Everyone should visit Auschwitz at least once in their lifetime. Here is why.
Which are the bucket list trips everyone needs to do at least once? Encounter a rare bird in The Galapagos? See sunrise over Taj Mahal? See sunset on a Kenyan Safari? All worthwhile journeys perhaps. But to learn so much about humanity, our past and possible future, there’s no more important a place than Auschwitz. The site where likely the most people have been murdered in human history — over 1 million.
The last time I visited I was a teenager, going with my parents and a friend. The roles had been reversed this time, I the adult teacher with students.
Getting to Poland at all was a challenge. It was a bold aspiration to get students, even if they’re 18, to meet at London Liverpool Street at 4.30 in the morning. At 4.33, panicking at one student not being there despite the 4.40 train, I phoned her up. “Sir I’ll be there in 6 minutes”, came the casual reply.
Those kinds of margins can’t be pulled off. Uber to the airport on sir’s card it was. The anticipation of visiting such a maudlin site hovered over us on the way there. Yet one of the joys of being with teenagers is seeing things you are accustomed to through their fresh eyes. Such as the nervous excitement of waiting in line at security and then getting through it and being in a vast shopping mall at 5.30 in the morning.
The project we were on, called Lessons from Auschwitz is run by the Holocaust Education Trust for young people. The students were a similar age to when I first went. It is a place that tears away the layers of blessed naivety that keeps children from knowing what adults are capable of. The value of visiting Auschwitz is the many personal lessons you ruminate on long after you’ve departed that corner of South Poland. The reflections might come to you suddenly, in the middle of your daily routine. On the commute. While at work. So here are some that I learned, and in my sharing them I hope it might spark you to go too. You could, like us, even do it in a day. What more meaningful a way to spend a Thursday?
The presumption of the inherit stability of all societies, that ‘end of history’ carelessness, is shattered upon a visit to Auschwitz. We went to Oswiecim first, the town where the camps are on the edge of. In a square of classical European architecture, the guide explained that though the Jews had faced animosity here, generally they lived contentedly, side by side with the Catholic community. In the early twentieth century, the rabbi and Catholic minister of the cathedral would go round to each other’s for dinner. Then locals watched on as the Nazi occupiers forcibly deported the Jewish population.
The rabbi who accompanied the tour, addressed us on the site where the synagogue once stood, with the Catholic cathedral in the background. He felt sadness that this community had been destroyed. But also, pride. Pride that he as a rabbi was there and could speak. Yet this community moved from relative stability to sudden upheaval. Harmony, stability, are not things that should be taken for granted. As Kenneth Clark warned on the nature of civilization in the TV series of the same name: “However complex and solid it seems it is actually quite fragile, it can be destroyed.” Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. In gilded societies, more gratitude and awareness for what we have can generate more caution about protecting and even improving it.
We arrived at Auschwitz I first, which was built before the larger Auschwitz Birkenau nearby. That 6 million Jews and millions of other ethnic minorities and prisoners were murdered by the Nazis is common knowledge. But to go to Auschwitz is to go beyond an unfathomable number and to rehumanise the Holocaust. In the camp, different nations run the commemoration in the various blocks. In the middle of a room organised by Israel, there is a book of 4.2 million names and the person’s birthplace, which have been painstakingly collected. There is a similar book in the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. The Nazis tried to erase not just the bodies but also their identities. In Auschwitz, their ashes were thrown into the river surrounding the camp, their memory to be carried off into oblivion. “Find a name, any name”, the rabbi requested, stood in the room as different students streamed past. Read the name. Remember, connect and in that act of defiance you do your bit to challenge the Nazi’s goals.
The Nazis must be rehumanised too. The guide spoke of how Rudolf Hess, who ran the camp, was proud of his work. How he lived by the camp and would kiss his family before going off for a day of murdering. She asked students a word describe him. “Evil” was called out a few times. But if you call Hess evil it characterises him and his colleagues as inhumanely bad. One survivor though described how normal Hess looked. How he looked like a barber. To call them evil lets them escape accountability and neglects the reality that anyone is capable of terrible actions.
To go to Auschwitz makes you confront how far humans can plunge. Contrastingly, it can foster a protectiveness and care for your fellow human. The Jews were characterised by the Nazis as different, as subhuman due to their religion. In an age where identity politics can at times feel all dominant, Auschwitz is a needed reminder of the oneness and commonality of humans no matter the plural identities we possess. How often do we rob each other of our humanity in contemporary discussions and debate, and in particular on social media platforms? Auschwitz makes you think twice before you pour vitriol on your fellow human.
The power of faith emerges out of this bleakest of contexts. Outside an accommodation hut at Auschwitz Birkenau, we learned how former inmate Ellie Wiesel would wear Tefillin (the set of black leather boxes containing Jewish scripture) every morning as they prayed. An offence that if caught would be immediately punishable by death. Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor who married my parents, recalls getting angry at his father for using fat rations to create a candle during Channukah, the festival of light. Surely, they needed the fat to stay alive? The father replied candles give hope and without hope there will be no survival. Faith does not have to be based on religious beliefs. Victor Frankl was another survivor who had a humanist belief system. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he described how “everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” There is something to believing in something, to make sense of the world around us and develop our inner capacities. Better to have faith in something than a nihilistic cop out that sees life as meaningless or a self-obsessive narcissism that believes in only ourselves.
The murders of one million here was a huge logistical operation. A map of Europe in one exhibition room has a large dot of Auschwitz and straight red lines coming off it with all the locations Jews were transported from. The guide at the famous entrance of Birkenau where train tracks are lain, described how a small number of Jews from Corfu were transported from over 1,000 miles away. But who is responsible for their deaths? The person who arranged boat transport to mainland Europe? The technicians that maintained the train tracks? Auschwitz asks uncomfortable questions about responsibility. You do not need to pull the trigger to have done a harm. There are many global problems today where the outcome is devastating but the causation murky. Who bears responsibility ultimately for global warming? It is messy, confusing, hard to get the head around, but visiting Auschwitz can compel a reflection on what other grave problems the world faces today, and our small role within them.
By train tracks in the middle of Birkenau, an isolated train carriage stands. This was one of the many carriages that took Jews from all over Europe to here, their final destination. Once out the carriages and shoved into a line, families were divided, sent to survive or be killed depending on if they went left or right. Here is where Anne Frank and her sister Margot were separated from their father Otto for the last time. Ellie Wiesel describes arriving here in his book Night. We read an extract by the carriage:
“Men to the left! Women to the right!”
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.
Tears welled up as I heard these words. I could not help but think of my own separation from my mother, who was with me when I was last at this spot. Though an incomparably less savage parting to what Wiesel experienced, it was comparably upsetting in outcome. We must cherish our loved ones. How much do we see them? How far are we actually in the moment and present when with them? Versus distracted with our mind elsewhere or our fingers on a screen. How often I’ve heard in recent years after a loved family or friend dies: “I wish I saw them more”; “I wish appreciated them more.”
The day visit to another country was demanding. The rabbi at the end of day service, as shadows stretched out over the grass, spoke to the challenging things students had experienced and learned: the distances they had covered, the confusion they felt, the gripping cold. With such discomfort though, comes learning and development. There were two boys from the same school, huddled in their thin hoodies, going round in a daze by this point of the day. But it is a day they won’t forget. When we’re in a state of vulnerability, we are more able to empathise with those in far more challenging contexts. A safety-first culture, that protects young people from mental or physical tests, ends up leaving them vulnerable to a loss of possible growth.
Rituals of remembrance that are now routine are not indefinite. Those who currently lead commemorations in Auschwitz, whether our guide or the rabbi, are ultimately fleeting. So unless we pass the torch of remembrance onto the young, it likely won’t be picked up again. This would be a great self-inflicted wound. As Primo Levi warned on the Holocaust: it happened, therefore it can happen again. So go to Auschwitz at least once in your lifetime. Even if just for a day. Pay homage and mourn the murdered. And learn your own lessons to take away with you and share with others.