Reliving The Horror: A Visit To Auschwitz

Mala Tribich is a remarkable woman. Remarkable not just because she survived the Nazi genocide and lived to tell her tale, but also because of the candid and clear manner in which she speaks about it all.

In late spring this year, the 87-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor addressed a captivated audience of school pupils and teachers from throughout Northern Ireland about the storied history of her life.

Mala told those gathered at the Wellington Hotel that she had led a pleasant early childhood and “had a rather good but unremarkable life, until it was turned upside down in 1939”.

Mala Tribich speaks to the gathered crowd before their visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau Credit: Hayden Gray  / Holocaust Educational Trust
Mala Tribich speaks to the gathered crowd before their visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau
Credit: Hayden Gray / Holocaust Educational Trust

The gathering was to act as a precursor for a trip to the notorious extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland; part of The Lessons from Auschwitz series.

Delivered by the London based Holocaust Educational Trust, this was the first time in several years that Northern Ireland school pupils had been able to avail of the programme, thanks to a welcome injection of government funding.

On the ground in Poland, Mala’s recollection of having “a fear in your eyes that was hard to get rid of” followed the young students around like a ghostly echo, up a dim corridor in the camp’s museum. Here, the tragic, deathly stares of hundreds of Jewish prisoners peered out from behind their glass photograph casings.

One aspect that became clear from the trip was that this was indeed a lesson; a visual lesson in the clinical and systematic dehumanisation of the Jewish people. The “annihilation camps” were places of disease, death and, until their liberation in 1945, despair.

A packed conference room at the Wellington Park Hotel. Credit: Hayden Gray  / Holocaust Educational Trust
A packed conference room at the Wellington Park Hotel.
Credit: Hayden Gray / Holocaust Educational Trust

Thousands of pairs of spectacles, scores of discarded shoes, tumults of teddy bears… and human hair, alongside stacks of empty Zyklon B gas canisters, were overwhelming sights to take in.

The marrying together of the methods of mass murder alongside human possessions strikes any visitor with a clenched fist of fear, but sorrow, too.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’

In a day of bitter emotions and raw experiences there were also curious observations to be made. An orchestra, we were told, was the curiously macabre experience which greeted many new inmates at the Auschwitz 1 Concentration Camp.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – Walking through Auschwitz’s infamous gates.
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – Walking through Auschwitz’s infamous gates.

This realisation proved to be one of the most unsettling experiences of the day. The rag tag ensemble of talented prisoners would strike up as soon as The Damned passed through the infamous iron gates of the camp, ensuring they would march in step to the rhythm.

A more positive anomaly was the fact the Thomas Cook flight crew, captain and all, disembarked in Krakow and joined the youth group on their trip to Auschwitz. Crew member Cathy said that they didn’t “get opportunities like this too often so we enthusiastically volunteered for the chance to lead our local pupils on the chartered trip”.

Local woman Karina has been taking guided tours around the camps for years. She said the emotional toll is incredibly draining.

Cell block pathway of barbed wire barricades
Cell block pathway of barbed wire barricades

A front-line responder to the raw experiences of the thousands of people who visit Auschwitz-Birkenau each month, Karina was keen to stress that everyone should make the effort to come here at some point. “Watching films, reading books…and coming here? It is completely different”.

Auschwitz, with its museum and fully maintained buildings, is a monument to horror that simply must be seen to be believed.

But the separate Birkenau site is a vast, empty, soundless landscape, most of which is now in ruins. It’s what you can’t see here that is really the most terrifying of all.

Israeli children later gathered around the large, looming monument positioned at the end of the infamous Birkenau railway lines. Their silent respects to their lost ancestors were nearly as powerful as any other imagery from the day combined.

 

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This silence at the site is sacrosanct, as one American Congressman has found to his chagrin. Clay Higgin’s decision this week to record and upload a monologue taken from inside a gas chamber at the Auschwitz site may have been originally good intentioned, but was done in extremely poor taste.

As evening fell a poignant candlelit vigil marked the end of the day. In front of a crowd of 223 pupils and teachers, Rabbi Barry Marcus, from the Central Synagogue in London, spoke:

“You are good people… you are bursting with talent… you’re vibrant, you’re important, you’re brilliant… But so were they!” he roared, suddenly turning and pointing towards the ruination of dozens of huts, scattered with the ghosts and unknown memories of a decimated people.

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One of the recurring themes from this visit and its linked seminars was the importance of attempting to humanise the perpetrators. The Nazi genocide raises questions about those on the periphery of the Holocaust; such as civilian engineers who built the train tracks or those who dug up the roads all leading to the camps.

Were they just as responsible in the role of logistic facilitator, or did the fear of loss of earnings and being fatally labelled a colluder in Occupied Poland make it a simple decision?

In a similar vein, one could question whether the man who joined the Nazi party in 1930 bore the same intent and cruel nature as those who eventually guarded and administered the extermination camps. Although, can an SS day trip away to the countryside with running rivers, playful flirting and tubs of blueberries & cream really be the domain of the visceral and hellish?

Auschwitz
Wall of Jewish Holocaust Victims

Photographs of smiling male and female SS camp guards mingling together on team building days ironically magnified the frightening reality of the Holocaust. The normalcy of the men and women who committed these acts is unnerving and upsetting in equal measure.

Back in Belfast, Mala concluded with her thoughts on common questions that people ask her: “How does she feel about the perpetrators? Is she driven for justice? Is she even angry?”

“I’m quite indifferent about punishments… with age, one’s attitude can change. What’s the point, now? It’s too late in the day.” she said.

For the young adults on this trip, though – who have now become ambassadors in their local communities for the Holocaust Educational Trust – it’s not too late. Their appreciation and direct, raw engagement with the magnitude of the Holocaust can help to enable us all, even in a small and tiny way, to make sure that history is never forgotten and, in this case, never repeated.

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