January 27th 1945 is the date that the Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp in occupied Poland was liberated. In October 2016, I had the privilege of attending a trip to Aushwitz, co-organised by the Union of Jewish Students and the Holocaust Education Trust. Many people have heard about Auschwitz and the horrors that happened there, and many have seen films or documentaries about the Holocaust. As a Religion and Theology student I’m very aware of the events that took place, and have taken modules and lessons about the holocaust. I was overcome with shock and horror during the visit. I think it is a place every person should visit in their lifetime.
Before we went on the trip we spent a lot of time really understanding what people’s lives were like before the War broke out. 6 million Jewish people, 7 million Soviet civilians, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, thousands of Roma Gypsies, and people with disabilities and homosexual people were murdered. These numbers are so huge that it is impossible to even imagine, but every single one of these people had a story, a family, a passion that we must try to remember.
The day was filled with numbness. I felt numb both outside, because of the cold, and inside due to what I was seeing.
The most poignant moment was in Birkenau II. It was suddenly pitch black by 4pm and as we stood by the end of the train tracks by the destroyed gas chambers, our group leader said that we were standing in the largest cemetery in the world. 1.1 million people were killed in those chambers and as we stood there and held a candle light vigil for all those whose lives were taken, this dark ominous place suddenly felt peaceful. I don’t know why, but it did. As we lay our candles along the train tracks, it was not only visually beautiful, but also symbolically beautiful because we could walk away. We were walking away from a train track which marked the end for 1.1 million people.
Even as I write this article, my eyes fill with tears just imagining what people have gone through at the hands of other human beings. Holocaust Memorial Day also remembers all those who have died in other genocides of history. We remember those who were murdered in Cambodia, Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia and Darfur. Innocent people who were killed just for being different, whether it be a different tribe, religion, race, political opinion or sexuality.
The one thing that really resonated with me and will for the rest of my life is that human beings have the power to do such terrible things but we also have the power to do such amazing things. Let’s not forget it was educated people who built the gas chambers, who designed concentration camps and railways to lead to such hideous places. We, as students at university, must collectively use our minds and our intellect to build remarkable things, things that don’t just help us but help everybody.
To mark this important date we will have a one minute silence at 12pm to remember all those who were killed in genocides and all those who survived.