Four students, Peter Hopwood, Oliver Boyd , William Howe, and Ciana Lynch Quinones participated in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust in November 2019. This is a report of their visit.
6,000,000 Jewish lives were taken in the Holocaust in the systematic murder carried out by the Nazis during World War Two, but every single person making up that 6,000,000 was an individual with their own life and their own story. Back in November, four of us Godalming students went to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the surrounding town of Oświęcim to learn not about the numbers but about the people behind the figures.
The first of which we learnt about was Zigi Shipper who survived the Holocaust, but also talked about life afterwards and how he felt fortunate to have gone on to meet his long lost mother, start his own family, and live to share his story through the Holocaust Educational Trust. More than a mere number, Zigi now shares his 88 years of life experience and is far beyond the disrespecting of being reduced to a statistic. Getting to hear Zigi speak before departing for Poland was extremely moving - his story of the Holocaust was a deeply personal account that left us seeing the Holocaust from an entirely new angle, finally understanding the importance of humanity and hearing personal stories about the Holocaust.
Following up the talk from Zigi with a day trip to Poland, we then went into the small town outside the Auschwitz camps known as Oświęcim (which the Nazis renamed to Auschwitz during the war). Once a thriving epicentre of Jewish life in its own right, the town has since been absorbed by the shadow of the genocide that took place there. A number that has been used as a mask for the Holocaust is that this town was once home to 8000 Jews, until the population was quickly decimated over the war until none remained. However, each of the victims had different stories - they were either taken, fled, or tricked into moving away for Nazi promises of work. Once again, it is proven that there is no way for numbers to fully explain the Holocaust - each story is a personal and individual account.
Drawing the trip to a close, we made our way over to the camps which housed the horrors of the Holocaust to bear witness to the stories of the people once forced to live there.
An extremely emotional point was seeing the shoes of many of the victims who were sent off to be murdered in the gas chambers - seeing the personal attire of victims in such a large scale reminded us of the personal lives and the magnitude of how many individual human lives, varying in age, were taken. Seeing the sites and hearing Rabbi Epstein speak of personal stories of many victims, especially about the resilience of many in Jews holding onto their faith and customs even when contained in Auschwitz, was once again extremely moving and helped us in understanding the different lives of those affected. For example, being told the story of Kitty Hart-Moxon and how vastly different her experience was to that of Zigi’s highlighted the variation experienced within the Holocaust. There was no single universal experience of the event just as there is no universal person; each and every victim was different and led their own individual lives with their own individual stories.
An extremely striking point during our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was the understanding that the perpetrators of the genocide, such as the camp commander Rudolf Hoess as well as the guards, were simply fellow human beings yet capable not only of being compliant, but actively willing to engage with such atrocities. We learnt about how Hoess lived with his family very near to the sites where mass murders were being committed and reportedly spent a lot of his time with his family. Additionally, we were asked to reflect on everyone who played a part; the train drivers, the police officers, the collaborators etc who allowed the Nazi Government to carry out the genocide. For some of us, this part was the scariest part - learning that it was the willingness of individuals to cause such harm to their fellow human beings that allowed the Holocaust to happen - and it’s why we must remember the Holocaust and that we never allow it to happen again.
The relevance it has to our world today couldn’t be more important; learning about the complacency in the genocide from so many people, the failure to challenge systematic hatred, the willingness for humans to allow the methodical murder of fellow humans - we must never allow any of these things to arise. Numbers and statistics tend to dominate all talk about the Holocaust - numbers like how many were involved, how many died, how many survived - but there’s a lot more to the Holocaust than that. At the end of the day, everyone had a different experience and to erase the individual stories through skimming over statistics is to be ignorant of what the Holocaust was: the slaughter of real individuals and their real lives.