The first of February 2016 was just a normal day for billions of people around the world. For me it was the day where I had to face the death of more than a million innocent people. People who were tortured for their religion, their looks, their profession or simply their political orientation. It was the day where I had to face a part of the history of my country. Where I had to open my eyes for all the horrible things that had been done.
As a German these days it is not always easy. We have, fortunately, changed a lot since the days someone like Adolf Hitler was able to become Reich Chancellor of Germany. We have developed into a welcoming nation that is absolutely against racism and exclusion. Of course there are exceptions. Of course there is still a minority that represents racism in Germany. But the majority of people are wholly against racism, people who have learned from the past and who would and will do everything to never let something like the Holocaust happen again.
As a German you are confronted with your past very often. Most people know how to tell the difference between what has been and what is now, but some people still have prejudices. My English teacher once told me that when he was abroad twenty years ago some teenagers asked him if Hitler was still in power in Germany. A statement that makes me doubt all the development Germany has gone through, a statement that makes me doubt how I look at the world and in return how the world looks at a German girl like me.
We learn everything about our past in our history lessons at school. One part of learning about our past is the opportunity to visit Oswiecim, better known as Auschwitz. For one week we get to stay at a youth hostel in Auschwitz and visit the concentration camps Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. We have the opportunity to talk to a person who survived the Concentration Camp. I decided to sign up for it.
A few months later, on February the first we arrived in Auschwitz. We unpacked, ate something, talked, and played table tennis, all the while, aware of what was still waiting for us on the following days.
We didn’t know what to expect and the uncertainty was a heavy burden. Needless to say we talked about the visit beforehand. We had the chance to talk to our teachers about our fears and expectations. But it is completely different to talk about something than to actually see it with your own eyes.
The next day we visited Auschwitz 1. The sky was grey and cloudy. We followed our guide, listening. “On the basis of the partially preserved camp records and estimates, it has been established that there were approximately 232 thousand children and young people up to the age of 18 among the 1.3 million or more people deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. The fate of child and youth prisoners was no different in principle from that of adults. Just like adults, they suffered from hunger and cold, were used as laborers, and were punished, put to death, and used as subjects in criminal experiments by SS doctors. In the early period of the existence of the women’s camp, children born there were put to death, regardless of their ethnicity, without being entered in the camp records.”
Our guide told us facts that I had known before and facts that were new to me. But overall facts that were incredibly painful to know.
In between these old buildings, surrounded by people taking pictures it is really hard to believe that at this place humans were cruelly murdered, tortured to death and experimented on. Of course all over the concentration camps there are things that mark the death of these people: the gas chambers, the gallows, the photos of the dead. But one million is such a big figure. Try to imagine the death of one million people in your head, dying because of the irrational opinions of a few people. You won’t be able to.
The understanding of the extent of the concentration camps came the next day. In contrast to Auschwitz 1, Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) is huge. The concentration camp Auschwitz 2 is 171 hectares and four gas chambers big. Built, only to kill human beings. Our teachers bought roses and we were allowed to lay them down wherever we wanted as a sign of remembrance. I laid my rose down at the ramp where they selected which victim shall live and which shall die. I remember that I wrote in my diary that day: “I left my rose where hope became a weapon.”
At this ramp, they picked out the people that were to die immediately: The children, the elderly people, the people who were ill. They led them to the gas chambers, telling them that they would have the opportunity to take a shower and eat something warm afterwards-only to sneakily murder them in the gas chambers that looked similar to shower rooms.
They used their hope to kill them.
On our last day we visited Auschwitz 1 again, but this time without a guide. Going around in the concentration camp alone-or only accompanied by a friend-is something completely different than with a guide. I do see the importance of a guide, but without, you have the chance to stop at certain parts and take a closer look at everything. You have time to remember and pray for the victims.
Looking back at the journey I am glad that I signed up for it. I saw cruelty, I saw the foolishness of people, I saw horrible things. But this journey is something I will never forget and what happened is something that can never be forgotten. The only way that something like this can ever happen again is by forgetting this tragedy. By forgetting that all humans are the same and have to be treated in the same way. By giving someone the power who will use it for his own good and who doesn’t care about the people that suffer on his rise to power.
We have to be aware of what happened; it does not define us and it never will. We are different people than those who were in charge of Auschwitz, but this is a part of our past that we have to learn from.
Until today I have not been able to cry. It’s not a sign of my strength that I have not cried, because I wish I had. I am still processing and I am sure that eventually one day I will cry. Because no sane human being can see what happened in Auschwitz without having his heart broken a little bit.
Zoe Bunje is a seventeen-year-old-girl from Kassel, Germany. The German school system is not the same as the American school system, but she is currently in grade twelve which means that she is graduating this year. She has always loved to read and a few years ago started to write her own stories. Even though she mostly writes for herself she aspires to become a journalist one day.