70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz
Updated: 8th March 2017
First Published: 27th January 2015
Auschwitz remains one of the most powerful symbols to survive World War II. It is estimated that 11 million people died during the Holocaust with more than a million lives taken across the Auschwitz sites alone. Today marks a poignant moment with 70 years since the survivors, tormented by the conditions at the labour and extermination camps of Auschwitz, were liberated by the Soviet forces advancing west.
Lives lost but not forgotten
Set around 40 miles west of the city of Krakow, the Auschwitz death camps looked to represent the ‘Final Solution’ for the Nazis. Hoarding together those that did not fit in with the Nazi vision, Auschwitz effectively became a death sentence where gas chambers, shooting posts, inhumane conditions and even severe weather saw lives perish.
The commemoration is set to be held at the ‘Death Wall’ of Block 11 in Auschwitz I. 300 former prisoners from Auschwitz are expected to appear in what is anticipated to be the last major event where a considerable number of survivors will be able to attend. Wreaths will be laid and candles will be lit at this spot where the cold, grey backdrop of the ‘Death Wall’ is still bruised by the bullets of the small-calibre rifles. At the forefront of the mind will remain those who lives were so cruelly taken.
Walk along the dirt paths of Auschwitz I, amongst the buildings filled with the belongings of the prisoners including glasses, shoes, luggage, and even hair, and you can’t help but try to imagine the setting during the war years. Standing in the centre of the camp you try to paint a picture of the atmosphere, the faint shuffle of feet through the dirt, the shout of Nazi officers and even the cold weather that typically strikes the former Eastern Bloc. Yet thankfully, this can never be truly felt. The pain and suffering would be too much for anyone to take and instead the remains found in the glass displays and pictures of prisoners on the walls tell the story of lives turned upside down. Today will be a powerful day of remembrance where the atmosphere amongst the Auschwitz sites and surrounding area will be all the more striking.
Arbeit macht frei – Work makes you free
Enter Auschwitz I and the sign arching over the gate remains. It signalled the handover of Auschwitz from army barracks to a labour camp. Constructed by a prisoner, the sign was a false hope. Work for a freedom you should already have. It is a haunting reminder of the operation the Nazis tried to keep in check. Whether arrested or ‘moved for relocation’, those that were rounded up wouldn’t imagine what lay ahead. What the Holocaust continues to teach us to this day, is that such an atrocity cannot happen again.
Students visiting Auschwitz will also be taken aback by the site of Birkenau (Auschwitz II). The sheer size alone and view from the central watch tower located across the main entrance is staggering. No matter the weather, from the soaring heat of the summer to the bitter blitz of winter, students will learn of the conditions faced in the overflowing huts and train carriages.
Forever learning from the past
Today will be a reminder to all of what lies in the south of Poland. Auschwitz partly represents an event that cannot be truly explained but to highlight the brutality and senseless nature of warped ideology. All groups who visit Auschwitz are led around the camp with knowledgeable guides who tend to know someone who suffered through this period. An insight into the operation constructed by the Nazis and cruelly negotiated through the SS (Schutzstaffel) leads to some interesting discussions and questions. Visiting Auschwitz cannot but raise questions in the events of the Holocaust and lead to further enquiry in the classroom.
Auschwitz has also been a pilgrimage for many from the Jewish community. Amongst many things it can represent a fight for freedom, strength in defeating evil and standing up for the democratic right that the principle of liberty for all stands for. Around the world there are stories from those who survived the Holocaust or who had a family member suffer at the hands of the Nazis. Today will commemorate 70 years since the liberation of prisoners from Auschwitz, but every day will continue to mark another lesson learned from history.
By Tim Jenkins