Lessons from Auschwitz

Adrian Leong (Hong Kong, UWC AC 2010-12)

‘Those who do not remember history have to live through it again,’ so says the sign hung on the wall in Block Four in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in a Polish city called Krakow.

On 15/2, Ida and I, on behalf of Atlantic College, took part in a project called ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’, one part of which involves an excursion to the concentration and extermination camp; previously, we have listened to a Holocaust survivor, Kitty Hart-Moxon, describing her experience in Auschwitz. Her testimony was no least an account of the appalling events that happened from 1940 to 1945, one of the darkest times in European history. Although her sharing did help us to prepare ourselves somewhat for what we would encounter in Auschwitz, being there ourselves was quite a different story.

We were not directly taken to the camp. Instead, we first paid tribute to the last standing synagogue in Oświęcim (or more widely known as its German name ‘Auschwitz’)—a town once populated by Jews. Before WWII, 7,000 Jews lived in Oświęcim; today, only 7,000 can be found in the whole of Poland. Such statistics show the extent of damage The Nazis induced on the Jewish community that once prospered there.

I believe the purpose of taking all participants there was to let us see for ourselves how the Jews used to live before the war, and take notice of the development of Anti-Semitism during Hitler’s reign. There is an obvious contrast that could be drawn between the Jews and the Nazis regarding their values. The Jews, according to the Rabbi who talked to us in the synagogue, bury used scrolls and bibles instead of dumping or burning them. From this, we can imagine how the Jews must treat each other—with respect and love, because how else can someone who treats books and scrolls with such care treat fellow human beings? The Nazis, on the other hand, burnt books, destroyed synagogues and later burnt human beings without the slightest sense of integrity.

The next part of our journey was a visit to Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. Auschwitz consists of three parts: Auschwitz, Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz (Auschwitz III). We were greeted at the entrance by the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (which means “work will make you free” in English) sign that was erected in 1940 at the same time when the complex was constructed. There is a clear distinction that has to be drawn between a concentration camp and an extermination camp. The former aimed to‘re-educate’ prisoners, mainly Polish male in the first two years, through labour, while the latter had a specific purpose of murdering deportees upon their arrivals.

We were first brought into Block Four which had been turned into an exhibition venue, just like a handful of other blocks. Historical photos and items were on display, one of the most shocking items was a train ticket that the Greek Jews had to purchase in order to board a train. They were told that they were being ‘resettled to the east’ and were promised a new future—what happened to that promise? How could the Nazis have confiscated valuables they had brought with them on their journey? Why did the Greek Jews and others have to go through non-stop train journeys where they were deprived of food and water for more than a week, and crammed with other deportees at the same time? How could all of this have happened? Who allowed such tragedies to take place?

Later we were also told that there were different jobs offered to the men and women selected by the Nazi physicians, who determined the life and death of the new arrivals. One of most horrendous jobs was offered to them at the crematoriums. It involved dragging up dead bodies from the gas chamber underground, shoveling the corpses into the furnaces to be burnt, and finally the extraction of gold and hair from the human ash. Those who worked at the crematoriums weren’t offered any other job ever since, because the Nazis implemented a rotary system whereupon people responsible for that work were murdered and then replaced every few weeks. That was to ensure that these people who knew too much about what went on there couldn’t spread the word—they were housed individually in separate facilities and completely cut off from the rest of the community; they were ‘a special group responsible for special work’.

Heaps of belongings taken away from the Jews and others were shown to us in Block Five: luggage cases, shoes, prayer shawls, children’s clothing and dolls, cooking pans… the list goes on. The prisoners first had their belongings, then their loved ones, and eventually their own lives taken away by the Nazis. From the items on display, it was clear that not a single life was meant to be spared—children, women and elderly alike were all targets of genocide. There, the most shocking heap was no longer prisoners’ possessions—it was the hair of female prisoners. It was discovered that every female, upon arrival, was not only stripped of their rights but also their hair. Their heads were shaved and then the product was sent to German textile companies and woven into textile rolls. A total of two tons of human hair, dried above furnaces, was reported to have been sold.

Strolling down the paths where Nazi soldiers and detainees including Jews, Gypsies and Poles once walked on, I felt the heavy weight of history. The stillness and solemn atmosphere of the place told me this much: when we begin to lose respect for one another and categorize people into ‘superior race’ and ‘sub-race’, humanity falls apart and our actions turn into something grotesque; when we are confronted by injustice and our lives almost stifled by torture, we must acquire a fortitude to safeguard our integrity and dignity; when we show indifference and keep silent at times which warrants decisions and actions, others suffer as a consequence of our inaction.

Even today’s world is fraught with brutal violence and mass killing in different parts of the world—Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, just to name a few. As a matter of fact, in the UK alone 639 anti-Jewish incidents were reported last year.

Hegel, a German philosopher, has once said that ‘the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.’ Are we going to let another genocide or massacre to happen with our ‘silent approval’? Or are we going to take these lessons from Auschwitz in order to preserve humanity?

(This Sunday,27/2, we will travel to Cardiff City Hall again to discuss within our group the experience we had in the trip, and how we will take this forward. A discussion/sharing will be held by us in the college in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.)

-United Words Magazine-

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