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Finding horror and grief at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The grey-blue striped uniforms prisoners were forced to wear at Auschwitz. (Anoushka Patel/YJI)

Oświęcim, POLAND – The concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau saw over one million Jews, Romani, political prisoners, homosexuals – among other marginalized groups – arrive through its gates on cramped, filthy trains, never to be seen again.

In school presentations as part of my history class, I had the number 6 million etched into my brain; 6 million victims of the Holocaust. But it was hard to put a face to the names, to humanize the victims – these were people with personalities and lives not so different from anyone else’s.

The infamous entrance to Auschwitz II, where trains would arrive. (Anoushka Patel/YJI)

As part of the government-funded Lessons from Auschwitz program, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration camp that was in operation under the Nazi regime.

To provide us with some background to Auschwitz itself, we first visited the site of the last remaining synagogue in Oświęcim, the Polish town where Auschwitz was constructed.

The first thing that struck me was the existence of a Catholic Church, just meters away from the synagogue. There had once been peaceful co-existence in the town, before the Nazi ideology poisoned average civilians against the Jews.

After World War II, only a handful of Jews returned to Oświęcim. The last Jew to live in the town was a man named Szymszon Kluger, and he became known as the “last Jew of Auschwitz.” Every day before his death in 2000, he would open and close the synagogue, mourning the loss of a lively community as he became its sole protector.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was a strange experience, in that I didn’t know how to feel. There is no blueprint for the kind of reaction one has when confronted with such horror and devastation. 

One site where prisoners were shot by SS guards. (Anoushka Patel/YJI)

Everyone was completely silent while walking around the camp, just overwhelmed by the fact that we were stood in the same spot where thousands of Jews would have their lives cut short by Nazi SS guards. The mood could only be described as one of solemnity.

Each exhibit we ventured into held new horrors. I saw the blue striped uniform the prisoners were forced to wear to strip them of their identity and the hair that was shaved off their scalps to be sold.

There were the black-and-white images of malnourished children, their limbs protruding from their translucent skin as a result of being victims of experiments.

No number of presentations could prepare anyone for such a sight.

At the end of our visit, we all stood in a huddle as protection from the biting cold, listening to Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch deliver a parting message to us all.

One of 24 plaques written in different languages to commemorate the Holocaust. (Anoushka Patel/YJI)

He spoke of a signal man who worked at Auschwitz, sending a green signal to the guardsmen that a train full of prisoners was ready to enter the camp. The signal man was just one person; but he represented a cog in a machine that was responsible for the systematic persecution and murder of millions of people.

It reminded me of my own role in acting against oppression around the world. It does not matter if the victims are not the same race, gender or religion as me.

It is not enough for any of us to stay silent as bystanders. If we do, we are complicit in genocide, and should be held accountable for such acts.

At Auschwitz, I didn’t just learn about the history of the Holocaust. The rabbi summarized my experience most aptly – I became “a witness to a witness.”

It is with this truth that I must go forth into the world, and make sure we never forget, even after there are no more Holocaust survivors alive to tell their stories.

Anoushka Patel is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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