Lessons from Auschwitz Project – Trip to Poland | Newsletter

On March 11th we visited Auschwitz as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project. The aim of the project is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, not only by visiting Auschwitz, but also by educating other people about the things we learned whilst we were on the trip.

What did we do?

On March 8th, we attended a seminar which prepared us for our upcoming trip to Poland. We were shown images of groups of people who were affected by the Holocaust and we highlighted where they were affected on a map. This highlighted to us just how many different countries in Europe the Holocaust affected. As well as this we got to listen to one of the survivors’ accounts of his experience of the war. His name was Rudi Oppenheimer. As he sadly passed away, we listened to a livestream that he had previously done. When he was talking we noticed that he distanced himself from that period of time in his life by referring to himself in the third person and he didn’t really show much emotion until he was asked questions. This showed us how he had managed to separate and almost block out that part of his life.

The Wednesday after the orientation seminar was the day we visited Poland. We visited three sites on the day. Our first site was a town called O?wi?cim and was roughly only ten minutes away from Auschwitz I. Before the war, the town’s population was 58% Jewish. Although this was so close to one of the camps, the citizens of the town were completely unaware of what was going on, all they noticed was that Jewish people were disappearing from the town, but they didn’t know why.

After visiting the town, we then drove to Auschwitz I. One of the first things you see when the tour begins is a map. It has Auschwitz as the centre and lines coming out of it which shows all the different places that the camp had an impact on. One of the most emotional parts of this museum was a room that had children’s drawings on the wall from when they were in the camp. This really humanised the victims of the Holocaust as we saw through their drawings the emotion and pain that the war has imposed on them. We also got to see the Book of Names. This is a book which has 4 million names out of the 6 million people who had died during the Holocaust. The books were hung from the wall and they had to make the size of the writing so small, so that they were able to fit all the people. This really put into perspective just how many people had been killed.

We then visited Auschwitz-Birkenau which was the main extermination camp. As the prisoners were told they were going on holiday, they had brought luggage with them which was taken from them straight away and put into a place called “Canada.” This was a huge room that was full of all their stuff and was organised by the prisoners. Some prisoners would steal some of the prayer shawls and would give them to others in return for their rations. This showed that despite everything going on, people still had faith in God and were willing to do whatever it takes just to pray and be closer to God.

Personal Stories

The Holocaust is understandably incomprehensible due to the overwhelming scale of the atrocity. However, it is important not to dehumanise the victims into statistics. Just like all of us, every victim had their own family, loves, thoughts, dreams and hopes. Here are two contrasting yet both hugely moving stories that we learned about through the project. We must warn you that these stories are difficult to read but we include them in the hope to help readers somewhat get in touch with the reality of how individual lives were affected.

Bertha Alder 

Born: June 20, 1928 in Selo-Solotvina, Czechoslovakia

Bertha was the second of three daughters born to Yiddish-speaking Jewish parents in a village in Czechoslovakia’s easternmost province. Soon after Bertha was born, her parents moved the family to Liege, an industrial, largely Catholic city in Belgium that had many immigrants from eastern Europe. Bertha’s parents sent her to a local elementary school, where most of her friends were Catholic. Bertha was hugely intelligent and could even speak 4 languages: French, Yiddish, Hungarian and Hebrew.

Bertha was 11 when the Germans occupied Liege. Two years later, the Adlers, along with all the Jews, were ordered to register and Bertha and her sisters were forced out of school. Some Catholic friends helped the Adlers obtain false papers and rented them a house in a nearby village. There, Bertha’s father fell ill one Friday and went to the hospital. Bertha promised to visit him on Sunday. That Sunday, the family was awakened at 5 a.m. by the Gestapo. They had been discovered. Fifteen-year-old Bertha was deported to Auschwitz on May 19, 1944. She was killed there in a gas chamber there two days later.

Flora Mendelovicz                                                                                           

Born: August 16, 1930 in Berchem, Belgium

Flora’s Romanian-born parents immigrated to Antwerp, Belgium, in the late 1920s to escape anti-Semitism. Antwerp had an active Jewish community.

Flora was the oldest of three girls.

Every day after school she went to a Yiddish school where she learned about Jewish culture. In November 1938 Flora and her family learned that her father had fled to America, they hoped that they could join him there.

After the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940, Jews had to wear a yellow star. When Flora started fourth grade in September, kids pushed and insulted her because she was Jewish. One day that winter they were forbidden to go to school. Signs in parks, cinemas and shops said “No Jews or dogs allowed.”

On the advice of a friend who was in the German army, the Mendelovicz family fled to Brussels. Flora was hidden in convents in Belgium and was spared deportation because of the efforts of resistance fighter Georges Ranson, Father Bruno Reynders (a Benedictine monk), and others. In 1946 Flora and her family immigrated to the United States, where she first worked as a dressmaker, then completed her schooling, and became a teacher.

Ishi’s experience   

The trip itself was quite non-stop and this made it difficult to completely take everything in on the day. It took me a few days of speaking to people about what I had experienced to fully comprehend the extent of the Holocaust. The most emotional part of the trip for me was seeing pictures of children who had been killed as a result of the Holocaust. There were pictures of children who were younger than me on the wall who had been taken away from their parents and deprived of food to the point that they were completely malnourished. They had also been used for experiments and killed hours after by one of the doctors. It was seeing this that made me realise just how brutal the Nazis were, and how little they actually cared.

Niamh’s experience

The LFA project has truly gifted me with an experience that I will never forget and am so humbled to have had. The trip was for me in one word, surreal. Visiting the camps that display thousands of images of defenceless victims, along with collections of their personal items (clothes, letters, glasses), overwhelmed me with emotions I have never felt before. When I looked in the barely comprehensible book of names, I even came across my own last name, this was something that really resonated with me, along with the exhibition showing heart-breaking drawings belonging to the children in Auschwitz. As hard as it was seeing these things, I would genuinely recommend anyone in y12 applying to this project as it really changes your perspective on the holocaust, it’s something you can’t begin to comprehend until you see what is left of it for yourself.

What can we learn from the Holocaust?

The most important thing to learn from the Holocaust is the idea of love and tolerance. It is vital that we are accepting of the fact that there are always going to be opposing views to ours, and just because someone believes something different doesn’t mean that they are a lesser being than us. We must also take away from the Holocaust the idea of standing up against things that are wrong. If you see something that you know if wrong, you shouldn’t just ignore it or let it happen, instead we need to learn to intervene to stop the spread of hatred towards others, as this is the only way to prevent something like the Holocaust happening again.

‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’– George Santayana

This is a quote installed on the wall of one of the Auschwitz camp buildings, perfectly explaining why we owe it not only to the victims, but to each other to honour and remember those subject to all forms of persecution. Devastatingly, persecution of minority groups still occurs today, unless we learn to love and tolerate everyone we are surrounded by, the world will still fall victim to disastrous atrocities such as the Holocaust.

‘Hatred eats at the soul of the hater’ – Alice Herz Sommer (Holocaust survivor)

Written by Niamh Reid and Ishi Malhotra