Everyone knows the atrocities that took place during the Nazi occupation of Poland. You hear the horror stories, see grainy photos and watch documentaries on tv. All the while you are sitting on your sofa with a mug of tea, shaking your head saying “it’s awful, how could someone do that to another person, it’s disgusting”.
As someone who has a love and understanding of words, I cannot describe what it is like to see the remanence of human suffering first hand, with my own eyes. Some of us cry, others talk nonsense, many become silent and the rest feel intense anger. But I think, for me at least, the feeling of emptiness is the worst. The pain from the death of over six million innocent people is simply too overwhelming to comprehend. I feel numb. Even as I write this now, many hours after walking in the footsteps of the dead, I still feel numb.
Surprisingly, it was not Auschwitz that hit me the most. Instead it was Płaszów: a forced labour camp only a twenty minute tram ride from the centre of Krakow. The Nazi’s built this camp after liquidating the Ghetto, for many, it was only a temporary home before being sent to Aschwitz-Birkenhau. You may know Płaszów; it is shown in Stephen Spielberg's masterpiece ‘Schindler's List’ and Ralph Fienne’s character, the notorious Amon Goeth, was the camp commandant.
Maybe it was because it was my first experience of pure evil and devastation, maybe it was the sorry state of this public park or because it was so unassuming. If the plaque was not at the entrance you would have no idea about the significance of this almost abandoned patch of land. What's worse, it’s tucked away past a McDonalds, through a housing estate and opposite a child’s playground. Walking through the mud and grass felt so wrong. I was walking over a mass grave. It felt so disrespectful. At the same time I knew by walking on this land, I was giving the victims the highest respect I could: remembrance. Even though I was in physical pain taking each step it is something I had to do to honour those who have passed. We questioned how this place, a large almost unkempt plot, could be something that was honouring the victims. At the same time it was so peaceful. I can imagine in the summer it would provide an escape from the city. Personally, I think an escape is a perfect memorial to those who had dreamed of just that.
In fact, the whole city of Krakow has hidden scars of the past: the ruins of the Ghetto walls, Schindler's Factory, the bridges, the Synagogues and the empty chairs of Hero Square just to name a few. If you don’t look close enough you will miss them. Even though the city was literally divided under eighty years ago, you would not be able to tell. We were lucky enough to have a four hour guided tour of the city lead by local historian Tomek Zielińsk. He told us of many stories about those living within the Ghetto, and the past of the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz. His stories may have stood out, but Tomeks passion for the past is what struck me most. You could see in his eyes the respect he has for the current Jewish community and anger he holds about their treatment throughout history. All of the historians and guides we were fortunate enough to meet throughout our trip, were so passionate about their subject. It gives us hope for the future; it is people like these who are truly making an impact by not shying away from such a taboo subject. Instead they are encouraging people, young and old, to face the past and learn from it.
For me, Auschwitz was completely different; it was built purposefully out of the way so it would stay hidden. In reality, it is impossible to overlook. Only one word springs to mind when I see the images burned onto the back of my eyelids: grotesque. It was grotesque. Tons of human hair, glasses, shoes, pots and pans, suitcases and prosthetics of limbs in varying shapes and sizes. I could barely look at the leftovers. I am thinking now if that makes me a bad person, or if it is right to have it all on show for people to parade past. As bad as it sounds I am trying to put it out of my mind, so desperately trying. But the metaphorical box that I am trying to put everything in simply isn’t big enough. And it makes me just as bad as those who tried to cover up the operation in the first place. Not one of us will ever forget this trip. Not only because it will be impossible, but because like the historians it is our duty to remember.
I think something the trip has shown me is the extent of the evil that took place less than a lifetime ago. It is not just simply the holocaust, there is so much more to it. The beginning of suffering started before Auschwitz was even devised in a board room. After all, Auschwitz was the ‘final solution’ to a problem created by those with a vicious vendetta against absolutely nothing. It cannot happen again, and I’m sure it won’t. Because the second thing this trip has taught me is how incredible we, as a collective, are. Humans can be evil monsters, but there is always a slither of hope. Over the four days there have been so many examples of the humanity within us all. From flight attendants stealing sweets during the safety briefing, to strangers called Nelly returning lost phones at 8:30 at night in-front of the church and a pro-life abortion march overtaking the centre of Krakow. (All of which gave Mr Eaves a heart attack and must have broken so many Health and Safety regulations.) I won’t tell you these stories of laughter because they are better shared face to face. But I would like to mention Mr Eaves himself. It is clear that these trips take such an emotional toll on all, but despite this he is already planning the next one and I would like to thank you, on behalf of everyone you have taken on these trips for doing this.
I have debated about my closing statement for a while. I could say, think about and study the tragedy that was the holocaust. Alternatively I could say that visiting Auschwitz is the thing to do. But I want to share the advice Monika Goldwasser, a survivor of the Holocaust, gave us and now I give it to you. Tell the people you love that you love them. It’s so simple, but it means a lot, especially to those who don’t hear it enough. Usually those are the ones who should hear it the most.