It is now widely accepted that 1.3 million people (the majority Jews) died across Auschwitz.
It is not until you set foot within the confines of Auschwitz II Birkenau that you begin to fully realise the true scale of this brutal and systematic massacre.
Birkenau, referred to as the extermination camp, was the largest camp within Auschwitz and in 1944 held more than 90,000 prisoners at any one time. Fields stretch out a far as the eye can see. Some are still home to the stables, designed to hold 52 horses, but where prisoners, between 400 and 600, struggled to survive. Walking around them, even now you get a real sense of the atrocious conditions forcibly endured by these regular men, women and children. Those who made it that far that is. Many were directed straight to the gas chambers upon arrival, under the illusion they were being taken to shower rooms where they would be cleaned and clothed following their long and tiring train journey. The gas chambers, and the attached crematoriums, are no longer standing but their ruins paint just as haunting a picture.
It goes without saying that smiles are few and far between on this tour. And walking around a building at Birkenau where prisoners (the ones ‘fortunate’ enough not to be gassed) were forced to go to place their bags, get showered and collect their prison uniforms is the last place you would expect to find any semblance of happiness. The last room you visit though while walking around this building features an exhibition of photographs. After the camps were liberated by Soviet forces in January 1945 a suitcase was found packed with around 2,500 family photographs. Wedding photos. Baby snaps. Pictures of smiling families enjoying time together. Information found on the back of some of the photos has been used to detail who they were and what they did before the war. As sad as that is it shows that these ordinary people had lives, happy lives, before their persecution and in may cases, eventual extermination. Memories which no doubt helped them in their hours of need.
The tour finished with a memorial ceremony led by Rabbi Barry Marcus. “If we were to hold a minute’s silence for every victim of the Holocaust we would be stood here for nearly three years,” he tells us.
You spend all day trying to imagine what these people went through. It’s impossible. What’s not impossible is to remember what these people went through. Never forget.
- Personally, I cannot speak highly enough of everybody I have met associated with the Holocaust Education Trust. The Lessons From Auschwitz Project is not only an educational experience, it is a life-changing one. Please visit www.het.org.uk and take a look for yourself.