Wednesday, 30 April, 2014

Young journalist Valentine Mauray joined a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachenhausen and Oranienburg camps as part of a project organised by Maximilian Kolbe Werk, a German association supporting and raising awareness of the experience of camp survivors.  Valentine reflects on her experiences of meeting Holocaust survivors whilst visiting the camps.

This year we have commemorated the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is a significant date, not only the commemoration of the end of a terrible time in our history, but also an occasion to remember the stories of the camps through the voices of the survivors.

I took part in a media project organised by Maximilian Kolbe Werk, a German association for camp survivors, which enabled me to meet survivors at Auschwitz in January and at Oranienburg in March with 21 journalists from Europe.

The first survivor we met was Jacek Zieliniewicz, an 87 year old Polish man, whose blue eyes and elegance were unforgettable. He told us about his year in Auschwitz and Dautmergen, followed by a gruelling and appalling death march. He had a very important message for us young people: 'I have no hatred and this is my victory'.

These words are powerful coming from a man who experienced hunger and slave labour in terrible conditions and constant dehumanisation. He spoke German as he accompanied us to Birkenau, the extermination camp. His calm voice gave animation to the objects and buildings we saw. There was a kind of wheelbarrow on display in the disinfection building. I was not sure I understood its purpose. Mr Zieliniewicz answered my silent question, saying that this wheelbarrow was used to carry the ashes of the cremated prisoners.

The voices of the survivors are tremendously important. We have learned about the camps at school, probably read many books and watched documentaries, yet the Holocaust remains quite ungraspable, depersonalised. There are words and numbers, maybe pictures that give to us some access to the reality of the camps. But the testimonies of the survivors make it more close to us. It feels like having a personal link to the events of the past, through talking with them. It also raises the need to share their words, to spread the impact of their message to us. If Mr Zieliniewicz has no hatred, why can we have some? We who haven't experienced the camps.

Before traveling to Auschwitz and Sachenhausen, I pictured the camps as silent places, populated by ghostly and still figures. I had no idea of the sounds, the smells, the feelings of the camps. While we visited Auschwitz in temperatures of -12 °C, in strong wind and grey daylight, I started to understand the conditions more clearly. I was cold with three layers of clothes and a very warm coat, which is much more than what the prisoners used to wear. Standing outside for three hours was nothing compared to standing there the whole day long and sleeping in cold, wooden buildings.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ignacy Golik, who survived Sachsenhausen, Barth and a death march. He told me about a sound he remembers well from the camp: a little radio. 'The sounds were the most important. When I worked in the hospital – there was a hospital room with two or three beds – I had the possibility of listening to a radio. We had to clean it when the rooms were disinfected and emptied. And we had the opportunity to listen to this machine. Most of the time we could hear the news from Ankara. I can't explain why. And every day at 1pm there was the news from Poland in Polish. It was often hard to get the news from BBC. The Nazis disturbed the signal. But we heard everything from Ankara.’

Krystyna Budnicka, an 82-year-old woman who was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto tells us about why she decided to testify to us: 'I want to tell you about something you did not witness. You can learn about it from literature and from history lessons but in all likelihood you have not yet met personally with a witness from these times. That's why I wanted to be here with you. I am one of the last survivors and because I lived this experience as a child, my generation will soon not be able to testify. I have the memory and the knowledge about what happened. I want the next generation to learn not to repeat this, so that human beings will not be killed for their religion, their race, their political affiliation; all in all, not be killed for being different.'

This challenges us to reflect about our generation and our society. Conflicts based on religion are still happening, racism is still alive and people do die for their personal affiliations. I feel the responsibility to spread Ms Budnicka's words widely. Can they make a change? Maybe yes, maybe no; but they raise awareness. As we hear her, we hear the voice of the child she was in the bunker in Warsaw, who only stopped feeling fear the day the Soviet Army liberated the Ghetto: 'I have strong personal feelings for this day as it was the day I was freed from the threat of extermination. From this moment I knew that no one would kill me for my origins'. Ms Budnicka lost all her family in the Holocaust.

This project was more than journalism; it was also a personal life experience. In the days after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt that I could not write. The testimonies were overwhelming and I was too emotional to write properly. Even now it is difficult to phrase how I felt. Meeting with the survivors made the camps more 'real' to me. Previously I knew they existed and were hell on earth. But I could not grasp what they were like. There was a deep human message in meeting with the survivors. They were in front of us, smiling and patient enough to be interviewed for hours. They have lived in terrible conditions but they remained kind, strong human beings with hope in our generation.

Find out more about the experiences of those who lived in the camps:

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in the field of Holocaust and genocide awareness and commemoration. It explores contemporary issues surrounding hatred and discrimination, and how we can address these by reflecting on the past and applying lessons to the present day. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who will provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced what it is like to live under state-sponsored persecution.The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.  

Photo: Railway lines into the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp