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What I learnt about World War II during my visit to Auschwitz

The approach of Remembrance Day has spurred me to look over some notes I made during my visit to the former Nazi death camp 'Auschwitz' in 2016.

I have always held a deep interest in history—particularly that of the Second World War, one of my grandfathers having served as a rear gunner in a Wellington Bomber. Because of this, I felt privileged when I was given the opportunity to go to Auschwitz Birkenau with the Holocaust Educational Trust [in 2016].

Having read much on the Holocaust, I thought I had a good understanding of this period of history. Little did I know.


‘Oswiecim – the town adjacent to Auschwitz Birkenau’: taken on the day.

I left Krakow airport by coach and stopped first at Oswiecim—the town adjacent to Auschwitz Birkenau. I knew nothing of this town but learned that before the war there had been a population of 8,000 Jews (58% of the overall population). I stood on the site where the ‘Great Synagogue’ once stood, now just grass and trees. This was burned down by the Nazis in November 1939 and was never rebuilt as there was no longer a Jewish population to attend it.

I then proceeded to Auschwitz I and then to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Reading had helped me understand the procedures that the Nazis employed to ensure the smooth running of the camps and Auschwitz Birkenau in particular. However, when I entered these sites, although my previous knowledge was of great help to me, one thing affected me greatly. This was the sheer size of both sites, the second (Birkenau) extending further than the eye could see. This came as a great shock to me. No images could prepare anyone for this.

When standing at the entrance of Birkenau and looking to the right, I could see no definite end. When looking to the left, I could see no definite end. When looking straight forward, again, I could see no definite end to the camp. I learned that this site alone was equivalent to the size of 420 football pitches. This should change the mind of a person struggling to accept the numbers involved. Certainly, this helped me to understand how so many people had died at Auschwitz.

On a more intimate level were a number of rooms I visited at Auschwitz I. In one room there were approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes and in another were piled suitcases. These suitcases all had the names and personal details of the prisoners on them. This was part of the Nazi deception that they were to be resettled and their luggage returned to them. The most affecting of these rooms was one filled with long tresses of female human hair which was to be used in textile manufacture. This was all part of the Nazi process to dehumanise their prisoners and included the distribution of ill-fitting clothing, un-matched shoes and lack of identity: ‘you are not a human being, you are merely a number’.

Although I now know a lot more about the Holocaust than I did just a few weeks ago, the part that I find most difficult and may possibly never understand is how such an educated and cultured country as Germany could allow itself to carry out such acts of inhumanity to mankind. My view is that although it may often cause controversy and personal grief, none of us should be afraid to speak out and make our voices heard when we fundamentally disagree with a course of events.

Featured image: CL-Medien / Shutterstock.com.