Finding words to describe Auschwitz

By Millie Beach (Union President)

Last term, the Union of Jewish Students invited me to join them and the Holocaust Education Trust on their ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ programme. It took me quite a while (just over two months) to write this blog. Predominantly, that’s because I just couldn’t find the words and, for anyone who knows me, you’ll probably understand that’s quite an unusual predicament! I felt awkward trying to discuss cold facts, disjointed with my personal experience, and then, after all, who am I to talk about a personal experience that pales into insignificance compared to so much loss and tragedy?

Our plane landed in Krakow just after 10.30am and we made the journey to Oswiecim, the town that neighbours Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of the most important elements of beginning to contemplate the Holocaust is to understand not just what’s there, but what’s not there anymore. We visited the site of the Great Synagogue, of which pretty much nothing remains. A similar thing can be said of the Polish-Jewish population, of three million Jews that lived in Poland before 1939, only around 15, 000 remain today.

The trip from Oswiecim to Auschwitz was short and it wasn’t too long before we were stood below that infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign. The rabbi on the trip with us had told us there was no correct way to feel at Auschwitz - some laugh, some cry, some don’t say anything at all, to some it’s a tourist attraction, to others, a pilgrimage. As we walked round and explored the brick houses that had been used to imprison people, people just like us, I felt what can only be described as a weight settle in my stomach. It made me want to cry from frustration and grief and find every single person who might have been affected to apologise.

Each room at Auschwitz has been turned into an exhibition of the artefacts left over when the camps were liberated. We looked at everything from handwritten register of prisoners, to photographs of the various detainees. There were massive collections of pots, pans, crockery and boot brushes. The shoes that had been taken from people were behind a glass display panel, some not dissimilar designs to what you might buy in Topshop now. We moved into another room, and as we approached the window, we found ourselves looking at human hair. When people were murdered at Auschwitz, they ensured that every part of the body was mutilated and used. The hair of Jewish people was used to make textiles and fill mattresses. For days afterward, I woke up and remembered the hair, still swept back and tangled with pins, as it had been cut off the head of older women. I won’t ever forget the plaits that were held in place with yellow and red ribbons, evidently plaited on a little girl’s head before someone sheared it off and likely sent her to the gas chamber (as a rule, women, children and the elderly were all murdered pretty soon after their arrival at Auschwitz).

The last part of this camp that we visited were the gas chambers - a room disguised as a shower room where victims were told to get clean, some were even handed towels and soap to maintain the illusion, before they were murdered.

From there, we moved to Birkenau where the railway tracks had been extended to run all the way into the camp, meaning that as soon as the prisoners left the trains, SS doctors were able to decide if they were fit enough to face labour, or only good for the gas chamber. There and then, families were separated and more than half were sent to their deaths. We visited a few buildings where our guide explained how thousands of individuals were dehumanised - cramped on bunks, having even their food and opportunities to use toilet facilities limited. Some point around then, my toes went a bit numb from the cold, and, I realised that the two pairs of socks and walking boots I wore were far more than any prisoner would have had, and the day was relatively mild.

At the railway tracks, we held a small remembrance service, lit candles in remembrance and listened to the rabbi as he blew the shofar and sang the Jewish prayer for the victims. It was such an important moment, as it stands as a direct challenge to those who tried to eradicate Judaism entirely, and failed.

We then travelled back to the airport, got on a plane, and I got back into York at around midnight. My experience of Auschwitz lasted only a day but it was an experience that will be with me for the rest of my life. For the next couple of days, I functioned in a sort of daze, feeling grateful for everything from a warm shower, to a cup of tea, to having hair to style. I found myself mourning millions of people who I had never met, and would never get to meet. I had never felt so disgusted by human cruelty, or so in awe of the human condition’s ability to carry on. We were told as we were walking around the camps, that a lot of the ground we walked on was made up of the ashes of the victims and I haven’t been able to wear my boots since, it just doesn’t feel right.

Being the literary geek I am, all I kept thinking as I walked around was of that scene in The History Boys, where all the questions are raised about Auschwitz, where do they eat their lunch? Do they hold hands when they visit? And Bennett’s question “What if you were to write this was so far beyond one's experience, silence is the only proper response?” If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that it is beyond important that we continue to visit the site, and continue to talk about it. We don’t need to explain it, but If we stop talking, there is a risk that this may happen again, and we, as humans, have a responsibility to not let that happen.

The 27th January is National Holocaust Memorial Day - YUSU has worked with JSoc, the Uni and the City Council to support and host a series of events. Please attend, listen, and don’t be afraid to talk about it.

You can find out more about the events here