Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Lessons from the Holocaust: Visiting a Jewish Cemetery

Through the Holocaust Educational Trust, I had the opportunity to visit Poland and the WW2 Concentration Camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau.
It was an experience like no other and one that has taught me lessons that I cannot forget.
I have separated my experience into three different blogposts - Visiting a Jewish Cemetery, Auschwitz and Birkenau. I wanted to do this so you can fully experience how I felt and what I learnt during the day without feeling overwhelmed with information. Each part of the trip was extremely important and I want to express this as best as I can.

We arrived in Poland and began our journey to Oswiecim, which was later renamed by the Nazis as Auschwitz. We were travelling to a Jewish cemetery however were not told of the significance of it until we stood among the gravestones.
Now that I have reflected upon my experience, I have recognized this to be an extremely important segment of the entire trip. This cemetery was for Jews who had lived, worked and died within this town, before the Nazis emerged into power. It symbolises the complete destruction of communities during the Nazi rule; by 1939, 58% of the population in Oswiecim was Jewish.
We discovered that during the war, many anti-Semitic individuals completely destroyed this cemetery- they ruthlessly dug up the dead bodies and wrecked most of the gravestones, using the granite for money. Following the war, the remaining gravestones that had survived were placed back in this cemetery as a symbol of the Jewish community that had lived before. Many people, including myself, immediately align the Holocaust with the death of Jews, but the cemetery allowed me to acknowledge that the Holocaust was so much more than the deaths of individuals. The Holocaust was the death and struggle of communities across the world and the impact of this is still evident today. 
As we continued to walk around the cemetery, we noticed a small hut housing a gravestone. This gravestone was for the last ever Jewish person to have lived in Oswiecim; his name was Shimson Kluger and he survived the Holocaust and died in 2000.

Our group began to think about this individual and his life after the Holocaust. How could any human ever return back to normality after enduring years of extreme mental and physical torture?  Not only did this individual try to return to an ordinary lifestyle but he also returned to the town where he grew up and where he was tortured. The reminders of his pain encompassed him as the concentration camps were still standing and Antisemitism still thrived. Was this to show his strength and defiance as he did not want his torturers to take away the life he once had? Or did he have no other place to go and so, was forced to live in the town where the Nazis once wanted to destroy people like him?

Survivors of the Holocaust could return home to find their houses ransacked and in extreme cases, some survivors faced persecution. It is incredibly alarming that those who had survived from the hell of Auschwitz, still faced a difficult life when they were supposedly 'free.' For example the Communist era that arose in Germany, following the defeat of the Nazis, brought disbelief to the survivors of the Holocaust as the Communists in power propagated the idea that Auschwitz was a place where non-Jewish Polish prisoners died. This was to heighten the view that Auschwitz-Birkeanu was a place that symbolised the triumph of Communism over Fascism. Even after the atrocity they endured, Jews were still not met with a life that human beings deserve.  I also began to wonder how the people currently living in Oswiecim feel, especially knowing they live minutes away from a site of genocide? Seventy-one years since liberation, towns like Oswiecim still continue to suffer serious economic problems as they deal with the stigma of being a town associated with genocide.

Leaving the cemetery, I began to reflect on what I had just saw and prepared myself for the visit to Auschwitz. The Holocaust led to the eradication of the entire Jewish population in this town, highlighting the relevance of the Holocaust today. Oswiecim has lost a culture and vibrancy it once had and this is something that will leave an everlasting scar on this town.


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