On Thursday 22 February, we visited two Nazi concentration camps near the town of Oświęcim in Poland. First, we went to Auschwitz I, which initially housed political and religious prisoners. What perhaps surprised us the most was that all the buildings were still standing, and the emptiness of the streets between them, but for piles of snow, was all the more shocking. At Auschwitz I, there were many reminders of the scale of the Holocaust – six million murdered Jews – such as rooms full of shoes, suitcases with names and addresses painted on the sides, and even hair. We were encouraged to personalise this tragedy, as well as acknowledging its scale, by remembering the names of a few of the people whose photographs lined a long corridor in one of the buildings. We finished our visit of this camp by going into a gas chamber, where thousands of people had died. It was a chilling experience, especially when we noticed the scratches on the walls made by suffocating Jews more than seventy years ago.
We then visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the site of one of the most iconic photographs associated with the Holocaust – the railway tracks leading up to the building. However, this image is misleading because it does not show the sheer length of the tracks, which go on for a kilometre inside the camp itself. As we walked around Birkenau, the sun was setting, which seemed fitting for the discovery of a place in which 1.2 million people died, either through starvation, overwork or suffocation by Zyklon B gas. The temperature was also dropping to below freezing, but the Rabbi travelling with our group reminded us that we were not cold, wearing several layers and having eaten recently: prisoners in Auschwitz were cold, dressed in only thin clothes in -30°C and sometimes eating less than a thousand calories per day. We ended our visit with a memorial ceremony outside one of the crematoria, with readings of poems written by survivors of these camps and the laying of candles by all members of the group in the near-darkness. The sight of hundreds of small candles flickering in the wind was a fitting one with which to end our journey, demonstrating that we must stand up to injustice and intolerance wherever we see it, however great the opposition, for those who cannot fight themselves. As the Rabbi said, ‘never again’ is an empty phrase. What we actually mean is ‘always remember’.