Last week I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Education Trust, I had planned to write about it as soon as I came back but the trust advises the students that it takes that a period of reflection is useful and I took that advice.

The trip is part of a program for 6th form students from British schools, it includes a workshop and presentation from a holocaust survivor before the trip and and another workshop about a week after they get back. That week gives the students time to get their thoughts together, and after an experience which assaults the emotions so intensely it is needed.

Over one million Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hundreds of thousands of Polish and Russian prisoners of war, Gypsies, homosexuals, Freemasons, the physically disabled, and the mentally ill also died at the hands of the Nazi killing machine. This killing machine was a Europe wide system involving the rounding up, transportation, extermination and disposal of millions of humans. It was a machine imagined, created and run by people, other humans with mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children. People just like those they herded into the cattle trucks and gas chambers.

The gates of Birkenau

The gates of Birkenau

I won’t detail everything I saw and felt on the visit, it wouldn’t do justice to the experience, but I will highlight one element that struck me particularly hard.  It was a room full of shoes. The large dormitory room in this former barrack block was filled, floor to ceiling with the shoes of the dead and yet only represented a fraction of the people who were killed there.

The scale of the horror is sometimes difficult to comprehend, as Stalin once said “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic”.  So it was that I found myself focussing on one shoe in particular.

It was a woman’s shoe, a brogue, white with bright red details at the toe and the back above the heel.  It was in stark contrast to the practical, heavy, brown shoes around it.  It was pretty, a party shoe, from a pair that a woman would wear if she wanted to look at her best.  It clearly wasn’t something that this Jewish woman wanted to leave behind, she wanted to have them with her when she started her “new life” in the East.

She was probably killed on the very day that she arrived. Stripped naked, hair roughly cut from her head, gassed to death and burned, all within a few hours of getting off the cattle train that took her there.  Throughout the day I kept coming back to the image of that young woman, full of life as the avatar for all those who were murdered.  I couldn’t bring myself to look at the children’s shoes.

Thousands of people were directly involved in this killing process, tens of thousands perhaps.  It is easy to imagine a small group of fanatics drove this brutal slaughter, the truth is far less comfortable.  Psychopaths don’t come in tens of thousands at a time, the holocaust was perpetuated by ordinary people and that is the thought that haunts me now.

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