Friday 24 November 2017

UAF educational trip to Auschwitz – Sheila from East London’s reflections

We were an amazing mixture of students, trade unionists, retired, Jewish, Muslim and secular from all over the country. A mother and daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz who died earlier this year added a particular poignancy to this collective act of remembering; remembering in order to fight racism and fascism today. Our first visit was to the New Jewish Cemetry, which dates back to 1800 and was where many of Krakow’s Jews were buried. It’s mainly headstones left as it was desecrated. Below is a photo showing the headstones errected by survivors of Auschwitz to honour relatives who died.

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Kazimierz is the Old Jewish quarter. The first mention of Jews in Krakow goes back to the 12th century but the main influx was in the 14th century when Casemr 3rd, in 1334, confirmed the privileges conferred on the Jews by Boleslav V the Chaste. He protected the Jews as people of his kingdom; this led to 80 per cent of all European Jews living in Krakow.
Listening to our wonderful tour guide, Mary, at the start of the walk around Kazimierz, the Old synagogue at the end of the square, built in the 15/16th centuries, is now a museum about Jewish life. There is an old cemetry attached that was left to decline, in the Nazi occupation. It now though, is a working synagogue and a pilgrimage site. The statue of Jan Karski, below, commemorates his efforts to alert the Allies to the atrocities against the Jews. His information was ignored by governments and not believed by others. Neither the UK nor US governments wanted to know. When 600,000 Jews in Europe applied to Britain for asylum a visa system was introduced and a mere 60,000 allowed in.
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We then moved on to the little square Steven Spielberg used in Schindler’s List. It’s not in the Kazimierz quarter but is a good example of the kind of housing people lived in. We visited the cathedral and Plac Wolnica, the administrative and judicial centre for Kazimierz. It was once the second largest square in Poland with market stalls selling everything imaginable.


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In 1939 Poland was overrun from the West by the Nazis and from the East, by Soviet troops. All resistance in Krakow was brutally crushed. Polish monuments were overturned, university professors victimised, Polish radio replaced by Nazi radio which was broadcast publicly in the streets. Everyone had to turn in their radios.
German and Ukraine became the official languages. Yiddish was banned and Krakow’s 69,482 Jews were ordered to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David.




In 1940 32,000 Jews were ordered to go and live in surrounding villages outside Krakow. In March, 1941, Jews in Krakow were ordered to cross the river Vistula into Old Podgorze by 20th March. The 15,000 inhabitants were ordered to vacate their houses and were rehoused on the other side of the river in Kazimierz. 37,000 were squashed into 320 houses. The frontages of the houses facing inwards were cemented in in the shape of tomb stones to become an external wall. The ghetto was bounded on one side by the river, at the back by cliffs. There were 4 gates controlling entrance and exit. The number 3 tram (which still runs today) was not allowed to stop in the ghetto.
In the photo you can see across to where the ghetto was. Today you can cross using the newly built footbridge with its evocative sculptures of life on the edge.

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The Gestapo used two organisations to run the Ghetto, the Judenrat or Jewish Council and the Ordnungsdienst – the service to ‘maintain order’. The original leaders of both who tried to protest were shot. The Ordnungsdienst were hated because their leaders seemed to relish carrying out the Gestapo’s orders. The Judenrat were housed alongside the Gestapo in  a shared building. They were tasked with doing a census to establish who was in the ghetto and what skills you had. These were the basis for deciding who could stay and who should be deported. The Gestapo, using time honoured tactics of blackmail, created a network of informers. The Ordnungsdienst, armed with lists, went round homes to round up people for the successive deportations. 



An old synagogue was used by the original Jewish inhabitants of Podgorze.
Life was tough. Families often lived four to a room, one in each corner, sharing kitchens and toilets. Food rations were inadequate. The most important building was the Labour exchange giving rise to long queues as people tried to get work in the quarries behind the ghetto. Further down the street are two buildings – the Jewish self-help organisation which everyone wanted to avoid because it housed the hospital. Nearby was the day care centre for children. In March 1943, all the children there were murdered by the Gestapo.


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The two pictures below are the Plac Bohaterow Getta, used to round up the Jews from the ghetto to be deported but also the one open space for people to play and enjoy themselves. Women often took chairs to sit and carry on knitting and sewing. People tried to make it as normal as possible.

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In the far corner of the second photo you can see the pharmacy, Under the Eagle, with the only non Jewish employees in the ghetto. They bore witness to what happened. It is now a museum where you can visit, pull open drawers with photos of the Jewish people from the ghetto, listen to stories from survivors. 

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There were three transports out of the ghetto of about 2,500 each. Most were taken to Blezec concentration camp to die. After the transport in early November 1942, the ghetto was reduced in size and in December it was divided into A and B. Ghetto A was liquidated.



On the night of 14/15 December, at 7.45 pm, the Ordnungsdienst rounded up the last remaining Jews. By then everyone knew what awaited them and if they attempted escape, they were butchered. Babies in their cradles were stacked up in threes behind the Pharmacy and then shot. 

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There are three concentration camps at Auschwitz, which was chosen for its transport links to the rest of Europe. Our guide, above, lost her grandfather in Auschwitz. She explained everything simply and with the kind of detail which helped you feel what it must have been like. The guide who accompanied her was incredibly knowledgable and located Hut 8 in Birkenau where one who was to survive the Holocaust had been placed – Esther Brunstein.

Lorna Brunstein, Esther’s daughter, was on the trip, with her own daughter, Alicia. Being at Hut 8 was a profound moment. Later in life, Esther Brunstein became an outstanding witness to the Holocaust, often speaking on Anti Nazi League platforms.


Auschwitz 1 was originally built for Polish political prisoners. Then there were the Roma, the Russian prisoners of war, other prisonees of war. Of the 1,300,000 prisoners, 1,100,000 died either of over work, illness, starvation but overwhelmingly in the gas chambers in Birkenau, camp 2. 


The rationale for this was explained by Thierack, ‘Minister for Justice’ of the Third Reich: ‘We need to free the German Nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies.’ The Nazis wanted the East for ‘Lebensraum’, living space. So they used those fit to work where they needed and consigned the rest to death.

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Auschwitz 1 is now a museum. The prisoners had everything taken from them. Anything useful was sent to German factories – human hair was turned into rugs. Much was found and is now on display. The suitcases, labelled with names and addresses, show that people had no idea what lay in store for them. And those shoes, those tiny little shoes….




At the beginning the Nazis meticulously photographed every prisoner. There are rows and rows of photos in one of the corridors, each saying the person’s name and occupation. Later, the prisoners were just branded on their arms. All were made to wear thin blue and and white striped ‘pyjamas’.

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Auschwitz Birkenau, camp 2, is vast. The huts were made of wood and only a few have been preserved. The rest perished with time. But the railway and entrance buildings are still intact. The whole area is surrounded by fencing which reminded me instantly of the fencing the Tory government had built at Calais to keep out refugees.





There is one wagon on the site showing how prisoners arrived. Packed with up to 700 hundred people, travelling sometimes for several days, some died en route. Small wonder that people were not surprised to be offered a shower at the end of the line. The huts were blown up by the Nazis when they evacuated the camp, except one. The worst work in the camp was carried out by the Sonderkommando, young, fit Jewish men. They had the task of cutting off the hair of the bodies, removing the gold from people’s teeth, sorting all the belongings and bagging them up to be sent on. They blew up one of the gas chambers with help from the Polish Resistance who provided them with the explosives. 

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At the memorial site, our companions from the Jewish Socialist Group sang the Yiddish Resistance fighters song from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1944. It was Ann incredibly moving and privileged moment to share:
“Never say you have reached the very end
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive
And our marching steps will thunder: we survive”.




Our group on the UAF trip went to Auschwitz for many reasons. Relatives of those who died, relatives of those who survived, one person because he discovered his great grandfather had been a camp guard there, others simply to understand.

We had meetings and discussions, formal and informal, to explain and clarify and support one another. We shared a purpose, of challenging all forms of racism and to unite to do it. As Esther Brunstein put it,  “Always be vigilant….no form of racism should be normalised”.

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