'I Thought I Was Prepared For Visiting Auschwitz. I Was Wrong'

Kirsten“To forget a holocaust is to kill twice” – Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor.

OF all the things I’ve ever written or spoken about, this is definitely the hardest. I am writing not to hold any grudges or create any disturbances but simply to share an imperative message that I believe everyone, regardless of age, beliefs or historical knowledge needs to hear. This is not a fable, a creative story or a myth – this is real.

I was among a group selected for the nationwide Lessons from Auschwitz programme who flew to Poland in the cold, early hours of Wednesday 28 October from Glasgow Airport. Although now a few months ago, part of me still relives it every single day. My trip was not about sightseeing and shopping, it was about the sudden realisation that humans with little humanity exist.

We had one day in Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau, a day which was like stepping inside a history textbook or some harrowing holocaust movie – it was within touch, I was breathing it in.

One thing struck me as coaches carried us -- 200 naïve, yet eager students from across Scotland -- into the small Polish town of Oświęcim, later given the formidable name Auschwitz by the Nazis. Oświęcim was unobtrusive, the landscape quiet and still, the green, yellow and orange houses like Lego models across acres of forgotten land. Here had taken place the murder of around a million people. It's a number so hard and so tormenting to picture. A million. In one tiny place. I thought of the cries of children inside cattle carts as they came to a halt in a foreign and alien land. I was now in that land, my eyes fixed upon those very tracks that led into a death camp.

I remember so often throughout the day thinking 'why?' Why these people; the Jews, the Romas, the political prisoners, the homosexuals? Why was this allowed to happen? Why was it not stopped sooner? How could people allow themselves to be a part or even a tiny fragment of these cruel and callous events? That’s the thing; the world immensely suffers not from the callousness of bad people but from the silence of good people.

Through a headset a guide related the sins that had been committed in the very place I stood, the words passing right into the grooves of my mind. Her words still haunt me and I feel like they always will. I thought I was prepared but I was wrong. Books, documentaries and photographs tell a little, but experience tells a lot.

Above me were the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Makes You Free -- at the gateway to Auschwitz.

A feeling of rage and immense misery came over me as I looked at the dusty gravel. A million people walked to their deaths on this path that I stood on.

I found myself lost in a room full of human hair. Each strand screamed at me. I spotted a long ginger plait in the pile, almost identical to my hair colour with the bobble still securing it, just like that girl had styled it. Hair surrounded me. There was nowhere to turn, nowhere to run. The room was full of it. Thousands of piles of it lay behind a glass panel. It was so close. There was just a single glass panel between me and the tangible reality of one of humanity's most evil crimes. I cried. I grieved. I walked on.

I think that was the hardest part, walking on. Walking past the lives that had been taken with absolutely nothing I could do to bring them back. Nothing I could say or do would change the past. As the day went on, I could feel my heart breaking.

The rooms full of possessions that we gazed at made me realise the harsh reality -- million people, all individuals.

Writers, artists, musicians, sportsmen and scientists.

Mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grans and grandads.

Brown hair, black hair, blonde hair, red hair, white hair and grey hair.

Each shoe and each suitcase belonged to one person. The concept of individuality is so important when we think about the Holocaust. Each person was individual and unique; just like we are. I cannot help but wonder how different the world would be today if the Holocaust had not happened. For instance, think about cancer. What if the cure for such a lethal disease was trapped inside the mind of an individual whose lungs became filled with Zyklon-b gas as their world ended? It is these things we must consider; a mass loss of knowledge, culture and human life. Sometimes there are just no words.

The gas chamber. The forbidding, dingy and dying grey of the thickest stone walls I have ever seen. However, the thickness was not enough to mask the truth of what occurred in that very chamber. Dark, disconsolate, demoralising.

Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I still see it -- I see it all. I see the shadows of the people of those years gone by who perished. I see that scratchy, striped pyjama-like uniform frozen in time inside that glass box. My eyes flash between the names painted on suitcases that would never again be held in the warm hands of their owners..

I am changed after breathing in that loathing air.

Why do I ever complain? Why do I moan? Why do I become fed up with the challenges that I am faced with every day?

Those challenges are a privilege. I am a privilege. A walking privilege.

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