos and memorials to those who died, along with a few original documents. You can also walk in the steps of the inmates who would have been shaved, subjected to medical examination, stripped of their clothes and their dignity and tattooed ready for entrance to the camp. The second is a small pond, around which are several black slabs with inscriptions written on in different languages. The pond was used by the Nazis to dump ashes of those burnt in the crematoria.

One final memory I have of the trip was falling on a piece of ice whilst walking on the train track. My single thought was if I had been an inmate and done the same thing, I would probably have been shot there and then for being an inconvenience.

My trip to Auschwitz changed my outlook on life. It has encouraged me to promote the message of the holocaust. It is now a subject I dread teaching to my year 8’s at school when the studying the Holocaust in History, or suffering in RE.  Yet although I find it uncomfortable and unpleasant, I feel it is my duty to educate those who have no idea what happened 70 years ago.  Auschwitz will never leave my memory, and I would urge anyone who has the chance to go and see for themselves before the death camps fade away with age and decay.

The words of my teacher still ring true in my ears – take every opportunity you get, because you never know, like many who perished in the Holocaust, every opportunity may be your last.

    The Priory Federation of Academies, Lincoln