Monday, 7 November 2011

Auschwitz: Part 1

As in, part 1 of the three other posts I can't attach a question to.

The Learning From Auschwitz project is an annual event made up of four parts: A pre-seminar in London, a one-day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a follow up seminar, and a project. Generally only two people per college get the chance to go, and after putting my name down, initially on a whim, I somehow found myself one of them.

I wasn't sure how to feel when I was told I was going. The two attendees are chosen by lottery, and I hadn't really expected my name to get pulled out.You can't really be excited because of what it is, and worrying about the practicalities, such as the 7AM flight to Poland on the 10th of November, and the fact that I'd need to travel to London twice, feels kind of... trivialising. When it's a place like Auschwitz, navigating the Underground and filling out paperwork seems a bit beside the point. I could say I was expecting it to be interesting, but that sounds limp somehow. I'm going to a place of mass-murder. How can I possibly describe that in a way that does the victims justice?

It'll be an Experience. That's all I can say at the moment.

Anyway, the first part, the pre-Seminar was last Wednesday. The Venue was about a five minute walk from Farringdon Station. It was buried into the side of an overpass, and would have been difficult to spot were it not for the stained glass windows. There were more people there than I'd expected- around 200. An entire planeful, more or less. Naturally, we got seated right at the back of the room, and as a result the first speaker, a man called Alex, was reduced to just a head bobbing about in front of the top half of a projection screen. His main job seemed to be to take us through proceedings, introducing everyone else and giving instructions. To start with he just gave us some background, telling us a bit about Auschwitz and what we'd be hearing about it over the course of the afternoon.

Then he handed over to a survivor. This was the second time in my life I've heard a Holocaust survivor speak, and the first one always sticks firmly in my mind. It had been in year 10, and our entire year group had been gathered in the hall to hear this man talk about his experiences as a young boy. Throughout the entire thing, everyone was silent. Silent, that is, not quiet. I don't mean quiet. I mean the kind of absolute silence that just never happens in schools. With us, there would always been someone talking, or moving, but not then. There was just... no noise, no teacher got up on an errand, no student lapsed in concentration even for a moment. Just... nothing, for over an hour. It was amazing.

This time round was similar, of course, but it didn't seem so out of the ordinary. The structure was different too. The first speaker, Joseph, had been linear, and talked about his experiencess in depth before asking for questions briefly at the end. This second one, Bob, told us in brief what had happened to him in the Jewish Ghettos and the two different camps he'd been held captive in, and then, after a brief break in which I made a dash for the liquid caffiene jug because I'd barely slept, spent far longer answering questions.

How this worked was one of the volunteers, Anna, wandered around, going over to anyone with their hand up and handing them the mic. Having come up with absolutely nothing to ask during the break, I suddenly got hit with inspiration and asked whether or not his experiences had had any lasting effect. Fortunately, he insisted they did not.

One of the things the LFA Project aims to do is to rehumanise the Holocaust. To remind the world that everyone involved, both victims and perpetrators, were people. They had names, they had lives prior to the war and many went back to those lives after it. We were shown photos of Holocaust victims before they became victims. A little boy on his first day at school. Two women on holiday, wearing fancy dress. We were told about a case where one of the camp commandants recognised a woman as being from the same part of Germany as him, and saved her life. Bob told us about his Wife, also a survivor, who was rescued by Nuns who were nominally outside the whole system. The entire point of this was to remind people that it wasn't straightforward, to take everything away from statistics and into names and choices.

After that, we split up into our assigned groups (Me and Chris, the other Itchener, were 10) and got taken through some of the finer details more thoroughly. It's probably worth mentioning here that the first sheet we were handed contained the first subject of discussion- an advert for "Auschwitz Experience Stag and Hen nights- bars, clubs... and a visit to the camp if you want to tick the culture box!" React to that however you like. I didn't know either. It sounded like something Chris Morris had made up, but we were all assured it was completely real. The mind boggles. Anyway, after that talk we were given lists of things it was reccomended we bring, and taken through the daily plan for Thursday, when we go to Poland. It turns out our destinations include some of the areas of the... more jarring areas of Auschwitz. The bunks. The Gas Chambers.

The Hair Room, where photography isn't permitted.

We were told here that nobody would force us to go into anywhere involving torture or death if we didn't want to. I know I will go in- I'm the type of person who always has to see- but I have no idea how I'll feel once I'm there, in a room where people were once murdered. Especially as my reactions to emotionally charged situations like that tend to be a bit unpredictable- sometimes I'll be in floods of tears, others I'll feel nothing.

I'll try and take a few photos for part two (which will probably be huge), but obviously not too many. I might have to take some voice recordings too, for my Journalism teacher, who seems to think it would be a good idea.

Clothes wise... I'll be toning everything down to go. It feels necessary. It appears I'll still be wearing my platform boots, though- I wasn't going to, but it soon became clear they were the better option, and the volunteer greenlit me.

Anyway, the Seminar rounded off with a typical closure, including more instructions and general anticipation.

It was a strange walk back to Farringdon Station.

So... I have no idea how I'm going to work out 'sleeping' between Wednesday and Thursday, seeing as I have to go to college as normal on the Wednesday but still be up at three to get to Gatwick, but I'll manage somehow. It'll be difficult- it already has been, what with us nearly getting lost on the London Underground- but it'll definitely be well worth it.

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