Post-Trip Reflections: Part One

So, after all those nerves, all the reading undertaken and the anticipation of the trip, it has finally come and gone, quicker than I could have expected, too. Every part of it was worthwhile, even parts that were not as applicable to me as someone who is not an official educator in the Holocaust. I gained a wide perspective of different historical, sociological and educational aspects of the subject and subsequent education of it, as well as seeing more for my eyes with the specially-provided detailed tours, that are altogether double the length of a normal visitor’s tour. If anything, this increased my disbelief in such extreme horrors, particularly in Birkenau; having walked the entire perimeter of the camp and stopped at different places of importance for a total of three hours, the scale of the site is such that there was still plenty we didn’t have time to see. Furthermore, I can only really imagine the place as empty and quiet as it was the day we visited; I simply cannot comprehend hundreds of thousands of dirty, sick, starving human beings dressed in striped uniforms walking or shuffling around Birkenau, or simply falling to the ground and never getting up again.
That is why I admire people like Kitty Hart-Moxon so much. When she returned in the late 1970s to make her documentary, that must have been the sight that confronted her in her mind’s eye. “Forget the grass,” she also told her son, “because there was no grass. Just a sea of mud. If there had been a blade of grass, we would have eaten it.” Nowadays, the trenches once dug by prisoners are covered in a layer of green, and the forest and fields where people once waited to be gassed and cremated look peaceful and, as Kasha put it, “innocent”. As I have said in a previous blog, I am grateful that I cannot imagine such terrible scenes, because no human should ever have to witness such things, and I can only feel privileged that I was born in a different time in different circumstances, so that I will never suffer in the same way as those condemned to hard labour and death in the Holocaust, for little more than being ‘different’.

Many of the thoughts I had can be grouped into themes; the largest of these are presented below.

Many people say, “Hope dies last,” but my father is fond of saying, “Humour is the last to go.” When we look at the Holocaust, I would say the former is more striking, because those who survived had to hold on to the hope of surviving and passing on their testimony, when I’m sure there was not much humour to be found in a place like Auschwitz. However, the darkest of humour does emerge in such terrible circumstances. I remember, for example, learning about World War I when I was younger, and that some soldiers were buried in the sides of trenches. Their living comrades would bring some humour to the situation, and comfort to themselves, by shaking hands with an arm that might stray out of the earth as they walked past it. Holocaust survivors have also said how they have laughed with their relatives after being shaved and dressed into their uniform because they looked so unrecognisable and ridiculous.
Almost 70 years later, in a place where over a million people lost their lives, humour is still important, though the situation is, of course, very different. When confronting as horrific a subject and walking in and out of a concentration camp for nearly five days, those of us on the course had to keep a sense of humour about us, or I think the subject matter would have become too much. By this, I don’t mean cracking wildly hilarious jokes that left us in stitches; as we got to know each other, we shared light-hearted experiences that we’d had, or discussed opinions on different TV programmes and films as diverse as The Pianist to Superbad, Lawrence Rees’ documentary on Auschwitz to Monty Python.
The truth is – and I know I’m not the only one who thought this – in the glorious weather and the frequency of visiting, Auschwitz I did, at points, become far less intimidating. We were able to think of it as just a place of brick barracks, a place with shops and food and friendly people working in and around the area. However, we were all conscious to keep respect at all times and not appear as a sort of inconsiderate tourist group to other visitors. I have the utmost admiration, too, for people who work at Auschwitz, and I can only imagine they need all the light relief they can get when they get home each day.

Another coping mechanism I initially expected to be employed was the consumption of alcohol. If the days were tough, I would not have been surprised if people sat round after dinner with a drink in their hands. By this I don’t mean to have one too many just to escape the reality of the day, but just to aid to a feeling of relaxation after what was sometimes a 10-hour day focused on the Holocaust and Auschwitz itself. Fortunately – in my opinion, at least – this was not the case. Any drinks were had as a means of socialising – going to the bar in a small group just before dinner, for example – and no one overdid it. On the last night, as mentioned in a previous blog, some of us did buy a couple of drinks and sit outside into the early hours of the morning, but again, this was not to go crazy on our last night! I don’t think anyone could do that, really, when just around the corner the empty barracks of Auschwitz I stand silently, almost watching you.

It is of rather common opinion that Auschwitz must be ‘the most haunted place on Earth’, or at least one of them. Personally, I do not hold much belief in the supernatural or the paranormal, but I must comment on a few things that stood out for me.
Browsing through Google before I went to Poland, I saw that a number of people had remarked on how the birds do not sing around, and indeed, stay away from, Auschwitz. This is certainly not true of Auschwitz I; on the last day of lectures, I remember quite clearly seeing a group of starlings flying over the barracks, chirping loudly. Small birds can also be seen wandering about the main entrance, and occasionally flying into the trees around the camp.
Birkenau, as I remember it, is a somewhat different story. Perhaps it was because I was so engrossed in our tour, or perhaps it was because I only visited Birkenau once compared to the frequency of visits to Auschwitz I, but looking back I do not remember seeing or hearing a single bird. The trees and fields of the camp were completely empty of any kind of animals, and the whole area is, if you’ll excuse the juxtaposition, deafeningly quiet. Indeed, it is as though the local wildlife sense something about the area and choose to stay away.
In terms of ghosts, spirits, that sort of thing? No, I did not see anything like that. As I said before, Auschwitz became, dare I say it, almost a normal place whilst we were there. One course mate remarked that the place, “is like a small town – you can almost imagine children here on summer camp or something”. She is not wrong. Neither did I feel cold spots or hands grabbing at me, as I have read that others feel they have experienced whilst at the camp. The only occurrence that occasionally made me jump was the almost constant opening and closing of windows in different buildings. Sometimes, I observed, they would move when there was not even the slightest breeze. I am not saying that this was paranormal activity, but it felt to me as though each slamming of a window commanded you to be drawn back into reality, to remember where you were and to pay attention to what was being said or what was around you.
Perhaps the best way to explain it is through something that happened on my trip with the Holocaust Educational Trust in 2009. At the end of each visit, a memorial service is held at the international memorial at the end of the train tracks in Birkenau. Ours was conducted by Rabbi Barry Marcus. Poems were read and Rabbi Marcus gave a speech followed by a Jewish prayer, ‘El Male Rachamim’, commemorating victims of the Shoah. Afterwards Amrit, my friend who was also on the project, turned to me and said, “When he sang that prayer, I had the most odd sensation…It was as though I could feel all those who had perished here were here, listening in, from all around the camp, like the Rabbi was calling them home.” Amrit is a more spiritual person than I am, but I certainly understood what she was trying to say. This is, I feel, the best way to explain the opening and shutting of the windows; that not necessarily spirits, but an atmosphere in the camp, was making itself heard.

There is so much more I could write on these subjects, but not everyone has the time to read in such detail! But I may do another, shorter blog on further observations soon.