Friday 8 December 2017

Alicia White’s compelling experiences of UAF educational trip to Krakow and Auschwitz


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A few weeks ago I returned from a trip to Auschwitz with Unite Against Fascism.

Both my grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust so it was a very significant
trip for me. I tried to keep a journal, although much of it was written on reflection.
At points dissecting and describing the enormity of my experience was impossible
but there are some excerpts I’d like to share.
‘Day One. “Always be vigilant” is what my grandma used to say. Never let things
slide. It starts with the little things, they become the norm and unconsciously racism
is embedded. “Never again”.


Yesterday we landed in Krakow at 4pm. Me and my mum. A second generation
survivor and a third. Daughter and granddaughter, mother and daughter, both
aunties, both sisters, both nieces. Women. Together. Setting foot on the land our
elders lived, loved, fought and ultimately were persecuted for being Jewish.


The stories I am about to learn over the next few days will be tough but important and as
David Rosenberg tells us on our first evening here – it is not just those who we lost
we should remember but those who lived. Each person taken to their death had a
story. The Bund! Yiddish! A Socialist movement which today would seem so
progressive. Art, theatre, women in powerful roles, co-education schools, National
Health! The list goes on…’


‘Day Two. Today we were up early to meet everyone in reception. Mary, one of the organisers,  had planned to take us on a tour of Kazimierz (The Jewish Quarter), the Ghetto and a visit to Schindler’s Factory. We took a tram first of all to the New Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery was established in 1800 and destroyed during the Holocaust. The Nazi’s
looted the graveyard, stole anything of value and took parts of gravestones to be
used for building material and pavements. It was only tidied up in 1957.


As expected there was bleakness to the atmosphere here. Cemeteries can be calm and beautiful,
peaceful. This one was broken and heavy with painful stories. The stones were all
crammed together, almost on top of each other. The Jews had very little rights in
Poland, even in the 1800s. This was one of the few places in Krakow they could use
to bury their dead. … I felt so connected to my mum from this day onwards and I was
so glad to be here with her. We were joined at the hip but that felt so right. Arms
were linked, hands were held, and it was like there was an invisible piece of string
connecting us at all times’.


‘Day Three. Mum got ready fairly quickly this morning and headed downstairs for
breakfast. I put my hair up how people often say my grandma did hers. That felt
nice, looking in the mirror, seeing herself in myself and our resemblance.


A coach arrived to take us to Auschwitz, after breakfast. I could tell everyone was
feeling apprehensive; there was something in the air. We had had two/three days
leading up to this and here we were. We all milled about,  quiet, nervous.
Something broke the energy, which felt good – the coach, we were told, was to
arrive at the back of the hotel, then the front and then the back again! So as you can
imagine we were going back and forth in reception, confused, some of us
laughing, when jokes about ‘the left’ and political orientation came out.


As we got closer the coach stopped outside this incredible looking building made out of
bright, orange brick. Here we also picked up three people who weren’t on our trip
but had booked themselves onto our coach. Our guide described them as the
‘missing’ people. The slightly wrong/off translation into Polish made me smile. But
then other ideas and images came into my head of war torn Poland – missing
people. So many millions of missing people. Yet here we were on a warm coach,
picking them up, safely.


Soon we were in the countryside, forests and trees surrounding us. Mum and I tried to imagine bodies running, hiding, fleeing from Auschwitz. Green and brown colours, grey skies engulf them.
Our guide started to speak of the strictness of entry into Auschwitz. No food, no
drinks, a bag no bigger than A4, no sharp items, nothing metal. She said ‘don’t speak
to the guards, there’s no point’. There was something about this that felt
bombarding and I couldn’t help but compare the description to the guards who were
there ‘then’.
I saw train tracks as we approached the town outside the camp, Oświęcim. There
was something very sinister going through a town, with a shopping centre, cinema,
houses, a train station… so close to Auschwitz. I followed the train
tracks with my eyes from inside the coach and I noted the very point where they
split. The main track remained behind a fence and went on, out of the town into the
countryside. The other track, the diversion, went into the town, along the side
of the road where a pavement should be, in a very straight line – a dead straight


Inside Auschwitz, we walked down a corridor, that had mug shots covering every inch of the walls. On one side were women and on the other side, men. Under each face a job title
was stated and there were two dates: one on entry and the other on exit (death).
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, Work Will Set You Free. Some dates were on the same day. Our
guide pointed out her own Great Grandfather who was killed here. I understood now
why her energy felt so important to me; we were very lucky to have such a sensitive
guide to take us around this place.


One of the last barracks we went inside was really distressing… Down here I became
obsessed with touching the walls. Everything was as it was then, the same floor,
walls, paint. The corridors were so narrow that I imagined people being pressed up
against the brick and I wanted to feel that, connect with it.


The very last memory I have of Auschwitz 1, were the gas chambers. As we
approached them I grabbed my mum and I said ‘I don’t think I can do this’. She
assured me that if I didn’t want to then that was fine, but another part of me felt like
I needed to see the inside, even if it was very quickly.



To know,  just to know and bear witness to what so many other people were forced to see. I walked inside behind mum, it was dark, dank, and unbelievably scary and suddenly for the first time I cried. It was uncontrollable and consuming, and again I said to my mum ‘I can’t do this’. Gently, I heard my mum’s voice in the darkness say ‘go outside and
wait for us’. I walked out quickly, past the others behind me and sobbed. It was a
relief. The air felt fresh and cold on my face. I breathed in deeply and walked around the back of the chamber. I picked up a stone and put it on the grassy slope which led
up to the roof.’

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The following day, our last day in Krakow, Mum and David Rosenberg spoke about Grandma (Esther Brunstein)  and her life, before and after the war. How she was an inspiration and
fought for the rights of all oppressed peoples, but also how she was someone who
loved, laughed and more than anything wanted happiness for her family.



I was apprehensive about going to Auschwitz with a group but looking back I am so
happy I did. I met some truly incredible and supportive people. The trip would not
have been complete without discussing what we can do to fight fascism and racism
today. These conversations were unbelievably important. I returned to London
feeling fragile but energized. Thank you Unite Against Fascism and all who I had the
pleasure of meeting and sharing this experience with.

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