Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of the most notorious sites of mass genocide during WWII, contributing to the persecution and brutal massacre of over a million innocent lives. The trip was, of course, harrowing; however, we were also able to gain a vast amount of insight into the loss of lives, and also the constant resilience of those forced into such barbaric conditions throughout the Holocaust.
Our journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau began with an orientation seminar, where we were given the opportunity to reflect on the overarching Nazi ideology behind the Holocaust. We were able to reflect on this mass genocide on a much more humanistic level through hearing the testimony of Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper. His story left us marvelling at his ability to reflect on his devastating experience with such positivity, with no signs of resentment for what he and his family had been subjected to.
With Zigi’s story in mind throughout our one-day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we were able to consider the site of the massacre of over a million innocent lives on a personal level. Displays of confiscated suitcases, shoes, crutches, glasses and children’s possessions was heartbreakingly powerful. Learning of the programmes within the camp, such as mass-sterilisation experiments on women and Dr Mengele’s testing on twins, was challenging yet vitally revealing of the true nature of the inner-workings of the camp. Ending the visit to Auschwitz 1 by entering a gas chamber was inexpressibly difficult, and it was with that in mind that we entered Birkenau – also known as Auschwitz II.
The most striking element of Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) was the bleak and desolate appearance. The camp was constructed with the purpose of holding up to 200,000 prisoners at once, significantly more than Auschwitz 1, which explained its industrial size. The conditions of Birkenau were also considerably more barbaric, with prisoner "housing" originally being animal stables, and nine prisoners sharing one level of bunkbeds. The overcrowded nature of such a vast site put into perspective the overwhelming number of those who perished in the camp.
Ending with a memorial ceremony led by a Rabbi, unexpectedly brought hope to an otherwise hopeless place. He powerfully brought history into the present, helping us to reflect on the increasingly dangerous condition of current society and how we have the power to change hate into love. Through the Rabbi, and the LFA programme as a whole, we left a site of such loss with empathy and grief, but more importantly with a purpose to spread the core message of forgiveness, acceptance of others, and a desire to better ourselves. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not only a reminder of the acts of the Holocaust, it was more prominently a reminder to act to prevent such a tragedy from once again occurring.
Neha Gupta and Kiran Gill, Year 13