'Lessons from Auschwitz' Project (West Midlands), Wednesday 13th February 2013

Those who have read previous posts on this blog will recall that I became properly involved in Holocaust education after participating in the Holocaust Educational Trust's 'Lessons from Auschwitz' (LFA) Project in May 2009. On Wednesday 13th February, I made another trip to Auschwitz as part of the Project - but this time, as a member of staff.

The day began at 4:00am, when I arose and later met my fellow team members in the foyer of the hotel we were staying in, close to Birmingham International Airport. I had been asked to take part in a West Midlands project due to living in Birmingham during term-time and because of my position as a Regional Ambassador to the West Midlands. I was given the job of Logistics Two, a relatively straightforward role that mostly involved ensuring everyone was in the right place at the right time, and answering to Logistics One.
We proceeded to the check-in desk in the airport, where students were already gathered, passports out, most accompanied by anxious-looking parents seeing them off. It was a busy time: last-minute drop-outs had to be amended on registers; phone calls were made to find the check-in desk; photocopies of passports were handed to me to sort into a large folder, should they be needed. We then went through security checks and boarded the plane, which departed at 07:00am.

A small smattering of snow lay on parts of the ground in Birmingham when we left, and there was a definite chill in the air; Krakow, on the other hand, was blanketed with the stuff, the temperature already below zero when we arrived about 10:30am local time (one hour ahead of the U.K.). I had to ensure that everyone boarded the right coach, and that the numbers added up. Once we were satisfied that we had everyone, we set off from Krakow. Each coach was heading to the town of Oswiecim, but divided before arriving at Auschwitz. Three coaches went on to the old Jewish Cemetery in the town. The headstones are almost totally misplaced after the Nazis pulled them out to use as paving stones during the war, but they have been reorganised neatly, even if it is unknown whose grave they really mark. It is also the final resting place of Szymon Kluger, the last Jew to live in the town, who survived the Holocaust and returned to live there until his death in 2000.
The other two coaches (one of which I was on) visited the site of the former Great Synagogue in Oswiecim, and the more modern Jewish Centre that is housed nearby.
The Great Synagogue stood for many years, until the Nazis burned it down in 1939. Today, there is nothing but a sign to commemorate where it once was. Educators and their groups stood on the site and talked about its history, before we moved on to the Jewish Centre.
I had previously visited the Centre as part of my course in Auschwitz last year, which is the very event that began this blog. This time, however, we were joined by Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the Central Synagogue in London. Rabbi Marcus is quite incredible; he has been on every single LFA Project that has been held, and there have now been more than 100 of them. That is without mentioning the other trips he has taken with teachers, religious leaders and others.
At the Centre, he discussed the basic necessities of a Jewish synagogue and explained the importance of burying old prayer books and keeping the Torah intact. He also pointed out that the burning of Torahs and scrolls on Kristallnacht, in 1938, was intended to show the Jews that the Nazis wanted to completely exterminate the religion as well as its people. Fascinated students took photos of the small synagogue that sits in the Centre (although, with no Jews left in Oswiecim, it is sadly only really a showpiece); each male participant wore a skullcap as he wandered around, as requested by Jewish custom.

A little while later, we boarded the coaches once more and made the short journey to Auschwitz I. By now, the snow was falling thickly, and one's face stung from the biting cold. Groups and their Educators met with Auschwitz Museum guides and began their tour of the camp.
Having toured the camp four times, and not wanting to be in anyone's way, I sought some warmth with the Logistics team in an on-site café. The window in front of me looked out on the back of the main building; occasionally, members of staff appeared outside for a cigarette. I could have been in any regular café, not the world's most notorious former concentration camp.
I wanted to take the opportunity to take a short walk around the camp to see the newly-created Liberation exhibition in Block 14, funded by the Russian government, but also to pay my respects. As I walked through the main entrance, I saw a small group of foreign students having a frantic snowball fight, not too far from the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate. I was livid and wanted to say something, but who am I to tell others how to behave in such places? Perhaps, unfortunately, that was their way of making the situation easier to deal with.
The new Liberation exhibition is well-presented and doesn't contain too much of the 'shock' factor of dead bodies everywhere. Artefacts from the liberation have been preserved and are on display, as well as a plethora of copies of documentation and photographs.
I then walked to the first gas chamber and crematorium with Kate, a new member of staff at the Trust. We stood in the chamber, observing the scratch marks on the walls and the ovens of the crematorium. A Chinese tour group then arrived, some carrying video cameras and recording every nook and cranny of the building. When will that ever be watched? It isn't exactly a video for relatives to gather round and watch, I'm sure, I thought.

As 3:00pm approached, I gathered near the coaches once more. This time, I would be travelling on the first coach to leave for Birkenau with Rabbi Marcus, so that we could begin to admit students up to the infamous watchtower at the entrance.
Silence descended over those in the coach as the watchtower came into view. We unloaded the coach and began directing groups up the tower, so that they could try and gage the sheer size of the camp, especially compared to Auschwitz I. "Remember," Rabbi Marcus had announced on the coach before we arrived, "what you are looking at was all designed. Someone had to think this up, draw the maps, collect the materials. This was all purpose-built for one thing."
I had been up the watchtower once before, but wished to go up to see the camp in the snow, as I had only ever been to Poland in the warm summmer months before. As I ascended the stairs, I pictured an SS guard in uniform taking exactly the same route.
I walked to the windows that look out on the camp at the same time as a couple of girls that had come up behind me. One of them gasped and could only manage to say, "Jesus." Due to the snow and cloud, the visibility was much poorer than normal; you could not even see the memorial at the end of the railway track from the tower, giving the impression that the camp was never ending.

Once again, the groups dispersed whilst I sheltered from the cold in a small refreshments room inside the main tower for a while. I almost felt guilty having the chance to keep warm and eat my lunch in a place where such comforts were prohibited. As it approached 5:00pm, Kate and I began the long walk down the camp towards the Sauna building, where a short ceremony would be held. On a clear day, you can see mountains to the left of the camp, and industrial chimneys to the right; on that day, you could see nothing beyond the barracks. It was as if the whole world had become nothing but camp, which made me feel even more immersed in the experience of the visit.
As we strolled through the wooded area at the end of Birkenau, I saw something I never thought I would see in such a place. On the path ahead stood a female deer. We gasped, and perhaps it heard us, as it dashed back in between the trees. Slowly and carefully, we walked further, and saw four or five deer amongst the trees. Two of them quickly ran out, including a male with large antlers. They ran off beside the old sewage containers, furtively crossing the small ditches in between. Later on, whilst walking out of the camp, I saw hoofprints running up and down parts of the trenches near the railway track. How ironic, I thought, that there should be such life in a place designed for death.

The ceremony that is held at the end of each LFA Project trip normally takes place outside, at the end of the railway track. It was decided, however, that it was too cold, so students, staff and guests huddled into the last room in the Sauna, which contains a permanent exhibition of photographs found in Kanada after liberation.
It began with four selected students reading poems, including 'First they Came' by Martin Niemöller and 'Shema' by Primo Levi. They were introduced by Tom Jackson, the Lead Educator from the Trust on the trip. He then handed over to Rabbi Marcus for the rest of the ceremony.
Rabbi Marcus began by reading out Psalm 23, 'The Lord is My Shepherd,' joined by a mumble of those around who recited the verse with him. The Rabbi then sang the Jewish prayer 'El Male Rachamim' for victims of the Holocaust. It is a beautiful but haunting prayer, and each time I have heard it, I have almost been moved to tears. Indeed, on this occasion, the quiet sniffling of those clearly affected by it could be heard. You can hear a recording of this prayer here, although it doesn't do as much justice as hearing it in person in such significant surroundings. As it is sung in Hebrew, the full English translation is provided here:

O God, Who art full of compassion, who dwellest on high,
Grant perfect rest in Thy Divine Presence to all the souls of our holy and pure brethren
Whose blood was spilt by the murderers in Auschwitz, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka and other extermination camps in Europe;
Who were killed, strangled, burned and buried alive for the sanctification for Thy Name, for whose souls we now pray.
May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden, may the Master of Mercy shelter them in the shadow of His wings for eternity;
And may he bind their souls in the Bond of Life.
HaShem is their heritage, and may they repose in peace in their resting places.
Now let us say: Amen.

The Rabbi then spoke passionately about what it means to him, as a Jewish person, to visit Auschwitz, and how important it is for the next generation to continue Holocaust education.
"Mankind is amazing," he said. "Look at what we have done even in the last 50, 100 years. Today you are going to sit in a bucket in the sky and fly home! Man can cover all distances known to him, except one...The distance between human beings."
The ceremony was finished with the Rabbi blowing on a shofar, a type of horn used in Jewish ceremonies, and a minute's silence.

Earlier on in the day, everyone had been given a candle to light before they left the site. The whole group began to walk back to the entrance. By now it was around 6:30pm; visibility was slightly worse, and the dark closed in all around us. I tried to imagine what it would be like as a prisoner in this place, barefoot in the thick snow, freezing cold in one thin layer of clothing, hearing screams and shouts and dogs barking...but I couldn't. The place is just too empty and quiet to even begin to imagine that. Besides, the experience of surviving a concentration camp is something I cannot even begin to relate to. We were guided by torches to make our way up the long path beside the railway track, which made me think of the lights that would have scanned the camp all those years ago. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked, as the SS guards' dogs would have done. It was certainly an eerie experience.

There were approximately 200 of us on the trip, and we all assembled again at the watchtower. Candles were lit and placed underneath the main arch of the tower, on the railway track. A few dim lights were soon joined by hundreds of candles, placed on a cart at the top of the track and down the rails themselves. People stood to take photographs; others just stood by quietly, staring at the small flames dancing in the breeze. The whole experience was incredibly emotional, and once again I found myself fighting back tears. I was one of the last people to leave, ensuring that everyone had gone, and I stared up from the candles to the top of the watchtower.
I felt a sudden surge of anger go right through me. You Nazi b*stards, I thought to myself. You thought you could kill a whole people, and win. But you didn't! You lost! You succeeded in killing millions, but we are here now, remembering them, just as we still will be in many years to come.
I finally tore myself away from the scene, checking the numbers on the coaches before setting off. As we left, I turned back, and saw a bright glow underneath the arch. It comforted me to think that that would remain for a little while after everyone had gone, as though it would be a reminder to those who died there - and possibly the spirits who still linger there - that they have not been forgotten.

We arrived back in Birmingham Airport around half past 10 the same evening. It had been a long day, and after winding down with the other staff in the hotel, I didn't end up getting to bed until 01:00am. It was, however, a poignant, unforgettable experience, even on my fifth visit, and I would quite happily work for the Trust again on the Project.