Lest we forget

17th January 2003 at 00:00
UK Holocaust Memorial Day will be commemorated in Edinburgh this year on January 27. The theme is children and the Holocaust. More than 1.5 million children from across Europe were murdered under the Nazi regime. Most were Jewish, targeted to prevent a new generation of Jews growing up, but gypsy children, the disabled and those in occupied territories were also killed as a direct result of Nazi racial policies. Raymond Ross joins a school trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau to gain a better understanding of some of the horrific events being remembered

How do you prepare young people for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau? Can you, in fact? Well, yes and no. It helps if at least one adult in the group has already been to the death camp. They know what to expect and can say a little about it beforehand.

The emphasis is on respect and understanding. It demands respect for those who suffered and died at the huge camp complex in southern Poland and respect for it as a place of memorial. Understanding is more difficult.

It is not simply a matter of trying to come to terms with why and how the Holocaust happened. No amount of preparation through studying books, pictures and films, role play and discussions makes the reality any easier or more understandable.

You might think you know. But when you see the suffocation cells or stand in the gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz I, the concentration camp, or try to comprehend the magnitude and brutality of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination centre, you realise you have not really understood anything. Here there can be no "closure", far less a straightforward "educational outcome".

As part of the preparations for the programme of events surrounding Edinburgh's hosting of the national commemorative event for UK Holocaust Memorial Day, 22 teenagers from the city are visiting the largest of the Nazi death camps, an hour's drive from Krakow. They will then bear witness at the national event on January 27, this year's theme being children and the holocaust.

The party includes 10 senior Holy Rood High pupils and two drama students from Edinburgh's Telford College. They should, perhaps, be better prepared than the others as they form the cast of Out of Europe: Children of the Holocaust, a play which they premi red for a Holocaust conference nearly two years ago and performed again at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This month they will stage it at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.

The pupils have been learning about the Holocaust in the weeks leading up to this trip and in our Krakow hotel the evening before visiting the camp, education packs are introduced for personal reading and group discussion.

All the pupils have been invited to keep a journal and to express their thoughts and feelings. Michael Brown, one of the young actors, who theoretically is well versed in the horrors of the death camps, writes in his hotel room: "I'm just going to bed on the eve of our visit to Auschwitz. I feel strange because I don't feel worried. I feel as though I should be really concerned I I know it'll affect me once I've seen it."

He writes of the death of a close friend his own age from a brain tumour, of how he tried to prepare for it and how all that planning and thinking "went out the window" when reality struck.

"Maybe that's why I'm not feeling too much about it (Auschwitz) just now. I know that no matter how much I prepare myself for it I won't know how it will affect me until I go.

"It's not as if I don't understand the full horror of it. I do. It just seems a bit too crazy, a bit too mad, like my friend's death, for me to deal with it until it happens."

A feeling of dej... vu hits you at the gates to both Auschwitz I, as you enter beneath those lying words "Arbeit Macht Frei", and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, with its command tower straddling the railway line. You have seen the scenes before but not like this.

The effect can be contradictory. It can feel unreal and yet ordinary. Ordinary because the camp is there in front of you; the ordinary face of evil. Unreal because you are there, imagining the horrors that happened. The evidence is real; it is unbelievable but it is staring you in the face.

Each person responds in their own way and in their own time. Reactions are both immediate and delayed.

In his journal, Holy Rood pupil Kieran Hurley records: "I've always thought that what made the Holocaust possible was the gap between contact and action. Himmler ordered the deaths of millions but fainted when he attended his only execution. Those giving orders were detached from the reality of what they were doing and those carrying them out could tell themselves they were only doing what they were told.

"However, when I saw in Auschwitz I that the commander of the camp (Rudolph Hoss) actually lived in the camp with his wife and kids, right in the thick of it, it made me question my thoughts about the gap between contact and action.

"This has changed dramatically the way I think about the Holocaust, among other things. It will be some time before I've sorted out in my head what all this means."

Grasping the reality of the camps, of mass murder, isn't easy. It strikes you in stages.

For Michael, the photograph of a boy his own age, 17, gives him the first connection to "the full horror"; then the piles of suitcases, spectacles, combs, pots and pans, shoes and hair reinforce what is so difficult to take on board.

"These things were really hard because they reminded you that the six million who died weren't just a number. They all led individual lives," writes Michael. "The suitcases even had people's names and addresses on them.

"The most disturbing thing in Auschwitz I was a little cabinet displaying baby clothes. There were tiny shoes and wee cardigans, which made me think Why? Why could anyone ever want to, or even physically be able to, murder a baby?

"It was really hard, especially as I was just leaving the room when I saw and heard another visitor, a mother comforting her crying baby. This made me think I" In Auschwitz I, in the block dedicated to the martyrdom of the Jews, we sit in the semi-dark in silence, listening to a Hebrew song which evokes a terrible and pathetic litany: the names of the many camps in which six million and more were murdered.

The morning in Auschwitz I is over. We are sitting on the bus outside eating our packed lunches, each in quiet thought, preparing ourselves for Birkenau.

Auschwitz I is now the main museum, the interpretive centre. It was a concentration camp, where most of the prisoners died as a result of starvation, disease and labour that exceeded their physical capacity. As a museum, it has been impressively, respectfully and sensitively developed in terms of presentation, interpretation and education.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the centre of the Germans' Jewish killing machine and remains mostly as it always was at the end of the Second World War - a giant killing field. After the selections on disembarking the trains, people classified as unfit for work were sent to the gas chambers immediately. They were not entered in the camp records and received no serial numbers: their numbers can only be estimated.

Michael gives his impressions: "First of all, I felt like I recognised it as I had seen the gateentrance in loads of history books but not realised they were to Birkenau.

"Secondly, the sheer size of it. It's absolutely massive.

"Thirdly, how organised and efficient it looked. It disturbed me knowing that it was built for the purpose of killing human beings.

"It was completely silent. The contrast to what it must have been like during the war is amazing. The buzz of electric fences, children shouting, guards shouting and dogs barking. Now it's dead. No birds and, probably coincidence, there was no wind. There seemed to be no life in the camp at all."

Birkenau was chosen as the main site for the Final Solution because of its geographical position: the rail network could bring thousands to their deaths every day from across Europe - even from the Channel Islands - and German-occupied North Africa.

Ewa, our guide, takes us into the barracks with their sloping bunks, each built to sleep two or three but which actually slept eight to 12. The sanitary blocks gave no privacy and little hygiene. Ewa points out where the SintiRoma families were housed and, a few yards away, Dr Josef Mengele's "hospital" where he experimented on gypsy children.

As the light begins to fade, we place candles on the ruins of Gas Chamber and Crematorium Two, which was blown up by the Germans shortly before the camp was liberated in an attempt to destroy evidence of the crimes committed. We hold a short memorial before walking in silence back down the railway to the front gates, remembering those who had entered and never left.

Michael writes: "It was strange to stand at the end of the line where prisoners lived their last few minutes, Railway lines from all over Europe ended here, where we were standing.

"As we walked back down the tracks I thought of how so many people came up the tracks but never came back down them.

"It was like the gas chamber in Auschwitz I. No one, when it was in use, came out there alive. Yet we just walked in and walked out."

Holy Rood pupil Tessa Goodwin writes: "A bare, cold and grey graveyard lit by the light of hopes and prayers that such devastations will never take place again.

"We are lucky to have a constant reminder of what can happen through arrogance and prejudice. Knowing that such a place should never have existed and should never recur is a reminder that people today should put aside their differences and accept and respect one another.

"I will never truly know the full scale of what was experienced by the millions killed in the camps but I now have a better understanding and appreciation of the part I play in Out of Europe: Children of the Holocaust. Everybody involved in this project has a responsibility to promote awareness of what went on in the camps.

"Our experience will bring meaning to our performance, hopefully giving our audience a better awareness of the messages of the play and the memorial."

Michael concludes: "The trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau made me realise some things. The most important was about judgment and preconceptions without actual experience. The camps made me realise how we judge everything automatically and immediately.

"So - and I know it's cliched - it made me realise how lucky I am. I have my family and friends and free will. The people of the camps had nothing."

We return to Krakow and that night go into the old city night to see its medieval splendour. The next morning we visit the palace and cathedral and then have the afternoon to ourselves.

This time in Krakow is important to gain perspective before going home. Some groups fly in and out to Auschwitz on the same day. It can be done but it gives a false impression of Poland and makes the death camp experience unremitting.

www.auschwitz.org.plwww.holocaustmemorialday.gov.ukRaymond Ross is the author of Out of Europe: Children of the Holocaust

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