Growing up in England, the history of World War I (WWI) and World War II (WWII) were an integral part of our education system. I was first taught the curriculum during my primary school years. I remember to this day being petrified as a young boy, thinking whether another world war would happen again in my lifetime, where millions die. As I took history lessons into my A-Levels before I went to university, I studied WWII more in-depth. In particular, I learnt about what took place in Auschwitz.
Auschwitz concentration camp had over forty concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. It consisted of Auschwitz I, the principal base (Stammlager) in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers; Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labour camp for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben; and dozens of sub-camps. The camps became a major site of the Nazis’ final solution to the Jewish question.
As the years have gone by, I’ve wanted to visit and experience the concentration camp for what it is today, a museum with extracts of survival stories and accounts of lost men, women and children. It was estimated 1.3 million were sent to the camp. Of this total, 1.1 million were Jews, 960,000 of which died in the camp. That equates to 90% of the killings being Jews. There have been many iterations told in the form of television and movies. But finally, being there and just walking around the museum and seeing all the remains of people’s clothes, shoes, and glasses left me with my stomach churning inside with horror. I couldn’t even contemplate the thought of putting myself in their position, as it was too harrowing even to think it.
Auschwitz - Birkenau
Interview with travel writer Judi Cohen
To get a better perspective of what it was like to have been in Auschwitz, I got the opportunity to talk to the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Travel Writer Judi Cohen. Judi’s parents, Jeno and Katalin Klein, were both in Auschwitz, and she sat down with me to talk about their experience and what it was like for them as she was growing up in Canada. I started by asking Judi about her early memories of her parents, telling her that they were Holocaust survivors.
“Neither my mum nor dad ever talked about the Holocaust with us as children, nor was it ever discussed in our house when other surviving relatives and friends came over. They told us later that they didn’t want us to be burdened by their anxiety, pain, and horror. At a very young age, I learnt that my parents were fiercely protective of my brother and me and taught us to live life looking forward only. Never look back at the bad things that you can’t change. They were both “Survivors” in the truest sense of the word.”
So what was it like for Judi growing up? Whether she felt her parents were free or scarred from what they had experienced. “We started to learn about their past when I was about ten years old. My mother suffered physically from the frostbite on her legs that had never really healed after the camps. She suffered from anxiety, nightmares, fear of German Shepherd dogs and a lifelong fear of someone coming to take everyone and everything away again.”
Judi’s mother was in five different concentration camps
“My father had a lot of anger and taught us never to tolerate antisemitism. He taught me to fight back and stand up to anyone that spoke disparagingly about Jews or being Jewish and to those who denied the Holocaust ever happened.” Unfortunately, Judi is correct; there are still people to this day that don’t believe the Holocaust happened. I also wanted to know whether her parents ever detailed what they witnessed. Judi told me, “My mother was interviewed and filmed as part of The Shoah, a series of interviews that Stephen Spielberg’s company filmed. They came to my mother’s house and spent a week listening to and filming her story. She was 68 at the time. My father died when she was 58 years of age.”
Judi’s mother, Katalin, was in five different concentration camps. I asked Judi whether her mother mentioned the differences between these camps. “Some were labour camps, others were death camps, and the first ones were ghettos where the Jews were locked in to await deportation.”
Another point to make is that Judi’s mum was from Hungary. I wasn’t quite aware or remembered learning Hungarians were in the camp. “The Hungarian Jews were the last to be transported to the ghettos, death camps, and work camps. It has been well-documented when the Hungarians were taken from their homes, moved into ghettos and transported by train to various concentration camps. Some went directly to death camps, like Auschwitz.
Traumatic experience revisiting Auschwitz
Walking through the museum as it is today, as I mentioned, made my stomach churn. So what would it have been like to visit Auschwitz, having survived the camps? Judi told me, “My parents went back to visit Dachau and Auschwitz. My father was liberated from Dachau. It was a traumatic experience for them. My mother vowed to never return to Poland or Germany, and she never did.” It’s admirable they both had revisited. I don’t know if I or anyone reading this who went through what they did could have had the courage to return.
So, I asked Judi whether she had dared to visit herself, and if she did, what was her overriding experience. “I have not visited. With my mother’s passing last month, I am preparing to take a solo trip to follow her path from her quiet village in Hungary to her point of liberation by the Russians.” Sadly, Katalin Klein passed away in January, which the Toronto City Council recognised by sending their condolences. It certainly shows her impact and the inspiration she was to this world.
So what can people learn from their visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau? Judi weighed in and said, “I can’t really answer this until I go there; however, I have been to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and I left with the knowledge of the events that led up to and occurred, and a deep emotional connection to the survivors and their stories about their families. I also visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia and came away emotionally drained and saddened by the coldness and cruelty.”
As we see what’s going on in the world today, it doesn’t seem like we have learnt from history, as there is still so much conflict and genocide. Travelling to Auschwitz is an essential part of visiting Poland. We must never forget the past as we look forward in life. Judi gave me a final message on how we can treat one another better, and perhaps none of us gets another chance in life to visit another concentration camp in the future. “Stand up against all forms of hate and prejudice. Don’t be a bystander. Never Forget. May the memories of all the souls lost in the Holocaust be a blessing. NEVER AGAIN.”