What I learned at Auschwitz

Our young blogger Charlotte writes about how the Holocaust still has relevance to our world today.

On January 27 2017, the 17th annual Holocaust Memorial Day was held in the UK. Having visited the most infamous death camp of the Holocaust, Auschwitz, in November 2016, I would like to share some of my gut reactions to the visit, most notably the Holocaust’s relevance in today’s world.

The Holocaust refers to a period in history, roughly from 1933 to 1945, in which the German Nazi Party sought to destroy all of Europe’s Jews, most notoriously in industrial death camps such as Auschwitz. Approximately six million Jews were murdered, as well as other groups of people whom the Nazis considered enemies of the state. Every year since 2001, the UK has commemorated the victims of the Holocaust on 27th January – the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, which the Allies seized in 1945.

Before I recount my experience there, I’ll begin with a quote from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, from January 26 2017, which I found on the BBC News Website. In tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides across the world, he stated that the Holocaust “holds up a mirror to our times.”

Notice his use of the present tense: although it happened over 70 years ago, the Holocaust still serves as a despicable standard against which we can measure our own society. To me, the Holocaust is. It still represents the darker side of human nature. It was more than an attack on a race of people; it was an attack on humanity, and therefore still is an attack on humanity.

When I went to Auschwitz in November I felt utterly unprepared. I had heard all the clichés: I would be moved to tears as soon as I walked in, and would immediately empathise with the people who had died there. Only when you arrive do you realise that it has the opposite effect. It depletes your emotions; you feel only stupefied as you tread a floor on which over one million people were murdered. I remember only a vague sense of how utterly small I felt. The only time I began to feel anything akin to realisation as to where I was came at the strangest of moments.

We had arrived at Birkenau, the second Auschwitz camp, built for the sole purpose of industrialised murder. Back at the first camp, the biting Polish cold had not yet taken hold, and I had not needed my hat. I left it on the coach again at Birkenau, thinking the same would apply here. Half an hour later, I was regretting my decision as evening set in and the chill in the air became malicious. I was not allowed to go and get my hat because we were too far away from the coach.

It was as though my emotions were suddenly unlocked by my frustration. Exhausted from the plane ride and the three o’clock start, I looked at my surroundings; the miles upon miles of desolate wooden barracks and the infamous, bleak watchtower that has become the face of the Holocaust, and cried for the first time that day. It began to hit me that over one million human beings had died here.

My visit resulted in my humanisation of the Holocaust. Before Auschwitz, I had thought of the Holocaust’s victims as simply statistics. “Six million Jews” trips off the tongue. However, if you think about how many people you know, and how many people they know, you begin to realise the scale of the tragedy. The perpetrators were also human. It is easy to portray a perpetrator as some primitive monster; a higher being, even, a different species of human to me and you. Evil they may have been, but evil is still being committed today by completely ordinary people. Reinhard Heydrich, a notorious Nazi whom Hitler himself proclaimed “the man with the iron heart”, was a family man and played the violin.

I would like to end with another quote, this time from Primo Levi, a world-famous Italian scientist who survived imprisonment in Auschwitz:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. Most dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”