On April 23 reporter Pete Horton spent a day with the Holocaust Education Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz programme. It takes sixth-form students, journalists and sometimes MPs from across the UK on day trips to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau to experience the concentration camps for themselves.
BY PETE HORTON
There’s one room in Auschwitz’s museum where taking pictures is not allowed.
On display are human remains, not of bone, but hair - woman’s hair. Enough to fill an articulated lorry and riddled with countless hair bands, pins and decorative ties. Nothing can prepare you for the feeling that hits your gut when you first walk in, and moments after I entered I heard people around me quietly begin sobbing. There can’t be many things more personal to women and girls than their hair, and this was all that was left of thousands of them.
Everyone knows about the scale of death at Auschwitz, but the tragedy takes on a new meaning when you’re confronted with victims’ individual possessions and hints of their personalities. One lock of pale blonde hair stood out and despite its age, looked like it could have been swept off a salon floor earlier that day. It clearly belonged to someone very young. I couldn’t help wondering what its owner might of looked like and who she was. The same hair would have blown across her face as she played, and its scent probably embarrassed the boys who fancied her, I thought. I’ll never understand why someone robbed her of it. For a brief moment I felt like I had a connection with her, and that’s what Auschwitz’s museum does so well. It made me understand the 1,500,000 victims were all individuals, and worse, that many had passions and interests just like mine.
There’s not only hair, there’s also a room full of suitcases, thousands of them, each with handwritten names on. There’s a huge pile of spectacles - far too many to count - that are mashed together like millions of dead insects. There’s a room full of thousands of shoes, every type, from smart, boring ones to striking polka-dot high-heels. There’s a display of children’s things with tiny cardigans laid out next to grubby toy dolls. My eyes instinctively scanned the displays for objects that reminded me of my own life, and I found plenty that did. In the museum I began to learn who the victims were and what they were like. Soon after this I was taken a few miles down the road to where most were either gassed or worked to death.
Birkenau is a site about the size of Hillmorton where 1,500,000 people were murdered. As soon as you walk in you don’t have to tell yourself you’re in the worst place on earth, you can feel it. The camp looked bleak even in bright sunshine and was scorched earth for as far as I could see. It was a ghost town of shattered locks, rusty wire, burnt brick and dusty paths that seemed to watch, scowl and scream from every direction. It once echoed with the sound of gunshots, the growl of gas chamber engines and the wails of children, but now it’s silent, save for the gentle footsteps of tourists. What you can’t understand without visiting is how it pulls on whatever it is inside you that makes you human, like a black hole that’s been scorched on the countryside.
Unlike the museum, it’s not what you see at Birkenau as much as what you don’t. All around me people were once shot, froze to death and cowed with fear. My imagination ran wild with thoughts of what happened here as I wandered around. I felt slight vertigo as I stared down the middle of one of the eerie replica huts where hundreds of people at a time were stuffed like farm animals. On the rail platform I felt anger as I imagined it was right here where people were hearded like cattle straight to the gas chambers, a 100 or so yards away, by men with guns. It’s hard to describe what I felt as I walked the path between the train platform and where hundreds of thousands were murdered, or what I felt as I stood inside a gas chamber (as I did at Auschwitz I). By the time I peered into the crumbled ruins of Birkenau’s gas chambers I felt exhausted, unable to fend off thoughts of fingernails scraping against walls and people’s guts churning in terror, I just had to let it all wash over me.
Thankfully, when I was ready to, I was able to walk out of Auschwitz and keep walking. Before the visit I was felt self-assured that I knew all about the horrors of the holocaust, but I learnt that knowing isn’t quite the same as understanding. There’s a difference between mourning the 1,500,000 or so people that were murdered there, and having to deal with the tragedy of what happened to the owners of all the things I’d seen earlier in the day, the young girl with the blonde hair in particular. Looking into the eyes of the students I was with as we left, it was clear the visit had served its purpose and the lessons from Auschwitz would stay with them for the rest of their lives.