This autumn the Godalming History department offered 4 students the incredible opportunity to participate in the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ Project. This project is run by the Holocaust Educational Trust and involves a one-day visit to the former Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau which is situated in Poland.
To take part in this exciting project we had to submit a detailed letter of application explaining why we thought we should be chosen. Schools and colleges across the country were invited to select their two most interested students to come together for this event. Luckily for us, we were given more places - the four students selected from Godalming were Naomi Waters, Ella Norris, Laura Martin and Grace Musgrave.
The first event was an ‘orientation seminar’, where we discussed in groups pre-war Jewish life and heard a first-hand testimony from a Holocaust survivor, Rudi Oppenheimer. This was a very powerful experience; Rudi told us all about his life before the war and the friends that he made before being Jewish made his family ostracised from the society that they had been such a part of. A young family of 3 small children, they managed to avoid deportation until June 1943, when they were rounded up and finally sent to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. He described the appalling conditions and the struggle for survival as increasing numbers of Jewish prisoners were brought to the camp from Auschwitz-Birkenau and elsewhere. Overcrowding, starvation and disease were rife. In January 1945, Rudi's mother fell severely ill and died. Rudi was only 13 years old. No one gave him the chance to say goodbye to her. She was simply taken away. His father died just two months later. Liberation came only a month after this. Even in the liberation period he experienced further trauma - becoming separated from his little sister and being returned with his older brother temporarily to a concentration camp, also holding captured SS officers and prominent Nazis. Miraculously, the three children did survive, were reunited and moved to restart life in Britain.
This very personal account was both fascinating and devastating and brought home to us all present the shocking and unbelievable assault on the lives of so many ordinary people, whose communities were shattered. Understanding this is very important to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust; they want to spread the message so that all people across the world understand what happened in the holocaust and the reasons why, so that nothing so destructive will ever happen again.
We thought about his story on our trip to Auschwitz on a freezing cold day a week later. Even with Rudi’s account it is impossible to envisage what took place. To try and place yourself into the situation is too horrific to bear. We saw mountains of hair, which had been shaved off the heads of every prisoner on arrival and thousands of shoes piled high, all that remained of families and children. A horrific scene and one which we could not express in words but could certainly not forget.
The total loss of identity that the victims of the Nazi regime experienced is so shocking that the people and events risk becoming an overwhelming statistic. Despite this, there are still survivors, and we believe that is important to carry forward their stories to the next generation, so that the truth of what took place can be better understood, and never accepted again. Our next step is to take this message to a modern day audience. We are intending to go on Eagle Radio in the spring to talk about our experiences and the importance of tolerance in our multi- cultural society. Becoming ambassadors of the Holocaust Trust has given us the unique and valuable opportunity to keep this discussion alive.
By Naomi Waters
© Photo by Yakir Zur