Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and death camp in southern Poland where an estimated 1.1m people died during the Second World War. Of those killed, the majority were Jews while the remainder included Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and prisoners of conscience.
Last autumn I visited the camp as a guest of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). Launched in 1988, the HET is a charity that aims to ensure that generations of young people today do not forget the atrocities that occurred at the camp and others like it across central Europe. The HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz project aims to increase awareness and understanding of the Holocaust and remind people what can happen when racism and prejudice become acceptable. The Trust is partnered with secondary schools and colleges around the UK and strives to enable as many pupils as possible to travel to Auschwitz. The day I went I joined almost 200 sixth-form students from the west of Scotland. Students subsequently build on their experiences by sharing them within their communities.
Our day began with a stop in Osweicim, the small town where the several camps that comprise Auschwitz-Birkenau are located and where a local Jewish community had lived prior to the war. We visited a cemetery where the gravestones had been hastily repositioned once the war ended – we learnt that upon annexing Poland in 1939, the Nazis had dug up Jewish stones and used them to pave roads. We then entered Auschwitz I, the former Polish barracks repurposed as a concentration camp in 1940. Beyond the chilling ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work makes you free’) entrance, we found piles of hair, glasses and clothes, as well as a gas chamber that we entered.
In the afternoon we travelled the short distance to Birkenau, the purpose-built camp that lies behind the infamous railway track and archway. It’s here that the vast majority of victims died. At Birkenau our guide explained how prisoners from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe would arrive by train, believing they were in transit to a new life in ‘the east’. Many did not survive the journey due to the inhumane conditions on board. We saw the four brick facilities where prisoners were gassed with the lethal Zyklon-B pesticide on an industrial scale.
I was struck by the systematic nature of the camp and the tragic events that took place there. The site was operated so methodically to achieve maximum efficiency in answering ‘the Jewish question’. Visitors learn how Nazi officers carefully planned how best to expand the camp and increase the capacity of the gas chambers. By the spring of 1944, as many as 6,000 prisoners were being killed each day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In order to prevent other inmates from hearing the screams inside the chambers, officers would park trucks outside and rev the engines.
Our day at Auschwitz ended with a memorable ceremony held next to the destroyed Crematoria II. The ceremony was performed by Rabbi Barry Marcus of the Central Synagogue London and included readings and a moment of reflection before we placed memorial candles at the end of the railway track. The pupils participating in the Lessons from Auschwitz project were visibly moved and left with some valuable memories to share with classmates back home in Scotland. The camp is as relevant today as it was when it was liberated seventy years ago. Only last month Prime Minister David Cameron visited and today some of the camp’s few survivors will return to reflect on their experiences.
Today Auschwitz serves as a crucial reminder of the evil humans are capable of inflicting on each other. It shows us the horrors that are possible when prejudices are left unchecked and extremist political groups are able to capture the hearts and minds of populations in difficult times.