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My Experience of Auschwitz-Birkenau – Phyllis Hoyle

On the 8th May 2019, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Auschwitz Learners Project with the Holocaust Educational Trust. The only way to describe how I felt this day was humbled. I was also left contemplating how a person who played any part in the Holocaust could allow this to happen.

Prior to the trip, I had very little personal connection to the Holocaust, and felt as though I only knew the basic facts and figures surrounding the topic. After participating in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Learners Project, my understanding is much greater and I feel passionate towards the subject, particularly towards the role of bystanders, and how this remains relevant in the modern day.

After the visit we looked at historical conclusions of the Holocaust, and one that strongly linked with my thoughts on the 8th May was “we must recognise the role of the ‘bystander’ – those who had an awareness of the unfolding events but did not or could not stop them”. I already had thoughts on this topic throughout the visit, asking myself questions such as ‘How could so many people partake in the Holocaust and not take a stand against it?’ as I walked through the Auschwitz camp, witnessing the horrific conditions the prisoners had to survive in. Particularly, the well-known room of hair, which was the most saddening part of the visit for me, as this contained real parts of a human, rather than the belongings they brought with them. This room was the strongest memorial for the individuals who lost their lives here and made me most actively think about the role of bystanders.

In Birkenau, we learned of a prisoner who was forced to assist the death camp staff in disposal of the bodies, but through this trauma, he managed to document the horrible treatment of himself and those who had unfortunately been killed. This made me think of the role of a ‘bystander’ and how he could let this happen to people similar to him, but then we discussed placing “bystanders in their historical context” and attempted to understand the suffering they would have endured if they had spoken against the crimes. It is also difficult to call him a bystander when he was brave enough to document his experience for the world to uncover in times to come, so although he could not stop the Holocaust, he could serve as a reminder to not allow history to repeat itself. Thinking in this manner makes it easier to answer my questions surrounding how Birkenau had an extremely high and frequent death count, and the answer seems to be that the bystanders were silenced by the fear for their own lives, and after spending the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau this is easier to understand. But thinking in this way does not make me forget the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust, nor of the bystanders in this. In fact, it heightens my passion towards not allowing extreme events like this to reoccur and to promote the importance of a bystander instead being a revolutionary against the mistreatment of any human being. Therefore, the Holocaust can be a lesson to everyone, and a reminder that bystanders should forever try their hardest to be active in change, no matter how small the final impact.

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