WEST NORFOLK: Horror of the Holocaust
The Holocaust Education Trust and its school visits to this most poignant of places wants to remind a new generations of what was perpetrated by one set of human-beings on another.
There were 210 of us - students aged 17 and 18 from schools including King Edward the VII School and Springwood High School, Lynn and Smithdon HIgh School, Hunstanton.
The day started with the exuberance you would expect from an excited group of young people on a trip out of school - but ended in stunned or numbed near-silences.
First there was the old Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim. With snow falling softly over the gravestones, we listened in groups, learning that the town had a 58 per cent Jewish population before the war. Not one Jewish family lives there now.
Auschwitz I – the first of the Nazi death camps – saw us walk through the gateway with the words Arbeit macht frei (Hard work makes you free). Words that were designed to give false hope to those passing through.
In one room there was a huge cabinet about the length of a tennis court, full of human hair, cut and shaved from thousands of victims, found at a material factory, all containing traces of Zyklon-B,.
In another case shoes piled high, many of them obviously their owner’s best pair. Then there are the suitcases, hundreds of them all with the names and addresses of their-long lost owners.
But for me it was a small display case tucked at one end of a room that brought home the evilness.
It contains tins of shoe polish, all with different languages on them. It demonstrated just how widespread was the Nazis’ hatred of Jews spread across war-time Europe yet the pride these victims had, the hope they had of a future as they set out for the new-life promised in the vague ‘East’.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the true death camp had an eeriness to it, whether it was the bleakness of the day. Freezing cold, with blizzardy-snow, or whether it was our own emotions, knowing what this place represented it is hard to tell.
Unlike the myths, the birds do still sing in Auschwitz, but there is a silence unlike any I have felt before.
At one point there were up to 90,000 people imprisoned here. All would have worn the grey-striped uniforms, all with their heads shaved.
They were crammed into small barn-like huts up to 1,000 in each with no chance to lie down. Prisoners would be forced-marched 10km or more to work and back each day, would sit back to back, toe to toe.
In winter the huts would be impossible to heat, in summer the sun would make them impossibly hot. Disease was rife, in fact the average life of a prisoner sent to work rather than directly to the gas chamber was around three months.
Guards contracted the diseases and new methods were needed to keep the prisoners clean. They were forced to strip, shaved of body hair, before being showered in either scalding hot or freezing cold water and left to dry seated on a cold-concrete floor without towels or clothes for hours.
This building has become a display area for photographs found among the massive stores of the victims’ possessions, photos of their lives before the war, taken with them on their journey as reminders of the past as they set out for their ‘new life’.
There are family groups enjoying picnics, young couples newly wed, baby pictures obviously taken by proud new parents, all bearing faces that could be you or me and our families.
And that is the most sobering thought.
Those killed at Auschwitz were not criminals or bad people, they were just people with a certain religion.
The perpetrators, the guards and staff of the camps were also ordinary people, just like you or me.
The by-standers, those neighbours, friends and townsfolk from the homelands of the victims were also ordinary people, just like you and me.
What would I have done? I’m an ordinary person. I would like to think I would not do what those people did, but in the right circumstances, can I or indeed any of us truly be certain of how we’d act?
And it was that ‘Lesson from Auschwitz’ that will stay with me.
New Generation told the awful truth:
Sarah, a name, a popular name, a Hebrew name, my name. Princess, the meaning of my name, but in Nazi-occupied Europe my pretty name had an ugly purpose.
It was the name chosen by the Nazis that all Jewish women with non-Jewish sounding surnames had to adopt as their own middle name to help identify them as a Jew. For men Israel served the same purpose.
So as I stare through the glass at the huge display in the Auschwitz Museum at the hundreds of brown and battered suitcases I spot my name time and again on the side of those cases.
Cases which would have been packed diligently as the owner prepared for a ‘new life’ in the East. Shoe polish, pots and pans, hairbrushes, shaving brushes and favourite toys, all were deemed essential items for those being transported unknowlingly to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Packed like human sardines in cattle wagons, up to 100 in each, Jews from places as far afield as Norway and Greece arrived at Auschwitz.
This was no ‘new-life’ in the East, this was terror on a scale too huge to comprehend. Families ordered to abandon their carefully packed suitcases, ordered to separate and face Dr Josef Mengele as he chose those to live and those to die.
Men and women wrenched apart, children with their mothers sent one-way, the strong, able-to-work men the other.
More than 70 per cent of those arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau saw little more than the platform of their arrival, with its iconic looming watch-tower and the barbed-wire fences.
Huge numbers – 1.6million in total – went directly to the gas chamber. Chillingly sent to death with the reassurance that after a cleansing shower they would be reunited with their menfolk.
Stripped of clothes, children ordered to tie their shoes together so they wouldn’t get lost. Into the shower room, up to 1,400 at a time. The false shower heads gave the illusion of truth in what was being said, but the locking of the doors, and the dropping of Zyklon-B pellets brought an horrific reality.
Death. Up to 30 minutes of dying, choking on the deadly gases unleashed, in part, through their own body heat.
The gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis just prior to liberation. Whether those responsible were ashamed of their hideous actions, or were simply acting on self-preservation it is difficult to know.
But the rubble of these mass killing rooms remain as a ghastly reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
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Weather for King's Lynn
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 9 C to 15 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North