The annual Unite Against Fascism (UAF) educational trip to Krakow and Auschwitz took place last week.
For many of us it was the first opportunity to get a true sense of the scale of the atrocities carried out in the Holocaust.
On the first of our four days we were taken on a tour of the old Jewish quarter and the site of the Krakow ghetto. Among the shocking stories we heard was of an orphanage where all of the children were sent to a Nazi concentration camp—and the head teachers decided to go with them.
The tour ended in the ghetto heroes’ square where, at the end of the ghetto period, the remaining occupants were sent to Auschwitz and into the new gas chambers there.
The next day was the main day where we went to KL Auschwitz I and II-Birkenau. Within a few minutes of arriving at the original camp we saw the infamous gate with those words “Arbeit Macht Frei” ("Work sets you free”).
Among the shattering exhibits were the piles of hair, clothes, shoes, and other belongings. The scale of these is terrifying, especially when one realises that the Nazis sent most of it off to be used elsewhere and burnt almost all of what remained when they were evacuating the camp.
Then we went to Block 11, the only one left in its original condition. It was used for keeping prisoners until they were taken outside to the “death wall” and shot.
It was also the site of the chemical trials which eventually developed the Cyclone B gas.
Such appalling realities left us feeling sick and angry. But then we went to KL-Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It’s impossible to convey just how enormous it is. The fence goes on for as far as then eye can see and the train tracks run right through the centre.
Near the end is the place where the arrivals would be sorted into two groups: the strong would stay and work but the rest were sent straight to the gas chambers.
The chambers themselves have been in ruins since the Nazis evacuated, but we could see the despicable designs.
At the main memorial we joined in the Yiddish song “Zog nit keyn mol”, sung at Holocaust memorial services around the world. Its title means “Never Say” and is an anthem of hope among horror.
Among all the horrors and vivid descriptions of what it entailed, several things stood out. At the subsequent meetings and discussions, we felt grateful towards the others who came on the trip because, not only was it helpful to have their support, but also the group offered a unique political interpretation of what happened.
We heard from speakers such as David Rosenberg, Andy Zebrowski and Weyman Bennett and listened to Lorna Brunstein, daughter of Holocaust Survivor parents.
When discussing the oppression leading up to the Holocaust many people were making parallels with racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia today.