Earlier this week I took a trip down to the Auschwitz Museum, about 3½ hours’ drive from Warsaw.
I have to admit this side trip wasn’t on my original list of things to see during the Churchill Fellowship tour. I’ve read many books about the Jewish Holocaust and so wasn’t looking forward to visiting the most notorious of all WWII death camps. However given the topic of my research I felt that the visit was necessary … and I’m always up for learning something new.
So there were three camps around the town Oświęcim, which was called Auschwitz by the Germans, and tourists are able to visit two of the camps.
The first stop on the visit was the Auschwitz I camp. I was surprised how sophisticated the set-up was: it gives the impression of permanence, as though the Nazis felt they would be carrying on their activities for quite some time. Many of the buildings in which prisoners were held were 3-story brick buildings with glazed windows, ceramic stoves and concrete floors. These buildings were bare, but they were built to last.
In some of these buildings the museum curators have sought to demonstrate the huge number of people murdered by the Nazis. In one very large room is a very large pile of human hair from the heads of the dead. This room is several meters long. The hair was used to fill mattresses. Much of the hair is still braided – it’s too horrible to describe. Another very large room is filled with people’s shoes – some of them look to be what would have been peoples’ best dress shoes – and in another room a large hill of tin pots… it goes on.
We were also shown some of the prison cells that many were housed in, including the standing cell which is the size of a broom cupboard. This was next door to the building where many “medical experiments” were conducted on Jews.
After the tour around Auschwitz I camp, we were taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau which is a short bus ride away. The entrance to this camp is seen in the film Schindler’s List. The train tracks run through this entrance into the middle of the camp, where people were “sorted” into those that were fit to work, and everyone else. Of course those who were deemed not fit to work – women, children, the elderly – were lead to the gas chambers at the far end of the camp.
The Birkenau camp is vast and no photograph can describe the scale of this camp. It might be 1km deep and at least 2km wide, although that’s just my estimation.
The housing here is far more basic than in Auschwitz I. The camp was built in 4 stages and each stage seems more basic than the previous one (the housing built in the final stages were wooden and were burned down by the Nazis to try and hide the evidence). We entered some of the buildings constructed during the first stage and they were barn-like and filled with built-in bunk beds too small to lie out flat on.
I learned that Hitler never visited Auschwitz, and he wasn’t interested in the details of torture or murder like the gas chambers. The ideas for these ghastly acts were dreamt up by the Nazi officers controlling each of the camps. I think we often tend to look solely to Hitler as being the perpetrator of it all, but we should remember there were many ordinary people who committed war crimes and they are all to blame for what happened, alongside their leader.
So, that was my visit to Auschwitz, a tour I won’t forget in a hurry!
Later in the week I met with Między Innymi Among Others which is a Polish organisation providing intercultural skills training to university students who are studying to become school teachers.
Although this organization is only three years old, they have already had some great success. At first they started out by inviting universities to participate in their program. Now, going into their fourth year, they are receiving enquiries from universities asking them to work in their university!
The Among Others program operates by providing a two-day course. It starts with a 1-day introduction to intercultural education, which is compulsory for all participating universities. The second day is on one of three topics of the university’s choice including aiding the development of intercultural competencies of children and young people; intercultural communication; working in intercultural teams; and stereotypes.
Among Others has a great quote by Kapuscinski on their website which I think summarises the intent of their work really well:
So humans always have had three possibilities
When meeting others:
They could choose war,
They could erect a well,
They could start a dialogue…
Later in the week, I visited Nigdy Więcej Never Again. This organization was established in the early 1990s, first to monitor far right hate crime, and later it expanded to produce some long-running community awareness-raising programs. These consist of the publication of an annual magazine on issues of racism, as well as their sports programs, Music Against Racism (which is a thematic partner at the annual Polish Woodstock festival) and Racism Delete (addressing cyber racism).
I first contacted Never Again because I was aware they are one of the leading organisations on the FARE Network which aims to tackle discrimination through football. I’ve now learnt that their work in sports is much broader than that. Never Again worked as a social responsibility partner with UEFA during the Poland-Ukraine European football championship recently, and was also the recipient of some of the funds raised by Nike during their Stand Up Speak Up campaign in Europe.
Never Again is run almost entirely by volunteers and they have seen many successes as a result of this determination and dedication to addressing racism. They have done this by focusing on trying to change the public conversation in Poland. Now, it is much more difficult for people to deny the existence of race hate in Poland, which is an important step in dealing with this issue.
Activists can read some of their tactics on building an antiracist movement via the New Tactics for Human Rights website