Visiting Holocaust Sites

On the 25th February 2015 I visited Auschwitz, Poland, with the Holocaust educational trust as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz programme (LFA). Whilst I was there I visited a pre-war Jewish Cemetry, Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II. On the week beginning 6th April I visited the Anne Frank House, the Old Jewish Quarter, the Auschwitz memorial and the Schouwburg – the National Holocaust Memorial, Amsterdam. On the 26th April I visited Bergen-Belsen with the Holocaust Educational trust for the 70th anniversary of the liberation, along with Holocaust survivors, members of the Armed Forces, international dignitaries, Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassadors, teachers, students and supporters of the Trust.

Auschwitz:

Before visiting Auschwitz itself, we visited the Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim; I was extremely moved by how neglected it was. Sadly, many of the graves have been uprooted and vandalised both in the past and present. Before the Holocaust, Oswiecim’s population was 58% Jewish. After the Holocaust only one Jewish man returned. It rained for the majority of the day, and it was extremely cold despite us preparing and wrapping up with several layers. However, this put things into perspective for us and really set the scene as we were suffering from the bite of the cold – walking around in coats for a few hours on a full stomach, when the prisoners suffered for months, possibly years in conditions like and worse than this, with very little clothing and pitiful amounts of food.To end the day, we attended a service led by a Rabbi. We proceeded to light a candle each and set them upon the train track in remembrance. 1,059,381 Jews died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, along with 70,000 Polish political prisoners, 20,000 Roma, 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war and an unknown number of homosexuals and Jehovah’s witnesses.The

Anne Frank House:

Anne Frank was a victim of the Holocaust – the persecution of Jews by the Nazis during WWII Anne’s story is unique because she went into hiding, along with her mother, father and sister in the Annexe of her father’s workplace and were helped by 4 of her father’s employees. They were later joined by another family, the van Pels, also known as the van Dans, and a dentist. Anne’s diary has helped the Holocaust to become rehumanised, as although Anne stops writing before entering the camps, we are introduced to a person as she writes about her thoughts, feelings, and daily life in the annexe; she is an individual with likes, dislikes, friends, hobbies, families – just like us. The annexe family were betrayed by a phone call to the Nazis, revealing their hiding place. To this day the caller is still unknown. All 8 of the hiders were arrested by the SS and all of their possessions were repossessed. The hiders were sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and days later to Auschwitz – which I visited in February. Anne and her sister were then taken to Bergen-Belsen. Typhus killed both girls in late February/early March of 1945 – just a month before the liberation. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Anne Frank’s death, however the exact date is still unknown.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was the only survivor of the 8, living until the age of 91. When Otto was released from the camps, he was reunited with Anne’s diary. Knowing it was Anne’s wish, Otto published her diary. From my visit to the Anne Frank house, I learnt that Otto decided to make the Annexe a museum, after several people knocked on the door asking to see it after hearing about the Frank’s story. Whilst walking around the house, I noted that there was no furniture to be seen. When converting the house into a museum, Otto decided against moving furniture back into the Annexe as he wanted it to be preserved as it was left by the SS. On the walls of the rooms however, there are photos of how each room would have looked as they were recreated once for the purpose of the display. Today, hundreds queue daily to see the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Visiting puts Anne’s story into perspective, along with so many others – as the Franks were not the only Jewish family that went into hiding. The majority of Holocaust victims do not have museums and for many, their individual stories are still unknown.

Holocaust Memorials:

The Schouwburg was the theatre that was used to herd Jewish people into before they were sent off to concentration, labour and death camps. Today, the Schouwburg is a National Holocaust memorial. Anne Frank was one among thousands of those who were sent there – hundreds of surnames are displayed across a whole wall. Outside, wooden tulips are fixed in a line. Visitors have attached words of remembrance onto them. The Auschwitz memorial I found very intriguing as it is made from a large mirror. However, it is deliberately smashed. The meaning of this is that the sky will always be seen, but it will be forever changing with each day, during the day, and it will never again be perfect or whole. People visit the memorial and throw stones onto it – a Jewish tradition to remember those who have passed.

Bergen Belsen:

I seized an amazing opportunity by signing up to visit Bergen-Belsen for the 70th anniversary of the liberation, as this is possibly the last year the event will run with the eyewitnesses still with us. Bergen-Belsen was the camp that Anne Frank and her sister died within along with thousands of other Prisoners of War.Bergen-Belsen was liberated on 15th April 1945 by the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army. This event is significant as it shaped our relationship with the Holocaust. In 1940, the camp was originally intended to hold French and Belgian prisoners of war, however this extended to captured Soviets and later on Jews. The difference between Belsen and other camps was that families were allowed to stay together and keep their own clothes; the labour was also considerably lighter in comparison. By 1944, prisoners from other camps were sent to Bergen-Belsen when they could no longer work. Belsen provided no medical care and food was short. The camp was overcrowded with tents and huts bursting with people. When the SS evacuated Auschwitz due to the advance of the Red Army (Soviets), they sent prisoners to Bergen-Belsen by the trainload. The 1st major arrival was a train of 8000 women, including Anne and Margot Frank. By March 1945 the population had reached 42,000. Due to the lack of food, shelter and sanitation, Belsen was hit with a Typhus epidemic which caused thousands of deaths. Because of this, over 10,000 also died in the weeks following liberation due to their poor health. When the troops liberated Bergen-Belsen, they relocated the prisoners to the nearby German military barracks, Bergen-Hohn Garrison, as Belsen was to be burnt to prevent the further spread of Typhus and other diseases. This became known as the displaced persons camp. In comparison to Auschwitz which had a cold, quiet, daunting feel to it, in addition to it being rainy and dark because of the time of year when I visited it, Bergen-Belsen was sunny and warm. As there are few physical reminders to show that the camp was there -the strangest and most disturbing thing about it was that it was naturally beautiful. The whole atmosphere of the day was celebratory as well as commemoratory. One of our services to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation took place at the Bergen-Hohn. We were joined by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and women (AJEX). The service consisted of prayers in both English and Hebrew. At the end of the service we participated in the Jewish tradition of placing a stone each on the memorials. However we were able to write a word or two on them first. I wrote “לכתוב”, which is the Hebrew for “write”. Write; for those who wrote personal accounts of their time in Bergen-Belsen. Write; for Anne Frank who died in Bergen-Belsen. Write; for those who are written about in history. Write; for those who write the history. Write; because words have power. I later discovered that the barracks were to be closed, so any future ceremonies wouldn’t occur in such a significant location. This, along with acknowledging that survivors and liberators are becoming fewer and fewer, gives us a great responsibility. It is our duty to carry on their legacy and educate the future generations on the Holocaust, and the lessons we can take away from such a terrible but important event in history.

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