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Auschwitz: A Year On

I don’t know why I said yes to Berlin. After visiting Krakow in March 2018, you would think my journey with the Holocaust was over. But, like the opportunity taker I am, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be easy; after all, we weren’t visiting an extermination camp like Auschwitz-Birkenau. Surely after walking through the gas chambers in Poland I could face anything. Oh how naive I was.

I will be the first person to admit I was scared, deeply, by my experiences in Poland last year. So much so it has influenced my work at Sixth Form and my own personal writing. But, until a couple of weeks ago, these scars had healed and became a distant memory - one that no longer haunted me at times when I least expected it. I had no more tears, no more moments struggling to sleep and no more bouts of silence that are so uncharacteristic for me. A year on, I learnt that it can take approximately three minutes for a year's worth of healing to be completely forgotten and those scars, which I thought had healed so well, to be gouged open again.

In my article last year, I wrote about feeling ‘numb’ as the pain from the death of over six million people was ‘simply too overwhelming to comprehend’. I now comprehend. I understand the pain and not just from the death of six million innocent lives, but of the eleven million (civilians, P.O.W, homosexuals and other minority groups) who died due to the Nazi regime. I wish I felt ‘numb’ now. Instead, I now feel physically sick; a throbbing pain in the pit of my stomach and the tears, which were absent for so long, have returned.

How do you grieve for eleven million, innocent people who died before you were born, and you have only a small understanding of their pain?

I wish I knew.

When I told my family friends I was going to Berlin, they said to me not to mention the war. The dreaded N-word was definitely not to be used, even when talking about historical events. Under an hour into the trip I realised that the war and the Nazis are a defining part of Berlin. You cannot escape the fact the Nazis rose to power, it is almost written into the very bricks of every building, or on the tips of everyone’s tongue. You cannot forget. Although this makes Berlin, much like Krakow, a city of ghosts, Berlin is so much more scarred than the Polish cultural hub. A majority of Berlin was either bombed by the Allies or demolished by the Nazis themselves, leaving very little of pre-WW2 Berlin standing. Furthermore, the infamous Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate - survivors of the war - are just that, infamous, due to their strong links to the Nazi Party. In fact, any buildings which survived the war will have some link to the Nazis. It is inescapable.

Berliners could have demolished everything that was left. But they didn’t. Although they are still rebuilding the capital today, and still find unexploded bombs when building a new apartment block, they aren’t trying to cover up their past. Instead of demolishing the Reichstag, today it’s Germany’s parliamentary building. The Brandenburg Gate still stands tall and mighty. The Olympic stadium, where Hitler was notoriously pictured attending the 1936 games, is home to ‘Hertha BSC’ - one of Berlin’s football clubs. Even the SS run ‘Concentration Camps Inspectorate’ at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is now Berlin’s police training academy. More shockingly, air raid bunkers still fill the walls of the metro stations, doors open to reveal miles of caverns, all of which were once filled with scared, innocent people. It’s a world away from Harry Potter.

Last year it was Płaszów which touched me. This year it was the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, a beautifully fitting sculpture in the centre of Berlin (again making it unavoidable). Walking through the maze of what may be interpreted as tomb stones really hit me; the weight of the concrete fell onto my shoulders. This is an experience I will forever have to carry, something I accept. It is a small mercy in comparison to the plight of those the memorial commemorates.

Krakow had no shame and could hide their scars. Berlin with all its shame, instead of covering sixty years of history which defines their country, wears their scars - not with pride - but with acceptance. For that I honour them; it takes courage to admit to and apologise for mistakes, yet it takes something more powerful to bare your scars to ensure history does not repeat itself. This is exactly what the amazing historians we met aim to do and, ultimately, was the whole point of the trip: to stop history repeating itself.

But it has, and will continue to do so. Prior to the trip I decided to do a little extra reading with the aim to fuel, not only my understanding, but my creativity. As a writer, there is nothing I believe in more than using my words for good. I wanted to understand what possessed fifteen men - before breakfast, in ninety minutes - to decide to systematically kill six million people. I also wanted to find out if this has happened again; I am sad to report it has. Different times, different wars, same story. From Auschwitz in Poland and Sachsenhausen in Germany to Con Dao in Vietnam; Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Omarska in Bosnia; history is still repeating itself today. I was disgusted after everything to find minorities still being persecuted for being just that: a minority. Of course, not everyone is innocent in such places as these, I fully understand that; but I can assure you many everyday people are just as innocent as you and I.

This was meant to be an article about my experience over four days, but if I wrote about just those four days I wouldn’t be writing the whole story. The Holocaust and Nazi Reign only lasted for a few decades; but we still see acts of anti-semitism and groups of Neo-Nazis today. From hate crimes at Sachsenhausen to the Charlottesville riots to the accusations within the Labour Party, it is still not over; it is just the tip of the iceberg. So many more minorities are being persecuted every single day.

But why is it our problem? We are just a group of Sixth Formers and I’m just an eighteen year old white girl, why’s it my problem? I’m not being persecuted; as far as privileges go, I’m near the top of the list.

That’s why it’s my problem. I have the privilege of freedom of speech and a voice which I can ensure will be heard. I vow to try and make a change, no matter how small. If there is one thing these trips have taught me, it’s that humanity is truly the most amazing thing. As cheesy as it sounds, together we really can achieve anything.

By Sophie Brown