Auschwitz-Birkenau

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”-Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor

Sixth Former, Aaron Gruen, writes: Waking up at four o’clock in the morning is not everyone’s prime idea of how to start a Leave Weekend. But for 24 pupils in the Sixth Form and four members of staff this is exactly how it began.

A two-hour plane journey took us to the town of Krakow, still well preserved from the war with a slight ‘boutique’ feel to it. It was not possible to imagine that the mass murdering of around six million people took place only a one-hour bus journey away from this pleasant town. Following lunch in town we walked to Krakow’s beautiful ‘Wawel Cathedral where Pope John Paul II was a Bishop and then enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of free time before heading to the oldest Jewish restaurant in town where a group of “Klezmer” musicians accompanied a hearty meal.

This sounds like quite an idyllic trip and, as a matter of fact, up until that point it seemed to be just so (apart from the -15°C temperature!). None of us were prepared for the excruciating six hours that would be spent completely outdoors at Auschwitz. Our first stop was the camp of Auschwitz I — this is the camp with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign that all visitors pass under as they enter. It is not possible to express what emotions were sparked inside of me when seeing the exhibitions that now take up some of the barracks. In one room the decaying hair of 15,000 prisoners was piled behind a large glass screen. It sickened me to think of the ways in which these innocent men women and even children suffered and eventually died, helpless. The final part of the Auschwitz I tour was the Book of Names. This was a 16,000 page book that had the names of all the known people who were murdered at Auschwitz inscribed in it- around fifteen million people. I found the name of one of my ancestors in this book.

The day grew colder and no-one really wanted to eat much for lunch. We still had the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on our agenda, which is the bleakest, most dismal and horrifying place that I have ever seen. Seeing the camp in real life is so much more horrific than any description or pictures of this place. Imagine seemingly endless rows of barracks on either side of train tracks with nothing else but a watchtower in an otherwise barren plateau. The train tracks lead directly to the gas chambers, which are no longer existing. Some prisoners never actually saw the camp itself- they were taken right to the gas chambers and exterminated like livestock entering a slaughterhouse.

There will never be a day where the memories of this overwhelming experience will not haunt me.

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