41 SQN VISIT TO AUSCHWITZ
ARBEIT MACHT FREI: WORK SETS YOU FREE. THE INFAMOUS SIGN AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE AUSCHWITZ BIRKENAU II CONCENTRATION CAMP IN POLAND WAS INTENDED BY ITS NAZI CREATORS AS AN IRONIC DEMOTIVATOR TO THE VICTIMS OF THE HOLOCAUST.
But the slave labourers who were forced to make it deliberately cast the B upside down in an act of defiance, and it stands today as a symbol of human resilience.
In February, 12 members of 41 TES travelled to Krakow in Poland to develop their understanding of some of the atrocities committed during World War II. As a statistic emerged that 1 in 20 Britons were unaware of the Holocaust, there seemed no better time to try and comprehend the systematic extermination of over 6 million people. Arriving in the city, the group visited Zgody (Heroes) Square, an area within what was once the Jewish ghetto. Standing beside a remaining fragment of the ghetto wall, the group explored the conditions and ideology that lead to the demonization of whole ethnic and religious groups, and discussed parallels with contemporary political events.
The following day the group made their way through a snowy landscape to the site of the Auschwitz camp. Preserved as far as possible following the end of World War II, the museum is a stark and overwhelming lesson in the cruel brutality of the Nazi regime. Lead by a guide, the group saw the torturous conditions that prisoners were forced to endure whilst learning about some of the notable events and characters from the camp’s history. Prints of photographs taken by SS guards illustrate the inhumanity of the prisoners’ treatment, and massive piles of collected artefacts – luggage, clothing, hair – are heaped as a haunting reminder of the scale of the killing. The collections in the museum’s displays are mere fractions of what was taken from prisoners and victims of the Holocaust, but deeply moved everyone on the trip.
A short car journey took the group from the former army camp up to the open expanse of Auschwitz Birkenau II. This was far from the only Nazi death camp, with dozens scattered across Europe. The tour took the group inside prisoners’ accommodation; prefabricated sheds originally designed as field stables for 50 army horses were used to house around 400 people in terrible conditions. These buildings stand either side of purpose-built railway lines which lead directly to the remains of two large crematoria. The group envisaged the terror of thousands of innocent people being offloaded from cattle trucks and sorted by Nazi doctors by their ‘fitness to work’. Put to work, the average life expectancy in the camp was around 2 months. Those who weren’t deemed suitable were walked directly to the gas chambers and asphyxiated by means of an insecticide known as Cyclone B, before being stripped of everything the Nazis could re-use, and their bodies burned. The buildings were partially destroyed by the SS at the end of the war in an attempt to disguise their crimes. Today a large memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, inscribed with all the languages that were spoken inside the camp, bleakly stands at the end of the tracks.
The third and final day involved a visit to the Schindler factory in Krakow, part of the inspiration for Spielberg’s 1993 film ‘Schindler’s List’. The factory is now a Polish war museum and covers the history of Krakow from the 18th Century through to post- WWII when the Soviet Union took control. Another guide showed the group around, explaining the brutal regime introduced by the Nazis in the city and the creation of some of the nearby death camps. After some lunch it was time to visit the Jewish Ghetto as part of the tour and then on to a tram for a ride to Pormoska Street, site of former Gestapo prison cells. Whilst some cells are preserved, with inscriptions from prisoners still on the wall, some of the building has been given over to a museum chronicling what happened to resistance fighters during and after the war, focussing on the lack of improvement following Poland’s supposed liberation by the Soviet Union.
The group returned late that night reflecting on what had been a hugely successful FD Trip, with everyone deeply moved and inspired by what they had seen and learned over the course of a busy three days.