Created on: 03 Feb 2012 | Last modified: 19 Feb 2018
So it was that a very well prepared group – of Holocaust Educational Trust staff and volunteer educators, pupils, teachers and invited guests – mostly journalists – gathered at Edinburgh Airport in the very early hours of a late autumn morning.
For me, an inhabitant of Central Scotland, our day visit to Poland necessitated a 4am start and a return well after midnight the following day. For others, both pupils and teachers, from further afield the day would have been even longer. HET staff were on hand to ensure that everything ran smoothly and that everyone was safely checked in for our charter flight to Poland.
After a flight of around 2 hours, we landed at Krakow Airport and were quickly ushered to a fleet of coaches for the onward trip to the town of Oświęcim in Southern Poland. This is the town that, under its German name of Auschwitz, will forever be associated with the vilest, most depraved act of genocide in human history.
On arrival in Oświęcim we split into two groups, with one visiting the town’s synagogue and the other visiting its Jewish cemetery. Those visiting the synagogue had the opportunity to meet Rabbi Barry Marcus, one of the driving forces behind the Lessons from Auschwitz programme, while my group toured the cemetery.
We had to gain special permission and access to tour the site, as it is kept permanently locked these days. In recent years, it has once again become a target for the far right and neo-Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic slogans have been daubed on grave-stones.
All cemeteries can be depressing and humbling places, but this is particularly true of Oświęcim’s Jewish cemetery. The overall impression is one of neglect. Long, overgrown grass and tangles of weeds cover every surface. The graves are untended, and the headstones are arranged in a haphazard fashion – not in neat rows or even in an a semblance of rows, but seemingly randomly sited at curious angles. Many are far more damaged and worn than you would expect for headstones of their age.
The reason for the neglect is simple – there was essentially no Jewish community left after the war to care for their dead. Before the war, Oświęcim had a thriving Jewish community of over 7000 people – around 58% of the town’s population. By the time of the liberation, there were just a handful of Jewish residents left. The final Jewish resident of Oświęcim, Shimson Klueger - himself a Holocaust Survivor - died in 2000.
The haphazard arrangement of the headstones is a result of Nazi desecration of the graves. Upon their arrival, they ripped up and smashed many of the headstones leaving the graves unmarked. Those headstones that were not smashed were used for other purposes – such as building roads or pavements.
Following the liberation, the surviving headstones were reclaimed and restored to the cemetery. But, because no records of where the dead were buried remained, it was simply not possible to return each headstone to its rightful place. So the cemetery now exists as a makeshift memorial to the destroyed Jewish population – no one knows where any of the dead truly lie, nor how many more people are buried here in graves that are now completely unmarked.
After this somber experience, our group walks back to the buses in near silence and we make the short drive to the first of the two Auschwitz camps that we will visit today.