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Posted on: 05/05/2020

Lessons from Auschwitz Project

Lessons from Auschwitz Project

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In March 2020 two students from St Charles Sixth Form College, Isabelle Mirao and Bella Shinder, were selected to participate in the Lessons from Auschwitz project, organised through the Holocaust Educational Trust. Both students, who are studying for their A levels at St. Charles, felt honoured to represent the College in this unique educational experience, alongside approximately 220 other students from schools and colleges in the South London region. They were accompanied by staff member Liz Lancaster.

The project consists of four parts and includes a one day visit to the former Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau; the principal and most notorious of the concentration and extermination camps established by the Nazi regime during World War II. In addition to the visit itself, all three attended an orientation seminar to prepare for the visit where they heard  holocaust survivor, Manfred Goldberg, speak of his experiences and learnt about pre-war Jewish life. Post the visit, they attended a follow-up seminar to reflect on their experiences and explore the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust.  The girls are currently working on their Next Steps project, which is the final part of the project where they will disseminate the lessons learnt within the college community.

Throughout the project, the two girls were really excellent ambassadors for the College. Although it was a challenging experience, due to its intense emotional impact, they found it utterly rewarding, stating that it was a fantastic opportunity and a journey of learning and exploration - not just about the history of the Holocaust but also the world we live in.

Please read their initial recollections of the visit below:

“When Ms McHugh informed me that I was being offered  a place on a trip to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, I readily accepted hoping that it would be an honourable, moving experience. However, I didn’t and in no way could have, anticipated the immense impact the visit would have on me. Walking on the grounds where such evil occurred, provoked a sickening anguish, different from any other feeling I had previously known. 

The jailing barbed wire; the dysfunctional rotting arrays of bunk beds; the terminal train track…all the photos  we have seen in history books etc are accurate representations of the camp’s appearance. But the appearance of the camp is meaningless when considering such a heinous place. No matter where I stood, it was impossible to escape the eerie essence lingering in the atmosphere. I felt stunned by the reality of such revulsion. The chilling rainy weather felt like a soft breeze when considering the -25 °C winters that starving prisoners underwent. I was grateful for my flimsy raincoat, my simple snacks, using the public toilet, most of all I was grateful to be able to leave such a horrific place. 

The trip was organised by ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ (LFA). Before flying to Poland I attended an orientation seminar with the purpose to prepare myself and meet other participating students for the visit to Poland. On top of general practicalities, we discussed Jewish life before the Holocaust. Jewish people were like any other human beings.  Religious beliefs and opinions, levels of orthodoxy, money, politics and appearance varied widely across Jewish families and communities. It was crucial to recognise the insanity of anti-Semitism before visiting the camps.

The Holocaust discriminated against all those who were born into Jewish families. The fact that Jews are human beings was disregarded. I was honoured to hear holocaust survivor, Manfred Goldberg, share his traumatic experience of being a German Jew in the 30s-40s and how he later survived the Nazi death camp, Stutthof. It was antagonizing hearing Manfred describe how his family were torn apart. His father escaped to Britain, before Manfred, his mother and younger brother were arrested by the Nazis. Upon arrival at Stutthof, a selection processes took place determining who would live to be a prisoner and who would be murdered. Being only 14, there was little hope for Manfred’s survival. Prisoners needed to be at their prime: strong enough to carry out relentless tasks.

Amongst the horrors of the selection process, Manfred highlighted a glimpse of hope. He spoke of a man in the selection line who told him to pretend he was older. If it weren’t for lying about his age, Manfred may have been sectioned for murder. Manfred’s mother also survived the selection- she was separated on the basis of being female. However, his younger brother was not approved and was sent to be slaughtered. With no opportunity to mourn, Manfred began his eight months as a slave worker in Stutthof.

Days before the end of WW2, the Nazis neglected Stutthof, ordering all its prisoners to march for extreme distances in the brutal Polish winter. The severely mal-nourished and under-clothed prisoners were forced to maintain a vigorous pace set by the SS officers. The strenuous physical toil enforced upon the perishing prisoners caused many to drop to their deaths. Others who couldn’t keep pace were shot by SS officers. Manfred spoke of the single piece of bread and glass of water he had consumed six days prior to marching. The death march was the end to many lives of victims who had survived so far. Barely living, Manfred was liberated at Neustadt in Germany on May 3rd 1945. He was sent to hospital where he was restored to health. Upon his arrival to Britain, Manfred reunited with his father. To this day, he is happily married with four children and several grandchildren. 

Despite his traumatic past, Manfred remains a practicing Jewish man. Nearing 90 years of age hasn’t interfered with his hearty appetite for life. The Nazis murdered over six million Jews (almost two thirds of the European Jewish population at the time). They imprisoned millions, stripping away any form of individuality and tattooing numbers for identification purposes. Despite the barbarous attempts to dehumanise prisoners, Manfred never let go of his faith. Manfred is living proof that the human spirit isn’t something that can be stolen.  When discussing the holocaust, statistics can fail to communicate the inhumaneness of events. A holocaust victim isn’t a number out of millions, but a human-being’s life, just like mine or yours.

Visiting Auschwitz Birkenau has put things into perspective. I am incredibly lucky to be born in a millennial in our forward-thinking society, to have endless opportunities and autonomy. Yes, life can seem difficult and overwhelming at times, but the fact that I live in a free society, is something I will be forever grateful for. The Holocaust ended, but antisemitism and other extreme forms of racism are still occurring on a daily basis. It is crucial that we raise awareness of the holocaust in order to prevent repetition in the future. The seeds of the holocaust began sprouting long before the massacres and death camps. It was the dismissal of relatively minor anti-Semitic acts which allowed room for the rise in antisemitism. Standing by in silence made it possible for the Holocaust to happen, when the final solution occurred, it was too late to speak up.” ~Bella Shinder.

“I share this account as a way to try and share the effect my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau has had on me. I believe participating in this visit and project has genuinely changed my persepective on life for ever and for the better.  As someone with a love for history, it can be quite easy to get lost in the events of the past, but this trip has furthered my resolve to make sure the Holocaust is not only remembered, but learnt from.

Before I began this journey, I wasn’t aware that they were holocaust deniers, let alone how predominant they could become in later years. The fact that I am part of the last generation who will have the honour of hearing a holocaust speaker address an audience first hand made the danger of denial or non remembrance become suddently more real and terrifying- from the minute I met Manfred, our holocaust survivor speaker at the orientation seminar. Sitting at the front of the audience directly across from him, I could feel this unwavering desire to not blink for one second or cast my eyes on anything else as his presence alone held so much power but his life story was so, so powerful and poignant.  I am aware that the Holocaust is extraordinarly hard to accept and understand but in the presence of Manfred, I had no choice but to mourn the harsh realisation of the atrocities that had been committed, the individual souls who were a light on this earth, sniffed out by irrational fear and sheer utter ignorance.

I will admit that rage filled me during a lot of the time after the first seminar and during the trip to Poland; the utter disregard for other human life deeply shocked and angered me.  Something my fellow St. Charles student Bella, who accompanied me on the trip, said as we stood chatting in the town of  Oswiecim at the start of the visit resonates with me. She said “Oswiecim feels like a body with no soul”.  There were no remaining signs of any Jewish life or culture in the town and as the ground grew muddy on the land that once held the greatest synagogue in that town, I felt a real sense of sadness and grief.

When my eyes first caught sight of Auschwitz-Birkenau, my stomach immediately dropped and I began to feel physically sick. The aura here was different to the town; Auschwitz felt like a factory, oiled and primed to work like clockwork and it brought closer to my mind the isolation and despair it would have felt like to exist and be forced to work under horrific and brutal conditions here. This feeling continued to grow within me when I saw the horrific beginnings of an unfinished Birkenau, clear for all to notice that the workforce was one of manufacturing death. The ‘buildings’ which housed the victims were uncomfortable to stand beside and the realisation of the barbaric conditions these prisoners were forced to live in, offereing no shelter or dignity of any kind, made me shiver within.  The Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free) sign at the entrance to Auschwitz One incensed and sickened me. This,  alongside seeing the possesions of the victims on display; their suitcases, glasses, shoes, highlighting their former lives and the nailmarks in the glass chambers horrified me to the core. It all brought home to me, unlike any text book possibly could, the homongous aniliation caused by this catastrophic genocide and at that moment keeping the memory alive of this and subsequent genocides worldwide, had never felt so important to me.  I know now more than ever that I will ensure Manfrad’s and all survivors’ stories are shared and heard.” ~Isabelle Mirao.


And finally below are Ms Lancaster’s Auschwitz reflections.

“The words ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Holocaust’ have been familiar for many years (both my parents had lived through WW2) however I felt largely ignorant of 20th century European political history and that of the Jewish people in general. The possibility of accompanying students from the College to Poland therefore was an opportunity I could not refuse.

The orientation seminar set the scene in a pre-war Europe where Jewish life was integrated and there was freedom to worship and live normal lives. We considered Jewish identity in different European countries, focusing on individual human beings and families. This was poignantly underlined when we had the great privilege of hearing the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, 90-year-old Manfred Goldberg. Listening first hand to Manfred, witnessing his dignity, honesty and courage in relating his story, before, during and after the Holocaust was truly one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. We were all too aware also that there would soon be no survivors left to bear witness to the atrocities of WW2.

Once in Poland we visited three sites: the Polish town of Oswiecim (named Auschwitz by the Germans), Auschwitz 1, (the concentration camp which was for mainly non-Jewish prisoners, Polish political and religious opponents of the Nazis, gay men and Soviet prisoners of war) and finally Birkenau, a purpose built extermination camp where mainly Jewish and Roma (or ‘Gypsy’) prisoners were murdered.

I was familiar with images of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work sets you free) gate at Auschwitz and films such as ‘Schindler’s List’ but nothing could have prepared me for the huge physical scale of the extermination and the personal possessions of thousands of people murdered. Ironically these objects had survived when their owners had been killed… The Birkenau site was bleak in the extreme. It was massive. Wooden sheds, some previously used to house around fifteen horses, had been converted to accommodate hundreds of prisoners in dire conditions without any sanitation or heating. A railway line with a dead end terminating beside gas chambers. As the light faded and our visit drew to an end, we stood together in the pouring rain and listened to the words of a rabbi as we remembered the thousands of people who’d lost their lives, their identities and their futures in the Nazi genocide of the Jewish race.

One aspect of the project I found particularly thought provoking was the invitation to consider the terms ‘perpetrator’ and ‘bystander’. What responsibility did non-Jewish neighbours and local councils have when it was apparent that their communities were what amounted to being ‘ethnically cleansed’? What would I have done? What should we all do NOW when we see similar atrocities happening today in Syria, Yemen and India?

Sadly, I find it challenging, frustrating, depressing that man’s inhumanity to man seems innate and Hegel’s phrase, ‘We learn from history that we do not learn from history’ rings very true. However, Santayana’s words, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ are perhaps more hopeful.

For all of us taking part, the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ experience challenges ignorance, injustice, complacency, bias and hate and encourages understanding, reconciliation, respect and realization of the common human condition.” ~Ms Lancaster

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