By Joshua.Chambers

13 Jun 2012

Here, government is generally seen as a benevolent institution with limited powers. Joshua Chambers has visited a place that demonstrates how, without democratic control, government can be chillingly, ruthlessly effective

It’s sunny in Auschwitz. The seasons don’t stand in sombre remembrance, and neither do the birds singing in the nearby trees. Most humans, too, spend little time reflecting on the horrors of this place: it’s instinctive to block out painful parts of our history. And that’s why the Holocaust Educational Trust exists – for as the philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it.”

With this sentiment in mind, CSW joined 200 London schoolkids on one of the 14 annual visits run by the trust with Department for Education funding. Also in attendance were three local MPs and a group of civil servants from the welfare department and the Foreign Office, all seeking to pay their respects and learn more about this black spot in the history of humanity.

Humanity is important here, because the Nazis carefully dehumanised their Jewish victims before murdering almost six million using industrialised processes. It’s impossible to imagine them all, and difficult to contemplate the acquiesance or involvement of all elements of society – including civil servants.

The trip’s message is particularly important to civil servants, then, because we’re used to seeing the state as benevolent but flawed and constrained. The Holocaust shows just how much power a government can wield, and how horrifically effective it can be. Adding to the experience’s power, the trust prepares people for the trip ahead by running a seminar at which a survivor gives their testimony.

Here, we’re told that the purpose of the scheme is to examine the lessons from Auschwitz, not the lessons of Auschwitz. “You will come away with thoughts and contemplations that will last you a very long time,” says Susan Pollack, a Hungarian Jewish woman whose family was murdered in the concentration camps. Then she tells us of her life, detailing the anti-Semitism she faced in Budapest. The Holocaust wasn’t an isolated event, she explains; it arose out of a tide of anti-Semitism that was allowed and encouraged to develop. Pollack tells us that she continues to speak of her experience, difficult though it is, to “challenge the process of dehumanisation.” We may hear of the Nazi genocide – many of the pupils are studying it – but our natural propensity to ignore distressing thoughts prevents us from fully understanding what occurred.

Aushwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the Nazi death camps, but it wasn’t built in isolation. In fact it sat next to a small city, which until the war had a large Jewish population; so our first stop is a visit to the town, and the site of its Great Synagogue.

The synagogue was burned to the ground in 1939; all that can be seen is a scruffy patch of grass, near some houses and a large cathedral. Over the peal of triumphant churchbells, our guide explains how the Nazis didn’t just kill people: they tried to kill their religion, their culture, their way of life.

We then visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, one of three sites in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Auschwitz 1 was built as an artillery barracks, but later converted to imprison Jews, gypsies, Russians, political prisoners, and others deemed untermensch.

We enter the camp as tourists, walking underneath the famous sign with the greatest lie of all: ‘Work sets you free’. Some of us are wearing sunglasses, and a pupil remarks that “it feels so nice, I can’t get my head around what happened here.” On this hot spring day, though, we’re reminded that the summers can be scorching here, and the winters bitterly cold. We have the luxury of leaving again – but some of the prisoners who arrived here only lasted a few hours, with the younger children particularly vulnerable.

We are told of 10-hour roll calls, of beatings and suicides; but the greatest shock for me is the cells in one of the barracks blocks – and this is long before we even see a gas chamber. We walk through the corridors of the makeshift courthouse, past pictures of hundreds of men, women and children photographed by the Nazis. Their arrivals are all documented; and, a few months later, so are their deaths. We descend into the basement, peering into the dank, dark caverns where people were kept to die. The standing cells are particularly shocking: tiny spaces with no room to sit or lie down, where many died of exhaustion after working a 10-hour day. I stop taking notes. This part of the trip is one of the most shocking and shaming. Afterwards, no-one makes eye contact or speaks for some time.

The Nazis kept records of most of the millions of people they interned and murdered. We see pictures of children about to undergo experimentation; of emaciated victims; of truly desperate people. Then we see the things that the prison guards took from their victims: the huge, tangled piles of spectacles; the shoes; the suitcases; the hair, shaved from people’s heads and used to stuff mattresses and make uniforms. “The enormous mound of hair was chilling, the sheer size of it – and that wasn’t all,” says Sue Breeze, an FCO civil servant. “As a mother, the thing that got me was the little girl’s pigtail plaits. It’s barbaric that people can be so systematic and ruthless about killing other human beings.”

Only then do we walk past the tavern and brothel, and into the first gas chamber. Our large group squeezes into the space, but vast numbers more would have been crammed in there to die. Tracks lead out through the door; they used to carry the carts transporting bodies to the ovens.

Auschwitz shows plenty of evidence of industrialised murder; but it was Birkenau that was designed from scratch as a death camp. Seven villages were razed to build it, with 1,000 homes destroyed. It was chosen because of its central location, which gave easy access for trains from across Europe. We see rail tickets that victims were tricked into purchasing, thinking that they were moving to a new home.

Indeed, a train line runs right into the camp, beneath an archway made famous by the film Schindler’s List. A tower offers a panoramic view of the site, whose scale is difficult to take in. Many of the buildings have crumbled, with only rows of chimneys left, but the sheer size of the site is enormous.

We enter one of the remaining blocks. It was initially built as a stable for 52 horses, but during the war housed 400 people. There were hundreds of these blocks, with people crammed into tiny bunks. The roof doesn’t touch the walls, so in the chilling winters – when the temperature was -25 degrees centigrade – the cold winds would blow straight through. The toilet block is an enormous shed with a row of holes in a concrete block. People had a couple of minutes to use them, before being taken to work – or to their deaths.

We see the giant gas chambers: deliberately destroyed by the Nazis, they dwarf the scale of the one we’d entered in Auschwitz. Earlier on the tour, we’d seen a picture taken with a smuggled camera of Jewish people burning the bodies of other victims. Now we visit the spot where the picture was taken. There are more horrors, but not enough space to detail them all.

One pupil can reel off statistics about the camp, but tells me that “seeing it makes it seem real.” A teacher says that “from a personal perspective, it helps me to better explain these events”; to teach them in a way that will encourage empathy amongst his pupils.

The guided tour ends in one of the shower blocks, where we see pictures of victims in happier times. The curators want to re-humanise people; to ensure that they’re remembered as more than just a number.

Finally, before we depart there is a sombre moment that also brings some joy. Rabbi Barry Marcus, who works very closely with the trust, leads us in a service, giving a memorable sermon that includes a traditional Jewish prayer. He stands there proudly, displaying his religion in a place designed to eliminate it. As we walk back along the railway tracks, we pause to leave memorial candles; we have taken far more away with us.

After the trip, there’s a further seminar in which pupils reflect on their experiences and discuss how they’ll spread the message in their schools. They’ll join the 14,000 pupils who have already been on the trust’s Auschwitz tours and then held assemblies, invited survivors to speak, and written articles. Meanwhile, the attending civil servants all stress the value of the scheme, and say they would recommend it to others.

The trust believes that “hearing is not like seeing”; and indeed, the value of the Lessons from Auschwitz scheme is to experientially remind us of something that we would instinctively like to forget. For all of us, especially those in positions of power, that’s a very important purpose indeed.

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