A Journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Teesside University students are making arrangements to travel to Poland early next year so we asked students Sophie Fixter and Matthew Jones, who made the trip last year, to reflect on their experience.

Auschwitz
After a long journey to Krakow, travelling through the night, we settled into our hotel ready to begin our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau the next morning. It was an early morning start travelling to the most infamous concentration camp of the Second World War, Auschwitz. On arrival the sheer scale of the camp was truly overwhelming. We met with our guide who assured us this would be one of the most memorable mornings that we, as young historians, would ever experience.

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We walked through the entrance gate to the camp. It was harrowing to remember that over seventy years ago so many people had walked through these gates not knowing the torture that their lives would now become. As a group we travelled through the camp passing by barracks and housing for the inmates, perhaps the most shocking barrack shown was Block Ten, the Reproductive Test Centre, this was shut off to the public.

We saw the ‘execution wall’ which was placed casually between barracks, the bullet holes clear to the eye in the concrete. Our tour guide told us that a girl aged nine was the youngest victim of the execution wall which was mainly used to execute those openly going against the Nazis.

Seeing the gas chambers for ourselves is an image which will always stay with us, the building was built with thick concrete slabs, however, when you look on the inside there were claw marks of hundreds of desperate people. It is hard to imagine the desperation faced by these people; that they would physically try and escape what is clearly inescapable.

Birkenau
After an emotional and long morning we paused for a break whilst travelling to Birkenau. The short coach journey led us to the much larger camp. We stood at the infamous train tracks and paused. Seeing this for ourselves and imagining what people felt arriving to the unknown was really difficult for the group. Although close to a busy main road, once entering the camp it became eerily quiet. The image here was the stereotypical view of what you expect a concentration camp to look like, barracks for as far as the eye can see.

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We were again taken around by our guide who showed us where Mengele had performed his experiments, where the women were kept and where the Nazis had blown up even more barracks in a desperate attempt to cover up their actions.

The journey back to the hotel that night was very quiet and reflective. As historians we had read widely about the Nazi extermination camps, but seeing it with our own eyes underlined their magnitude.

Galicia Museum
The second day was another early start which began with a short walk from the hotel down to the Jewish quarter of Krakow and a visit to the Galicia Museum. We were taken around the permanent exhibition, ‘Traces of Memory’, by a guide. This was very much a contemporary look at the Jewish past in Poland.

The exhibition was made up of photographs by the late Chris Schwarz along with words from Professor Jonathan Webber. The aim of the exhibition was to offer a new way of looking at the Jewish past in Poland and it pieced together artefacts of the lives and culture of Jews in Polish Galicia. This was both thought-provoking and very informative and shed light on how the Jewish population had settled in Eastern Europe.

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A replica of the wall that surrounded the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow during the Nazi occupation.

The exhibition was divided into five sections. The first section, ‘Jewish life in ruins’, includes images of destroyed synagogues and the second section, ‘Jewish culture as it Once Was’, displays remaining signs of the original Jewish culture and indicates how strong this culture once was in Poland.

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An original Star of David arm band that the Nazis forced the Jewish population to wear to single them out.

The third section then took us onto ‘Sites of Massacre and Destruction’ which shows some of the true horrors of the Holocaust. We were shown graphic images of what happened to Galicia Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Images from Auschwitz were included in this section and, after our visit the previous day, we had a much deeper understanding of what we were viewing.

The fourth section, ‘How the Past is being Remembered’, recognises the efforts that are being made to preserve the traces of Jewish memory. The final section of the exhibition, ‘People Making Memory Today’, was mainly to remember the past and offer hope to the future. This was cleverly done by showing what people are doing today to recreate the memory of the Jewish past in Poland. This ended the tour of the exhibition on a more positive note than it started.

Oskar Schindler’s Factory
We crossed the Wisla River to Number 4 Lipowa Street, which was the site of Oskar Schindler’s Factory and is now a museum. The museum is devoted to the wartime experience in Krakow under the five-year Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The exhibition combines period artefacts, photographs and documents along with multimedia in an attempt to create a fully inclusive experience.

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Oskar Schindler’s desk

The exhibition takes you on a journey from pre-war Krakow to the Soviet capture of the city. In between there were various themed sections including the sorrows of everyday living in the ghetto, the resistance movement, family life and the war time history of the Krakow Jews. Again this was an informative and thought-provoking experience.

Meeting Lidia Maksymowicz
After lunch we met back at the Galicia museum for a meeting with an Auschwitz survivor, Lidia Maksymowicz. Lidia was a Russian political prisoner and was only three years old when she arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau with her mother and grandparents. Lidia told us how her grandparents were selected for gassing straight away and her mother was put to work and Lidia herself was sent to the children’s huts.

Lidia explained to the group how she was one of Dr Mengele’s “Patients” and how all the children feared him. After the Red Army liberated the camp Lidia was adopted by a local Polish family. Her biological mother survived Auschwitz after being sent on one of the infamous death marches when the Nazis retreated westwards. Although Lidia was told that her mother had died, she did track her down and was reunited nineteen years after leaving Auschwitz.

Meeting Lidia and hearing her story was a humbling and emotional experience. At one point during her talk she lifted up her cardigan arm to display the original number that had been tattooed on her arm by the Nazis after her arrival at Auschwitz- Birkenau. She went on to explain that she looked at it every day to remind herself of the struggles that the victims of the camp faced.

The trip was both an enlightening and a humbling experience that everybody who attended will not forget. The effects of the Holocaust are still evident today and after going to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the museums, and especially after meeting Lidia, we feel a sense of responsibility to pass the experiences on to others so the horrors of the Holocaust will never be forgotten.

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