Lessons from Auschwitz Project 2019 | Newsletter

Each year the History department arranges for two Y12 girls to take part in the government-funded Lessons from Auschwitz Project, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Here this year’s participants, Esther Humphries and Isobel Ducille, reflect on their experiences. They will be carrying out follow-up work in school in the coming weeks.

It is so fitting that my hair smelt of smoke upon my return from Auschwitz, a world once ‘shrouded in a clinging grey mist’ that smelt ‘sickly, fatty’ and ‘cloying’. What I saw and learnt hangs about me too but it is so much harder to absorb. I can hardly believe that I walked where Nazis and SS men once walked to work, and where mothers and children walked to their deaths. I can’t believe that I stood in the very place where thousands stood before me as they died in the gas chambers. I struggle to believe that each of the hundreds of jugs, glasses and prosthetics belonged to an individual, but this is the most important lesson: behind the overwhelming numbers are people who had stories of their own that were taken from them. By remembering the people who died in the camps, we give them back their humanity and their dignity, and reverse what the Nazis set out to do: the dehumanization and removal of a whole population.

It is the photos that the SS had used to record the identities of inmates upon arrival at the camp that have stayed with me. They ordered these photos to be destroyed when the camp was being liquidated, but the prisoners hid some in an act of bravery. These headshots helped me to connect with the individuals across time as I looked at the mixture of frightened and brave faces. Some stared back at me and others looked into the distance, their eyes wide and their mouths set as if they knew they were facing death. Similar photos of children show tears barely hidden, their heads roughly shorn. It was these photos that communicated to me that sense of fear that once lived in this place, fighting against a flame of defiance.

These people’s bravery amidst the fear amazes me, and I feel honoured to have gone to their place of death. I was so lucky to be able to choose to enter Auschwitz with the knowledge that I would leave again later that day. We are so lucky to be able to live without fear, to have the freedom to believe and the space to love. We mustn’t forget, instead we will remember.

Isobel Ducille

However, the trip to Auschwitz was only one part of our journey on the Lessons from Auschwitz programme. Attending a seminar before the trip allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of Jewish life in Europe with a focus on pre-war Jewish communities. Understanding that all victims of the Holocaust were individuals who led ordinary lives was a key focus of this. Although nothing could really prepare us for seeing a place like Auschwitz, this seminar opened the discussion that was key to us processing what we would see and consider how it fits into our world today. By continuing this discussion at the follow-up seminar we moved towards looking at how the past can actively influence our future and what we can do to ensure that remembrance can be used for positive change. Now in the process of developing our follow-up project, the trip to Auschwitz reminds us of the importance of never forgetting and has been an experience that will certainly never leave us.

At the start of our first seminar we were challenged with the quote ‘We learn from history that we do not learn from history’ and, in a world which is full of tragedy and destruction, it is often hard to argue against this. Our trip to Auschwitz and the Lessons from Auschwitz programme has given us the chance to change this and to not allow history to simply be forgotten.

Esther Humphries