Spalding student’s life-changing trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial

The afternoon sun was fading in Birkenau as a procession of young Jews chanted alongside the railway track to hell, where around one million of their ancestors had perished.

Asthey headed towards the famous Watch Tower with their heads lowered, no-one knew whether the singing was in sad reflection or a joyous celebration that their civilisation had lived on.

A little light can dispel a lot of darkness. You leave today ambassadors of light

Rabbi Shaw

Until they had passed, a silence fell across the group of students, including a Boston College student who lives in Spalding, who were stood by a single cattle truck that had carried so many to their death.

The chilling moment came towards the end of a gruelling day trip to the memorial of the German Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

I joined a party of 200 students and teachers from across the region who were flown by the Holocaust Educational Trust to this monument in history to become ambassadors and warn others of what can happen when people are driven by hatred and fear.

Since the trust was founded in 1988, more than 28,000 students and teachers have visited the camps, but with the future of Europe as we know it in the balance, the trip was also a reminder that hatred or fear of different cultures has no place in this important vote.

The United Nations was set up in 1945 with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War.

More than 70 years have now passed since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland and the other Nazi camps - but conflict and suffering continues around the world.

Since the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial was established, it has worked tirelessly to make sure the prisoners, who risked their lives scribbling warnings to give us hope and burying them in the ground to be discovered after the war, did not eventually die in vain.

The words of George Santayana greeted us as we entered the Auschwitz memorial – ‘Those who do not remember are condemned to repeat it’. It was a stark reminder of why we were there.

Rhianna Berry, of Spalding, is studying equality, diversity and rights at Boston College. She said: “I honestly do think that Zigi Shipper’s message of ‘Don’t Hate’ is something that we really need to spread in Spalding and Boston. After seeing on the trip just what hate and prejudice left unchecked can lead to, I really do think that we should be stamping this out.

“It’s easy to follow the crowd and hate but I think it’s time that we all stop taking the easy route and stand up to prejudice. It could be something as little as holding a door open for someone not speaking English, but I truly believe that small gestures like this would reduce some of the tensions.

“I think in Spalding and Boston we should lead a culture of acceptance of difference and change.”

Our journey began in a cemetery in the Polish town of Oświęcim - where 58 per cent of the population before the war was Jewish and was completely wiped out. Here was a reminder of the ordinary families who lived there before the Holocaust, their gravestones replaced after the war because every trace of them had been cleared away by the Nazis.

Ten minutes down the road we reached the Auschwitz memorial, where students began their tour of the camps at the entrance bearing the words ‘Arbeit macht frei (Work makes you free). Lining the walls of one of the former barracks were haunting pictures of mainly non-Jewish, shaven-head prisoners who faced starvation and hard labour in the sub-zero winters. Under one of the pictures were the words ‘Wiktor Koszowski, born 1924 Poland, labourer, deported 1941, died 1941’

Another reminder that victims were not a number but were all individuals just like us awaited at Birkenau in the building where new arrivals were subjected to a painful selection process. Those deemed fit, who were not elderly or children and sent straight to the gas chambers, were robbed of their belongings, including the keys they had taken because they believed one day they would go home, tattooed with a registration number, shaved of all body hair, disinfected and forced through showers.

Hundreds of family pictures discovered in suitcases have been placed on a special display in the building to show the Nazis may have herded them like animals, but they were all human beings.

In a moving memorial service, Rabbi Shaw, whose pregnant grandmother survived the Holocaust, warned: “What happened in 1945 was not the end. A year ago I did not know I would be talking about the Paris massacre. Why do people prefer hatred and war to peace? Why cannot people understand we are all human beings with the same hopes and dreams? We are all part of this incredible thing called humanity.”

As students lit their candles to place along the track, he told them: “A little light can disperse a lot of darkness. You leave today ambassadors of light.”

THE HOLOCAUST

The Holocaust was the murder of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children by Nazi Germany and its collaborators in the Second World War.

For the first, and so far only, time in history a state and its 
accomplices attempted to murder every single member of a people.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was a Nazi concentration and death camp.  Auschwitz concentration camp was established by the Nazis in 1940 at a former army barracks in Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), a town in German-occupied Poland. It was 
initially established to intern the increasing numbers of Polish 
political prisoners arrested by the Nazis after the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

Auschwitz was significantly expanded in 1941, with the creation of new camps (notably Birkenau). All civilians living near the camps were evicted, with approximately 1,000 homes destroyed and others requisitioned for Nazi use. The overall number of people murdered there is estimated to be approximately 1.1 million people.

They included around one million Jews, 64,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs and 12,000 from other groups.

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