October saw the Trust's 100th visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of our Lessons from Auschwitz project. In this blog, first time educator Catrina Kirkland reflects on her experience of the milestone.
All Lessons from Auschwitz visits are special. Each is unique. Yet my first visit was the 100th, and we were accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP, giving it extra poignancy. The day I spent as an HET educator, leading a group of 17 sixth-formers, is one which will always remain with me.
Our visit started at the Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim. We reflected on what was lost during the Holocaust. We were reminded that the Jewish faith required burial – the final right taken from over one million Jewish people killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were reminded that there was no Jewish community there now. We discussed how the cemetery had been destroyed under the Nazis, and how returning survivors reclaimed the tombs, returning them to the cemetery, unable to place them with any certainty over individual graves. We explored the tomb-stones of individuals, which told us of loving parents, successful tradesmen, and religious leaders. Here there had been a Jewish community. Now there was not. As one student reminded us, we had gone to the cemetery to “rehumanise” the victims of the Holocaust. We had a brief glance at what had once been.
Our second site was Auschwitz I, infamous for its “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. ‘Work sets you free’, the sign reads. As our guide began to lead us through the site, I heard some students say the camp was not as they had expected. Perhaps it was the sunny day which seemed juxtaposed to the site. Or the buildings which, at first glance, seemed innocuous. Or the number of visitors, whose choice to honour the dead had in fact brought a sense of life to the camp. But most likely it was that it was not the buildings themselves which told the story of the Holocaust, but the artefacts they held. As we were guided into each barrack, courtyard, prison cell and, of course, the remaining gas chamber, we talked of the purpose of the camp. It would not be “work” which freed the inmates, but death. When we met again, almost a week later, the students were still reflecting what they had seen in the camp’s many, many glass cabinets. They spoke of baby clothes, human hair and piles of shoes with a reverence suggesting that these objects had spoken to them of the personal cost of the Holocaust – rehumanising those who were lost, once again.
On arrival at Birkenau, one teacher reflected on the eerie quiet pervading the site. A student spoke later of how at one point the camp was all that was visible as far as his eye could see. What struck me was the emptiness. At the edge of the camp, amongst the rubble of the gas chambers, we became gradually aware that there was not another soul in sight. Though all knowing we had arrived in a cohort of over 200, as we looked across the vast expanse of the camp, we realised that, to all intents and purposes, we were quite, quite alone.
Our day finished with a ceremony of reflection led by Rabbi Marcus who has been on every one of the 100 LFA visits. Students shared readings from Holocaust survivors and individuals who did not survive life in the camp. And Nick Clegg read Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Discussing the ceremony afterwards, students told me how they felt Rabbi Marcus’ comments about taking responsibility were directed to each of them and how they had to “do something” to educate others. This is, of course, the aim of the LFA project.
As I reflect now on my own “Lessons from Auschwitz” I take most of my lessons from the students with whom I was lucky enough to spend the day. Their generation is charged with the task of telling others of the Holocaust on behalf of the survivors who are becoming fewer and frailer with the passing of time. Our future is in the hands of this generation; and within them there is a core of articulate, committed, intelligent young people, all of whom have vowed to tell you of their own “Lessons from Auschwitz”. Please, please listen to them. They have much to say and they do so want to be heard.
Catrina Kirkland is an educator at the Holocaust Educational Trust.