January 27th Is Holocaust Memorial Day.
This report from Gemma Greer
was written following a journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Her name is an inescapable sibilation, twisting and roping itself around my neck, choking me since I returned home from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oświęcim. It was written on a suitcase, one of over 3000, piled high behind glass. There were plenty of other names written, looped and curved and marked by the unique hand of its owner- but hers stood out to me, and I fixated on it. When I asked about her, I didn’t expect the answer I received: Hannah was barely a year old when she arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, and that is all that is known about her. There is no paperwork, no evidence of that innocent baby existing besides one single suitcase. It is not hard to guess her fate upon arrival in the camp – all children her age would have suffered the same one.
I don’t really know what I was expecting, to be perfectly honest. Maybe, I had been too idealised by textbooks and memoirs I had read, where victims of the Holocaust were recognised and given the proper respect, with detailed histories and old photographs. Their lives before the camp were documented. However, there was Hannah, nothing more than a name on a suitcase – nothing more than a victim of the camp, and not the bubbling, bouncing baby she must have been beforehand. And I didn’t want to reduce her to that. It made me angry, it really did, that everything had been taken from her: her history, her individuality and most importantly, her future. Reading about the Holocaust makes it seem a million miles away and often it becomes easier to consolidate 11 million deaths – 1.1 million of those in Auschwitz – as simply a number; we fail to remember that those killed were people, just like us.
That realisation is hard to come to unless you’ve stood there and you are faced with the reality.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is definitely not how I imagined it to be. Before going and even as I stood before “Arbeit Macht Frei”, I had all these expectations of a harsh, unforgiving landscape, eerily silent besides the striking whipping of the wind, but it was far from it: it was a sunny Autumn day, with the sun splitting through the trees like a fine-toothed comb. The sky was a soft bubblegum, and met harmoniously with vibrant green grass on the flat land. It was very pretty, which bugged me the entire day. How could the sun shine where so many people had lost their lives and their families? It was beyond reason. However, if you stood very still and silent for a few moments, the air would grow heavy very quickly, despite the bright sunshine all around. And then, maybe, you would be able to smell the deaths that still haunted the grounds.
The sheer scale of the Birkenau camp is also something which hits you hard: the railway line which runs through the middle, running off into the horizon. On the day, we were allowed to ascend the stairs to the watch tower, where the Commandant would stand in order to assess the camp and the prisoners. When you look out the windows, it is easy to understand the discrepancy of power between the SS guards and the prisoners. In that position, everyone below looks insignificant, like a tiny speck of dust.
What most people fail to realise is that Auschwitz-Birkenau is split up into three sections: Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz 2 Birkenau, and Auschwitz 3. While Auschwitz 3 is closed off to the public, we were allowed to visit Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. Auschwitz is largely a museum with exhibits and displays detailing the camps part in the Holocaust – it is here where I saw Hannah’s suitcase. Birkenau is the more widely recognised image of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the landscape of movies based in the concentration camps – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example.
It was when I walked through the stone building used as a gas chamber in the Auschwitz part of the camp, my thoughts returned to Hannah, after several hours. I stood in the room where the prisoners were gassed, the stone walls appearing to push in on me, and tried to imagine what the scene must have been like for a little baby: men screaming, people clambering over one another, children crying, mothers attempting to comfort their babies, once they realised that they were not going for a shower. Even though I’ve stood in the path of all the death that occurred in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it’s still very hard for me to comprehend. Did she know what was going on? Can a baby understand that she’s going to die? I can’t even attempt to answer those questions. The gas chambers were most likely the hardest aspect of the visit for me, and it’s hard to truly explain why. There were also two larger ones in the Birkenau camp, used much more often for mass murder, as Auschwitz 1 was primarily for political prisoners and such. However, all that remains of them are ruins. One, destroyed in an uprising by prisoners, the anniversary of which coincided with our visit. On October 7, 1944, having learned that the SS was going to liquidate much of the camp, the members of the Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners forced to work in the crematoriums to burn the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers, at Crematorium IV rose in revolt. Although quashed by the Nazis, the uprising was incredibly important in increasing morale for the remaining prisoners in the camp, that something could be done. Although it seems as if I’ve gone on for a long time about the tragedies of the camp, the stories of hope and perseverance are the thing which have stuck in my mind the most. It’s a lot easier to think of the strength of those in the camp than the degradation and humiliation they faced.
The other was destroyed by Nazis, attempting to liquidate the camp before the Allies reached it. The rubble takes on a significance when it’s front of you, and you can see the bricks, the rough edges. broken and chipped, of the victims, and for me personally, it felt like a gravestone. There are no graves, no markers for the victims on the camp, so as our guide read a journal entry beside the ruins – emotive and demanding that we do everything we can to remember what went on the camp, to never forget – I took a silent moment of mourning for them, as if it were.
Towards the end of the day, we arrived in front of a wall of photographs, in the “Sauna”- a room used for processing new arrivals- some of smiling couples, friends, families, and again, I found myself in front of the photos of the babies, and when my eyes fell upon each unidentified infant, I wondered to myself “Is that Hannah?” It was crazy, but I was clinging at straws. In the middle of the wall there was a plaque, and as I read the writing, I could feel my soul crushed:
The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans,
The world’s best, the bleak earth’s brightest,
These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort.
From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen.
In these words, I found Hannah.
Rabbi Marcus spoke to us at the end of the day, and to say the least, he is not a man who minces his words. He shouted and yelled at us, a group of 200 students, about the importance of everything we had seen that day and its relevance to how we live our lives, how we can’t ignore it. His passion was catching, and a wave of enthusiasm slid over us. For the first time in the day, it didn’t feel as if I was experiencing Auschwitz alone. Flowers were placed and we lit candles which we lined up along the railway line. For the second time that day, I noted how strangely beautiful the place looked, with the light from the candles flickering under a full moon and a deep royal blue night sky. This time, however, it felt sombre and appropriate, and I smiled.
Walking back along the railway line that night, the one synonymous with the horrors of the camp, I felt guilty: I hadn’t cried all. I am usually an extremely sentimental person, I cry at almost everything, so why wasn’t I able to cry while hearing of the cruelty, the despair and the desperation? It made me feel inhumane, as if I had no heart. It plagued me the entire journey home too, until I got home, and collapsed into floods of tears when I tried to explain to my parents how my day had been. I had seen so much at the camp that none of it had really registered to me while I was there, I was too shocked to take it in, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed while you are there – the hard part is talking about it. Weeks later, I still find it hard to articulate the experience without a lump forming in my throat. But I push on, because people need to know about what went on there, they need to understand the stories of the victims, not just as victims but as people; they need to understand Hannah, so that there will not be another Hannah.